Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

March 12, 2024: Dichotomy of a Journey; Nevermore; Dear Frankie
March 19, 2024: Coltrane’s Favorite Things; Aguas Que Van, Quieren Volver; return to patience

Jerry Hochman

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago returned to the Joyce last week for a two week engagement, presenting two different programs each week, each program with three dances. I attended both programs.

I last saw Hubbard Street in 2019, when it also presented a two-week Joyce season. The first week as an “all Naharin” program consisting of Ohad Naharin’s Decadance/ Chicago (where I briefly became part of the show); the second week was an “all Pite” program consisting of three dances choreographed by Crystal Pite. Since then, the company has changed in significant ways. While before it frequently appeared to be Euro-centric, almost an NDT clone, it’s that no longer – at least based on the two programs presented here. Now, if I had to draw parallels for a context, it bears more of a resemblance to Complexions Contemporary Ballet, but without a ballet component or dances choreographed by Dwight Roden.

But while there may have been a change of focus under its new Artistic Director Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, a former company dancer and Principal Dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater who assumed the role in 2021, the product is still, generally, high quality, and Hubbard Street’s dancers remain an exceptional group despite a significant turnover.

Shota Miyoshi and Simone Stevens (center foreground)
and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
in Thang Dao’s “Nevermore”
Photo by Michelle Reid

I’ll address the programs in order, but focus each program’s comments on the dance(s) I considered most successful.

The March 12th Program:

The three dances that comprised the first program were sufficiently different from each other that they remain distinct in my mind. The initial two pieces were … ok, but I had difficulty determining what each was trying to say. But the third dance didn’t have that problem – perhaps because its intention was clearly defined, and the choreographer accomplished what he set out to do.

I’ve seen a few dances created by Rennie Harris, I’m sure only a fraction of his output, and wasn’t impressed notwithstanding Harris’s sterling reputation in the dance world and beyond. But Dear Frankie, which premiered with Hubbard Street last October, is clearly and narrowly defined, and delivered exactly what Harris said he’d deliver: an homage to “the godfather of House Music, DJ Frankie Knuckles,” “the infamous dance club The Warehouse and its club members,” and, while homaging, “to the city of Chicago” as well – though that one’s a stretch. Harris’s program note explains that “Frankie Knuckles and the other noted Chicago DJs introduced house music to the world. As a result,” Harris continues, “Chicago’s unique sound and dance have impacted not only music but fashion, television, film, radio, and pop, and underground culture as we know it today.”

I didn’t think that a hyperbolic statement like that was more than just hyperbole, but after checking Frankie Knuckles’s Wikipedia entry, what Harris writes is true. I have no independent way to judge whether that’s reflected in Dear Frankie – but it doesn’t matter. The point is that Harris promises a tribute to Frankie Knuckles, the club he helped make famous, The Warehouse, and to the distinctive sound that went with it. And he delivers exactly that.

Since many readers may not be aware of him, I’ll provide a Knuckles nickel biography.

Almost immediately from the time he arrived in Chicago from New York in 1977 (he was born in the Bronx, something we had in common) after being the resident DJ at Manhattan’s notorious Continental Baths, an opulent gay bathhouse (which Bette Midler made famous to the non-gay community when she began singing there in 1970), Francis Warren Nicholls Jr, known professionally as Frankie Knuckles, became the resident DJ at The Warehouse. According to a footnoted Wikipedia entry, The Warehouse “emerged as a sanctuary for the city’s black and gay community, offering a haven for those seeking freedom and salvation through music. Knuckles’ DJ sets at the Warehouse were transformative experiences, drawing in crowds of up to 2,000 people, primarily from the black and gay demographic.”

Subsequently, Knuckles began experimenting with re-edits of songs, which laid the foundation for the emergence of house music (from Ware”house”), which eventually gained recognition as adventurous straight audiences began attending (as I recall, a similar trajectory happened with Continental Baths), evolving into a genre of its own. Knuckles became so skillful at his remixes that in 1997 he won a Grammy Award for “Remixer of the Year, Non-Classical.”

Knuckles died in 2014, at age 59, from complications of diabetes.

