Dance Review: Hubbard Street brings scintillating work to Jacob’s Pillow

Hubbard Street dancers David Schultz, Aaron Choate, Matt Wenckowski, and Elliot Hammans in "As the Wind Blows" by Amy Hall Garner. Photo by Danica Paulos.
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Yet another long-standing fan favorite returned to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this month. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago first appeared at the Pillow in 1983 and has graced the historic Becket, Massachusetts, stages more than a dozen times. This summer the company arrived with a new artistic director, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, who took the company’s reins just last year, and took the Pillow by storm with a spectacular program.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago artistic director Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell. Photo by Frank Ishman.

While new to the helm, Fisher-Harrell is no stranger to Hubbard Street. She danced with the company for three years, starting when she was 19 and still a student at Julliard. She left to join Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as a principal dancer, and she stayed with that iconic troupe in various capacities for 13 years.

Fisher-Harrell’s scintillating program at the Pillow August 10–14 shows she’s not just continuing in the footsteps of previous Hubbard Street leaders, but moving the company forward. When I saw the evening would include work by choreographers Ohad Naharin, Lar Lubovitch, and—especially—Aszure Barton, I immediately booked seats.

The program began with As the Wind Blows, a 2022 dance by Amy Hall Garner, whose choreography is new to me. It opens on a dark stage; five male dancers move through the space taking low lunges, silhouetted against a striking backdrop reminiscent of a red dawn. The light comes up, revealing costumes of yellow-gold tops and rusty-reddish pants, and the work picks up momentum as dancers enter and exit the stage, moving in various groupings, holding precarious balances, sometimes looking like hieroglyphics in motion, sometimes appearing buffeted by unseen forces, as if blown by that titular wind. There are precise unison sections, precarious partnering, attention-holding solos, and a recurrent move—the dancers spin on one leg and grab their toe.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in As the Wind Blows by Amy Hall Garner. Photo by Danica Paulos.

The music radically shifts throughout the 35-minute dance, from a Debussy flute solo to a Copland piano piece to techno electronica. Costumes change, and the background color also transforms, through deep blues and purples. Finally, the stage lighting fades as 14 dancers move in silhouette before they exit, leaving a sole female dancing silhouetted against the red-dawn backdrop.

The evening proceeds with two short works. B/olero, choreographed by Ohad Naharin in 2008 for Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, is a humorous piece demanding the utmost in precision from its two dancers: Jacqueline Burnett and Simone Stevens, clad in dark, one-shoulder sheath dresses on a dark, unadorned stage. Moving in a mechanized manner, matching the beat of an increasingly warped, electro version of the otherwise overplayed Bolero by Ravel (arranged and performed Isao Tomita), the dancers wring laughter from the audience with edge-of-overlong repetitions of isolated movements performed in sync (an arm circling from the elbow down as they step side to side) or in mirror image, all angular, eccentric, asymmetric, sharp, gravity-bound motion. As the music winds up, so do the dancers, coming in and out of unison with larger movements: lunging low, kicking high, melting to the floor, rolling and scooching across the stage, weird off-kilter pelvic thrusts and crouches, consistently driven by Ravel’s relentless rhythm, however distorted by Tomita.

Jacqueline Burnett and Simone Stevens perform B/olero by Ohad Naharin. Photo by Danica Paulos

After a pause, Lar Lubovitch’s light and airy Little Rhapsodies from 2007 provides a contrast to the previous dance with its bright stage, relaxed costumes, royal blue background, and graceful, flowing movement. Set to Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Opus 13, a beautiful, romantic work for piano, dancers Elliot Hammans, David Schultz, and Shota Miyoshi execute flawless group and solo work, sometimes moving together like separated puzzle pieces. At times they perform something like a jig, reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’s choreography for three sailors in Fancy Free. The varying heights of the three dancers (tall, medium, short) provides a comic element. Amidst this superb trio, Myioshi, in particular, shines, fast and light on his feet, spritelike, seemingly unbound by gravity.

Shota Miyoshi and Elliot Hammans in Little Rhapsodies by Lar Lubovitch. Photo by Jamie Kraus.

Not to belittle all that came before, but Hubbard Street saved the best for last: BUSK, a show-stopping 2009 work by young Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton. Her bold, innovative work was seared into my brain many years ago during an unforgettable performance by her own company at the Pillow, especially a languorous, daredevil pas de deux in which the woman holds her partner’s tongue between her teeth as they entwine and unfold, throughout lifts, turns, and floorwork, prompting the entire audience to hold its breath. My expectations for BUSK were high, and they were not just met but exceeded.

Another dark-stage dance, BUSK begins when a male dancer emerges from the shadowy depths in diagonal rays of light. Sauntering downstage with an edge of menace, he sports a loose black hoodie and baggy black pants, plus white gloves, like Marcel Marceau, begging the question: is he a thug or a mime? The brimmed hat at the edge of the stage is a clue. He performs a solo, with attitude and athleticism, plus a few street-mime moves, and executes the smoothest, most sinuous backflip you’ve ever seen—oh, and he does a headstand into that hat.

BUSK frequently shifts from spotlit solos where the dancers reveal themselves from under their hoods to clustered group work where they work collectively, often as one organism. It’s a work of shifting moods and tones that keeps you guessing; the dancers sometimes move aggressively or threateningly like members of a gang, and sometimes quirkily, haltingly, humorously, like startled monks or lemmings. (The score of wildly varied, eclectic music—including Saint-Saens, August Söderman, David Wikander, Ljova, and Moodog— supports these tonal shifts.)

Hubbard Street dancers in BUSK by Aszure Barton. Photo by Danica Paulos.

Humor prevails in a vignette during which a cluster of dancers stand as one mass on a set of steps; moving only their heads and shoulders, sharply, in unison, they look up and down, side to side; it’s a more marvelous sequence than words can convey. At two points, the dancers clump together on the floor, center stage, and a ripple flows through the collective as they sequentially sit up and down. Simple movements exactingly performed yield complex, lasting images.

Adept lighting and stage craft (designed by Nicole Pearce) enable dancers to emerge from and disappear into darkness like magic. The baggy costumes that obscure the dancers’ identity and line only make these factors more intense when they remove the hoodies, as in a solo by Alysia Johnson. As the other dancers take a seat on the edge of a spotlit square, like a boxing ring, and fade into the shadows, she removes her top, revealing a black bikini-like top, and goes through a virtuosic sequence with elements of breakdancing, but elevated. To see her facial expressions and supple body in bright light after the obscurity of darkness and bulky clothes renders her remarkable flexibility, extensions, and precision all the more powerful.

Alysia Johnson performs a jaw-dropping solo in BUSK by Aszure Barton. Photo by Danica Paulos.

Powerful is an apt way to describe BUSK, which hits the viewer in waves; it’s a tour de force. I left wanting to see this dance again—right away!—and thinking that I would have loved to see more of it in its original, evening-length iteration—not a common sentiment when so many dances are overlong and in need of a good edit. As is, it capped off an evening of diverse, stellar dance, bringing down the house.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performed at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, August 10–14.


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