Hubbard Street Dance in I am Mister B. Photo Yi-Chun Wu

Hubbard Street Dance in I am Mister B.
Photo Yi-Chun Wu

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY

May 13, 2015 (Program B)
Falling Angels, PACOPEPEPLUTO, The Impossible, Gnawa

May 16(m), 2015 (Program A)
Second to Last (excerpt), A Picture of You Falling, Cloudless,
Waxing Moon, I am Mister B

Jerry Hochman

Perhaps because the company has its home in Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance has been able to nurture contemporary dance on a large scale, for thirty-seven years, without the pressure of the New York critical microscope. Regardless, it has an exciting and reasonably eclectic repertoire, a bevy of outstanding dancers, and a Resident Choreographer in Alejandro Cerrudo with distinctive ability and depth. And while some of the dances in their two-program, two-week run at the Joyce Theater were more interesting or compelling than others, with one or two exceptions, all were intriguing.

Program A began with an excerpt from Second to Last, originally choreographed by Cerrudo on Ballet Arizona in 2013. He writes that the entire dance was conceived as a study, to explore “choreographic possibilities within the duet form,” and that it wasn’t his intention to explore relationships. “It was movement research, rather than trying to look for that specific feeling.”

I can’t attest to whether Cerrudo’s intention is clear in the entire piece, but based on this excerpt, he’s being disingenuous. With rare exception, anytime a man and woman dance a duet in which their bodies intertwine, there’s some emotional content either expressed or implied, even without any obvious ‘acting’. This excerpt is not one of the exceptions; the emotional connection between the dancers that the choreography creates is an essential component, and cannot be dismissed as some unintended consequence.

The excerpt consists of five duets to music by Arvo Part that is devotional, though not necessarily worshipful, and lovely to listen to. The duets match the music, and are primarily gentle and lyrical. Hubbard Street acquired the excerpt for use as part of a program called The Art of Falling, but it has to do with ‘falling’ is unclear, since the five couples displayed little of it, unless it refers to an emotional state, which is exactly what Cerrudo says he was not trying to explore.

Crystal Pite’s A Picture of You Falling can be performed as a solo or duet. At the May 16 matinee, it was performed as the former by Jesse Bechard. Again, what the work displays appears contrary to what the choreographer appears to have intended. I saw nothing of “storylines that move across cultures and generations,” or “ways in which the body can convey profound meaning through the simplest of gestures,” or “how distortion, iteration and analysis of familiar human action provide opportunities to recognize and re-frame ourselves in one another,” except there was considerable body distortion.

The dancer is positioned in a circumscribed area and for five or ten minutes is buffeted by forces that result in his limbs flying in multiple directions at once, and movement that is staccato and unnatural.  It’s as if he is imprisoned in a confined space, like an automobile (though we don’t see the ‘car’), and the car is hit by other vehicles from different angles – and he’s inside without seat belts.

Hubbard Street Dance in Gnawa. Photo Todd Rosenberg

Hubbard Street Dance in Gnawa (see below).
Photo Todd Rosenberg

In fact, whether the forces originate from within or – by his own fears, dreams, successes, failures; or by the slings and arrows of life that he must learn to overcome – without, doesn’t matter. Pite’s skill in choreographing the assault makes seeing it worthwhile. And it’s a fascinating vehicle, so to speak, for Bechard’s virtuosity – that he didn’t crack a vertebra, throw out a shoulder, or suffer from self-induced whiplash from all those forces he was being hit with is miraculous.

Cloudless, a duet for two women, was beautifully danced by Jessica Tong and Alice Klock, and sensitively choreographed by Cerrudo, to an evocative score by Nils Frahm. It’s an emotional duet, without being saccharine, and after the previous piece, was a welcome relief for the eyes and ears.

The two highlights of Program A were Waxing Moon and I am Mister B, two pieces that couldn’t be more different.

Waxing Moon is interesting choreographically and thematically. Like A Picture of You Falling, it deals with the protagonist’s engagement with forces. But Robyn Mineko Williams’ choreography is simpler, and consequently more powerful. And as was the case with all the pieces, it was performed with an abundance of skill and stoic emotionalism, by which I mean there were no histrionics, but you could feel the emotion surging through the dancers’ pores, and feel the temperature rise in the theater). Williams describes Waxing Moon as contemplating “the process of becoming.” That it does, but I saw more in it than that.

Michael Gross sits on a chair and contemplates.  While he thinks and watches, he sees a visually powerful Johnny McMillan halfway across the stage, looking feral. The subsequent presence of Emilie Leriche both intensifies and complicates things. She appears to be initially attracted to McMillan, which seems to inflame Gross. Eventually, Gross grows in self-confidence (‘waxes’), McMillan disappears, and Leriche gravitates toward Gross. Of course, McMillan’s presence may have only been a figment of Gross’s imagination – either the man he wants to be (a would-be alter-ego of sorts), or the type of man he has to conquer, at least in his mind – and perhaps Leriche was as well.

All three dancers did a superb job, but a particular nod must go to Leriche, a stunning, dramatic-looking dancer who was part femme-fatale, and part electrified ice-cube.

I am Mister B, premiered only two months ago, is a curious piece that I initially disliked intensely. Choreographed by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano to Tchaikovsky’s Theme and Variations from his Suite No. 3, it’s a large-scale piece for six men and six women that appears to be intended as some sort of salute to George Balanchine, who of course created the ballet Theme and Variations.