Dear Frankie is choreographed to a selection of music by Darrin Ross and by Harris himself. I’m not familiar enough (or, admittedly, at all) with house music, but it does the job of providing good-natured thump (pulsing beats more muted than dominatingly percussive) that provide the background (and, in a way, the foreground) for Dear Frankie.

Cyrie Topete in Rennie Harris’s “Dear Frankie”
Photo by Michelle Reid

I doubt that it’s proper house music terminology, but Dear Frankie, which premiered with Hubbard Street in October, 2023, is a blast. Harris creates a piece filled with action-packed movement, but that’s not what Dear Frankie is about. Harris makes it very clear that the movement, the dancing to house music, is fun, exuberant, and infectious. His greatest accomplishment here, however, is making it real.

Those aren’t easy qualities to develop in dances of this nature – it’s much easier to generate choreography that looks like every dancer’s limbs are gyrating at a breakneck speed; speed for speed’s sake. But in Dear Frankie the more important quality is the atmosphere Harris is trying to replicate. I wasn’t there, so I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but the stage and the action on it look like what I would expect a gathering at The Warehouse, or a club like it, would look. It looks genuine.

The dance’s structure is what one might expect: there’s no narrative, and although there’s a progression of sorts, that’s not really significant. It’s the atmosphere. Harris accomplishes this, as most capable choreographers do, by varying the pace and the action; moving groups of dancers, and solo expressions, on and off stage so smoothly that the audience isn’t always aware that the group on stage one minute has changed the next.

What’s particularly different here from other “ambiance-recreating“ pieces is that little is the same: not just the pace, but the movement quality – maybe that personalized “grooving” quality – that makes each solo dancer’s movement, and the action from one group to another, individually significant and somewhat idiosyncratic. Sort of loosey goosey one minute, tightly knit the next; fluid one minute and thrusting angularity the next, somewhat tied together by non-costume-like costumes and sneakers reflecting that the club attendees didn’t so much expect a night on the town as a casual good time filled with house music and camaraderie. Together, it all works. The company as a whole filled the piece, and although some stood out, it’s such an ensemble piece that citing any one of them seems unfair.

The program opened with Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Dichotomy of a Journey. If you’re already scratching your head, you’re not alone.

The program note by the choreographer states “From this moment and beyond: May we continue to live with vitality, connection, vision, community, and most importantly, self-encouragement.” Still scratching your head?

Each of the qualities in Moultrie’s program note is a distinct segment of the dance. Sort of. In between segments “Vitality” and “Connection,” and “Connection” and “Vision,” are segments titled “Interlude.” And instead of “self-encouragement,” the dance’s final segment is titled “Resilience.” The problem I have with the piece, after seeing all these segments, is that I’m still scratching my head.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
in Darrell Grand Moultrie’s “Dichotomy of a Journey”
Photo by Michelle Reid

Choreographed to an eclectic assortment of music ranging from Ezio Bosso to Dmtri Shostakovich to Nils Frahm, among others, each segment of the dance is distinct from the other. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but here what’s presented are pretty imagery, some very fine dancing, but nothing that holds everything together.

And then there’s the title. A dichotomy is a clear distinction or difference between two things. The only “dichotomy” in the piece, besides living as Moultrie suggests in the program note or not, might be the difference between gospel (or gospel-like music) and classical (or classical-like music), since the selected compositions might be viewed as falling within one or another category. That makes no thematic sense, but ok. Then where’s the journey – except the journey taken by the audience to figure out what’s going on in the piece.

I don’t mean to be snide about this. Moultrie is a fine, experienced choreographer, and several of the segments/interludes are quite good and include some superb dancing and imagery (as well as costumes, by Branimira Ivanova), highlighted by the performances of company veterans Jacqueline Burnett, David Schultz, and Elliot Hammans, and relative newbies Aaron Choate and Alexandria Best. But in the end, there’s nothing to show for it.

Nevermore, choreographed by Thang Dao, the program’s middle piece, is more maddening – not because it’s bad, but because it’s incoherent.

