JFK Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC; October 17, 2013
October 17, 2013 was a joyous day in Washington, DC, because the government shutdown had just ended, but it was also a joyous day because the dancers of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (“HSDC”) brought their A-game to the Kennedy Center. The program this sleek and chic company presented, consisting of four contemporary works, overflowed with a winning mix of charisma, quirkiness, and competence that left the audience in even better spirits than when they entered the theater.
Two works from HSDC company member Alejandro Cerrudo, “Little mortal jump” and “PACOPEPEPLUTO,” added zing to the evening. “Little mortal jump” opened with a male dancer running down an aisle, leaping up onto the stage, and subsequently jumping from the stage as the lights quickly changed to darkness (lighting design by Michael Korsch). The costumes, by Branimira Ivanova, evoked a bygone era with, among other things, suspenders and lacey tunics, in a palette of grays and black. An eclectic music selection added mystery and playfulness to the already playful movement, which at times reminded one of childhood games. Large wheeled black squares served as backdrops (set design also by Cerrudo). Cleverly, the boxes separated or were pushed together, alternately hiding and revealing dancers. In one instance the black boxes formed a Velcro wall from which a pair of dancers comically unstuck and undressed themselves. At the end, the boxes magically spun alone.
Cerrudo’s choreography brought unexpected humor and lightness. I smiled, for example, at a dancer playing an air violin and a couple enacting a missed hug. When the dancing was more serious, the dancers glided along as smoothly as some of the accompanying music. At one point I found myself wishing that the dancers would slow down a bit, so that I could more fully appreciate the nuances that rapidly passed. And once I had made this wish, it came true! A couple in extremely slow motion reached toward a bright light in a downstage corner, as if they were reaching for pleasant memories that were slipping away. “Little mortal jump” definitely gained momentum as it progressed. I was glad to see some favorite elements repeated (lovely windmill arms), and I wasn’t ready to let go when the work ended and the dancers disappeared.
Cerrudo’s “PACOPEPEPLUTO,” another work rich with humor and charm, delivered fun without being too cute. Three males (Johnny McMillan, David Schultz, and Jonathan Frederickson), nearly naked except for an artfully disguised tiny flesh colored undergarment (costume design by Rebecca M. Shouse and lighting design by Matt Miller), jaunted around to songs sung by crooner Dean Martin. The songs gushed about love and marriage as the dancers showed off their muscular physiques and hammed it up. While the music paid tribute to domestic bliss, the men paid homage to the divine, conjuring Greek statuary. Cerrudo gave the audience a good time in this virtuosic and endearing love affair with the male form.
Former HSDC member Robyn Mineko Williams’ “Fluence” had a harder, sexier edge, but it also entertained. The nine dancers, clad in black clingy rock styled outfits by Hogan McLaughlin, went in and out of dry ice clouds and soft angled light (lighting design by Burke Brown). Hands fluttered about faces like flying bugs, fingers pointed forward coolly, dancers strutted like models with out of whack hip sockets, bodies jiggled. I loved a low to the ground crawl/lunge sequence performed by some of the male dancers. They covered a huge distance by mysteriously moving sideways like an insect. The hum and twang of an electric guitar (original music by Robert F. Haynes) further contributed to the cool vibe.
What impressed me most about “Fluence” were its surprises (spoiler alert!). The bubbles falling from above the stage at the end did come as a surprise. I’ve seen plenty of things falling from stages lately (ping pong balls, artificial snow). But here I couldn’t complain about this trend. In a sheer sparkly curtain, the bubbles magically rained down and bobbled. Some burst, some gently floated up the aisles. I saw plenty of heads turn and at least one hand sweep out to touch one. The bubbles were perhaps distracting, but there can be no argument about their beauty. Brown’s lighting design perfectly captured them.
Actually, surprises erupted throughout the entire program. Swedish choreographer Mats Ek’s “Casi-Casa” was no exception in the surprise department. From watching TV to vacuuming to cooking dinner (or in this case, a burnt baby doll), humor and astonishment abounded. The music, by the Swedish band Fleshquartet, supplied a hypnotic beat. The set and costume design by Peder Freiij, and lighting design by Erik Berglund, certainly enhanced the piece. I especially loved the vacuum cleaners, stuffed bags with a familiar hose attached, which wittily swung in the air and dragged across the stage with the Irish stepping dancers who wielded them, accompanied by a squeal like bagpipes.
The more mundane elements – a scratch, a slump, some muttering – reminded one of everyday life. Ek captured the disaffection of daily life in these small moments. A highly theatrical piece, “Casi-Casa” was infinitely watchable, not only for its simple pedestrian movements but also for some powerful duets. A trio of males became a duet with sumptuous weightless lifts. One man bent over and placed his hands on the ground. The feet of his male companion followed, feet placed next to his partner’s hands. When one dancer was lying on the floor, the other sniffed over the length of his body, his head quickly bobbing up and down as if devouring an ear of corn. Another couple, sometimes with a door between them, engaged in an emotional duet. When she knocked on the door, my heart leapt. When the male dancer of the pair pulled lightly at the bottom of his partner’s skirt, I felt my heart being tugged, too. And when he hopped on one leg, with the other thrown over her shoulder, again I was moved.