Ana Lopez and company in I am Mr. B.  Photo Yi-Chun Wu 1

Ana Lopez and company in I am Mr. B.
Photo Yi-Chun Wu 1

The line between homage and parody is thin, and Sansano was choreographing on thin ice to begin with. And when he began with having a dancer assume the role of Balanchine, and talk to the audience in a way that caters to misconceptions about his choreography as a whole and diminishes its significance, I wanted to cringe.

But as it became clear that I am Mister B is not a choreographic commentary on Balanchine’s piece, but rather a contemporary dance that stands on its own (and moves, impossible as it seems, faster than New York City Ballet dances Balanchine’s ballet). And while it’s not a great contemporary piece (Sansano is not, at least by this example, a contemporary dance Mr. B), it grew on me and it works. The movement is non-stop, the energy level intense, and Sansano shows an ability to move small armies of dancers across the stage quickly and uniformly.

And it’s not a contemporary rehash of Balanchine. Indeed, with one or two exceptions ,Sansano appears to have gone out of his way not to use choreographic themes that look similar to the ballet. The portions that I particularly liked were those that most reflected the incorporation of the regality inherent in Tchaikovsky’s score. Toward the end, for example, he sequentially introduces three individual dancers by opening a curtain and having one appear, then another and another…, repeating the same process later, except with two dancers each time (the only example I saw of a ‘theme and variation’ development). And having the dancer who portrays Mr. B. stepping up for a bow as the music concludes is a nice touch. Every dancer performed at an extraordinary level of intensity, but Ana Lopez was particularly impressive.

And I appreciated the ‘in-joke’ that dominated the piece, even though it was misplaced. The costumes (designed by Branimira Ivanova) have all the dancers wearing tuxedo-like muted dark blue jackets, black pants, and a formal-type white shirt. After the dancers jettison the jackets, the work becomes a Sansano Black & White dance of sorts, intended as a nod to Balanchine’s series of groundbreaking ballets – even though Theme and Variations is not one of Balanchine’s Black & White ballets.

Like Program A, Program B was somewhat uneven, but performed at a very high level. Jiri Kylian’s Falling Angels is a lovely, lyrical piece for eight women who are on stage most of the time as a single group or in subgroups. Like the accompanying Steve Reich score however, the choreography is not sufficiently different enough from one subgroup to another to make the piece particularly memorable.

Cerrudo’s PACOPEPEPLUTO (quite what the title means, if anything, escape me) presents three men dancing solo to three popular songs from the 1950s and 60s, sung, solo, by Dean Martin: In the Chapel in the Moonlight, Memories Are Made of This, and That’s Amore. But cute and comfortable to watch as it is (Martin’s vocals are the vocal equivalent of being ‘kissed’ – ok, slobbered over – by your favorite pooch), and despite excellent performances, the choreography doesn’t enhance the songs.

The first solo, danced by McMillan, is more athletic than seemed appropriate – unless the angular formations were supposed to inspire memories of church architecture. Things improve with the more slinky second solo, danced by David Schultz. The finest of the three is the last, performed by Jonathan Fredrickson, which choreographically captures the joy of That’s Amore.

Cerrudo’s The Impossible, which premiered a year ago, is more interesting. It’s a complex piece, that was put together with such obvious care, and danced with such obvious dedication, that the fact that I couldn’t quite determine what was happening I chalked up to my own deficiency. What is clear is that the memories and experiences of the lead characters are pealed apart and presented like onion layers. Smashed onions.

Johnny McMillan, Andrew Murdock and company in The Impossible.  Photo Todd Rosenberg

Johnny McMillan, Andrew Murdock and company in The Impossible.
Photo Todd Rosenberg

To music by many different artists, the piece, on the surface, probes the lives of an elderly couple. Time and events are fractured, so they’re not completely clear, and dancers’ roles may represent more than one person. A stooped, elderly woman approaches what appears to be the wall to her home, and encounters a young man (McMillan), who looks ominous. She promptly socks him in the gut and walks into her house. Inside, she and an equally stoop-shouldered old man (apparently her husband) outline their loving, supportive (physical and well as emotional) relationship. The couple is brilliantly played by Lopez and Fredrickson. A second couple (Tong – particularly extraordinary in the role – and Andrew Murdock) appear as younger incarnations of the older couple – perhaps their remembrances of themselves. That initial blow makes more sense as we discover that a violent past encounter shaped the old folks’ relationship.

The Impossible isn’t a great piece of choreographic invention, but it’s a very fine and distinctive piece of work, and one that lingers in the memory.

Gnawa was created by Nacho Duato for Hubbard Street in 2005. It’s fascinating, as much for its music (Middle Eastern/North African) by Hassan Hakmoun and Adam Rudolph, as its choreography. The music seems to come from another dimension, another world, as if it’s being transmitted from distant clouds, and the ambiance is quietly (as opposed to feverishly) mystical. The dancing by the sixteen person ensemble (which included Cerrudo, who credits Duato with being a strong influence), led by Kellie Epperheimer and Jason Hortin, was superb. And seeing Epperheimer raised aloft as the piece ends, toward those clouds, and toward some measure of heavenly peace (evocative, in a way, of the closing moments of Balanchine’s Serenade), is glorious.

Under the leadership of Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is a spectacular group of contemporary dancers. Its reputation preceded it here, and based on these programs, that reputation is well-earned..

Performances at the Joyce continue to May 24 (see www.joyce.org).