Michele Dooley and Jack Henderson
in Thang Dao’s “Nevermore”
Photo by Michelle Reid

There’s a story here. Actually, two of them. Dao’s piece reportedly is an effort to bridge narratives between East and West (now there’s a dichotomy) that have a certain similarity: Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” and an Asian folktale titled “The Cowherd and Weavegirl,” purporting to show, according to Dao’s program note, “the humanity of our experiences as shared and universal rather than distinct and separate.” Dao continues: “’The Raven’” paints the human experience through loss and death while “The Cowherd and Weavegirl” offers a ritual as a way to process grief through hope and memory.”

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Thang Dao’s “Nevermore”
Photo by Michelle Reid

Regardless of that description sounding unnecessarily dense, it might have been nice to see that reflected in the action on stage. But, except for recognizing moments from the familiar Poe poem, including what appeared to be a flock of human ravens (dressed, of course, in black – but with red feet), and the visual beauty of some of the segments, it lost me. Perhaps it would have been helpful if the program had provided a summary of the Asian folktale, which could not have been assumed would be familiar to Western audiences, but there was nothing at all about it other than that brief comment in the program note. So the piece, ultimately, was like traveling through a dark night without any light, surrounded by human blackbirds. Nevermore.

The March 19th Program:

The second week’s program turned out to be the inverse of the first week: I thought both of the first two dances on the program were reasonably good, with the second, more unusual one being particularly intriguing, while the third one left me cold.

The evening opened with Lar Lubovitch’s Coltrane’s Favorite Things. Lubovitch’s methodology is obvious in the 2010 piece (the Hubbard Street premiere was last year). But it’s an up-beat, jazzy opener that leaves the audience smiling, not scratching their collective heads.

Simone Stevens and Jack Henderson
in Rennie Harris’s “Coltrane’s Favorite Things”
Photo by Michelle Reid

The work is inspired by and danced to John Coltrane’s 1963 interpretation of “My Favorite Things” (from The Sound of Music), which significantly alters the original to make it sound somewhat disjointed and distorted, as well as considerably longer than the original. It’s far more Coltrane than Rodgers & Hammerstein.

Lubovitch describes his methodology for choreographing Coltrane’s transformation of the original in a program note, saying that Coltrane’s music has been described as “sheets of sound” due the aural environment created by his innovative wall-to-wall top-to-bottom overall consistency of sound. Lubovitch then pares this with a 1950 painting by Jackson Pollock, titled “Autumn Rhythm,” a copy of which hangs on the back scrim behind the dancers. Lubovitch says that Pollack’s work uses the entire surface of the canvas as an action field, and in the dance he “sought to draw a parallel between Coltrane’s sheets of sound and Pollock’s field of action.”

It’s an interesting parallel, and it works, but not the way Lubovitch says. What Lubovitch does here is to create another work of art that doesn’t so much parallel the Coltrane with the Pollock (there’s a gallant attempt, but dance has far more form than Pollack’s paint droppings) as it creates another parallel to it; a free-spirited dance to Coltrane’s music that lives on its own merits.

And that’s not a bad thing.

Lubovitch’s dance places a structure of sorts atop Coltrane’s music, loosely dividing it into three groupings of the nine dancers: a duet (danced by Best and Shota Miyoshi), a quartet (by Burnett, Choate, Morgan Clune, and Schultz) which is often subdivided into two pairs, and a trio (Elliot Hammans, Matt Wenckowski, and Simone Stevens). The groups appear in that order, but just as there’s fluidity to the music, there’s fluidity with respect to the groupings, and to the choreography within each group and overall.

Alexandria Best in Lar Lubovitch’s “Coltrane’s Favorite Things”
Photo by Michelle Reid

That’s a more complicated description than it needs to be. Coltrane’s Favorite Things is more fun to watch that Coltrane’s music is to hear (and far more fun than Pollock’s painting). It’s basically modern dance applied to a jazz score. It doesn’t have the imagination and innovation of, say, Paul Taylor’s Esplanade (to Bach), but it’s similarly light-hearted and smile-inducing.

And, as was the case in Harris’s Dear Frankie, the dancers in Coltrane’s Favorite Things appeared to be having a blast. They seem never to stop moving, whether broken into the indicated groupings or mixing them up (no, not like mixing paint), and although the choreography itself isn’t particularly unusual, Lubovitch’s decision not to match Coltrane beat for jazzy beat allows considerable visual flexibility (not to mention athleticism), which the Hubbard Street dancers exploit entertainingly. Again, all the Hubbard Street dancers shared and communicated the vivacity of the piece, but Clune seemed particularly happy to be there, and Best and Miyoshi (who had a particularly great night) did outstanding work.

The evening’s middle piece, though not nearly what I would call fun to watch, is quite interesting. That might often be followed by a “but,” but that’s not the case here: it’s choreographically and visually intriguing.

Aguas Que Van, Quierren Volver (which translates as “Waters that go, want to return”) isn’t an easy piece to like. Its score is a curated pair of songs (one of which includes the dance’s title) that have nothing in common beyond both being in Spanish and having a wistful, doleful sensibility. The songs were meshed together by Darryl J. Hoffman, creating the overall soundscape for the dance. [The songwriters are credited with the music, and Hoffman is credited with the composition.] I have no clue as to how choreographer Rena Butler found the songs or why she used them – but the piece clearly is choreographed to the songs’ undercurrents of haunting percussion and other-worldliness.

(l-r) Cyrie Topete, Abdiel Figueroa Reyes, and Shota Miyoshi
in Rena Butler’s “Aguas Que Van, Quieren Volver”
Photo by Michelle Reid

[According to the program, the musical selections were: “Quimey Neuquén” by Milton Aguilar, Jane May, and Marcelo Barbel, and “Miseria” by Valladares Rebolledo and Miguel Angel, performed by Los Panchos. As usual, I couldn’t resist the invitation to go down that rabbit hole to find the songs and their lyrics, thinking that that would provide a quick and easy connection to Butler’s intent. They didn’t – although the first song provides some interesting, and irrelevant, background information. “Quimey Neuquén” (the one that includes the dance’s title in its lyrics) relates to, and incorporates language of, the Mapuche People, whose king was the last native king to be defeated by the Argentine army in 1884. What remains of the Mapuche People reside in the capital city of the Argentine province of Neuquén, which also is named Neuquén. And the word “Quimey” means “beautiful” in the Mapuche language. Ergo ”Beautiful Neuquén.”  In a different version (same lyrics), the song was used in the television series “Breaking Bad” (episode 5) as background music for the burial of container drums of money on a nearby Navajo Reservation (called Tohajiilee Indian Reservation) in New Mexico. I couldn’t find anything anywhere nearly as interesting and irrelevant for “Miseria.”]

The dance picks up on the “other-worldly” sound of the score (maybe more accurately described as sounds from another world), abetted by the costumes, designed by Hogan McLaughlin – black skirts/shorts/swatches that are applied differently for each dancer – and Julie E. Ballard’s lighting (including long, rectangular swatches of color bands, one vertical and one horizontal, that echo, and expand the sense of, the black swatches in the costumes. The resulting “look” on stage is ascetic, but the interaction among the dancers is fascinating.

(l=r) Abdiel Figueroa Reyes, Shota Miyoshi,
and Cyrie Topete
in Rena Butler’s “Aguas Que Van, Quieren Volver”
Photo by Michelle Reid

Seemingly isolated (either geographically or emotionally), the three dancers (Cyrie Topete, Alysia Johnson, and Miyoshi, each of whom was appropriately intense – with Miyoshi appearing to be the dance’s pivot point) intersect with each other in strange-looking, unfamiliar ways, as if they’d searched for and found some unique form of physical communication, within which are included an assortment of twitches, soft forms yielding to angular jabs, head pulls and shakes, briefly yielding a sort of constantly changing moving sculpture. As I watched, I thought of bending, and intersecting, paper clips. [Although there’s a measure of sensuality here, apparently the gender of the dancers doesn’t matter – a photo from a prior performance of the dance included in the program, as well as the photos provided above, shows the dancers then were two men and one woman.]

No matter how it’s sliced and diced, the choreography, performed by all three together, in solos, and as I recall in pairs as well, has meaning (to the extent there is any) only to the dancers on stage. Nevertheless, Aguas Que Van, Quierren Volver is consistently interesting, as well different, and strangely … intriguing.

(l-r) Shota Miyoshi, Abdiel Figueroa Reyes, and Cyrie Topete
in Rena Butler’s “Aguas Que Van, Quieren”
Photo by Michelle Reid

The evening’s final dance came with a significant pedigree. It was choreographed by the company’s Resident Artist Aszure Barton, with music by award-winning composer Caroline Shaw (“Gustave Le Grey”), and costumes by Fritz Masters (with company rehearsal director Craig D. Black, Jr.) that were created by The Juilliard School. All that talent didn’t help.

return to patience (created in 2015) initially looks wonderful, but almost immediately thereafter begins to look like the dance equivalent of a “white on white” canvas. [Remember the work of visual art “examined” by Charles Kuralt on the television news magazine “Sixty Minutes” many, many years ago? That’s the “white on white” I mean.] The costumes are white “suits,” the stage floor has been repaved in white, the upstage wall is white. I’ve heard it described as a masterpiece, but to my eye it’s memorable only because of its monochromatic visual appearance and minimalist choreography. I did come away with a sense of meaning, however, which I’ll get to below.

The curtain rises to an image of some fourteen dancers (the entire company, although it looks like more than fourteen) spread across the stage evenly spaced, all in white. It’s as much of a pleasurable jolt as a Balanchine line of ballerinas in white. And return to patience plays into this ballet and Balanchine connection, as one of the entire group’s opening moves is to suddenly spread their feet into first position, as Balanchine has his dancers do in Serenade.

The resemblance to Balanchine and ballet stops there, unless it’s used as barely-communicated criticism.

In return to patience there’s no meaningful group movement except in that minimalist sense. At one point or another one or two or three (at times maybe more) dancers break away from the group, and the group responds, to my recollection, by collectively reassembling on the opposite side of the stage. Or the group as a whole, after having returned to their initial stage positions (another Balanchine echo) might lean forward or backward, then return to their upright position (not a Balanchine echo). On rare occasion there’s a little more than that, but not much. I concede that I loved the fleeting references to “The Thinker” sculpture (a female dancer, alone, assumes a sitting position without sitting on anything, balancing on one left bent leg, and swaying her right leg back and forth in the air at the same time) that Barton inserts at one point midway through the dance, and then repeats later with a different dancer. But that’s the only semblance of a recurring motif that I recall – other than the recurring mass of “whiteness” itself.

Part of the difficulty I have with the piece is the score, which is not minimalist, but which samples certain well-known musical references (e.g., Chopin) and in doing so creates a distinct, though Chopin-imbued, musical ambiance. Shaw herself describes “Gustave le Gray” (“Gray” is spelled with an “a” rather than an “e” most everywhere I saw independent references it) as “a multi-layered portrait of [Chopin’s] Op. 17 #4 using some of Chopin’s ingredients overlaid and hinged together with my own.” [Quoted in an article dated March 31 (the year is left blank) written by Rhonda Rizzo and appearing at www.nodeadguys.com/a-piano-blog.]  The writer adds: “To me, “Gustave le Gray” feels like time travel. We leave the present, return to the elegant world of Chopin, and then come back to the present, only to find that it is now weighted by our encounter with the past.”

Both descriptions are spot on. Indeed, every time one (or more than one) dancer breaks away from the pack, I felt tempted to describe the stage action as ‘other dances at a different kind of gathering.’

But the dance may be more than minimal movement within a mesmerizing white mass. The musical Chopin references, updated, and the ballet references (the early nods to Balanchine), combined with the dance’s title, may mean something. After most every departure from the mass, the person(s) who separates out executes some free-flow, sometimes happy-as-a-clam type of movement, and then rejoins the mass, reassuming the mass’s position as if he’d never left it. That is, each time one person breaks away and then returns, he (or she or they) returns to the state of patience – waiting for the next opportunity to break free again: returning to patience.

I can’t think of any other scenario that fits what I saw and the dance’s title. And if that’s what Barton intended to communicate, the entire piece might also be seen as a commentary on the rigidity of ballet vs the free-spiritedness of contemporary dance.

The analysis may have no merit; it doesn’t have to have a meaning. But if it doesn’t, it’s all just plain vanilla — white on white.

Notwithstanding some of the missteps, which isn’t the company’s “fault,” the two Hubbard Street Dance Chicago programs were quite successful in showing off its new direction and new dancers. It will be interesting to see how it continues to evolve.