Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
March 6, 2019: Program A (All Naharin) – Decadance / Chicago
March 12, 2019: Program B (All Pite) – A Picture of You Falling, The Other You, Grace Engine
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, one of the country’s premier centers for contemporary dance, returned to the Joyce Theater last week for a two-program, two-week engagement. Program A was devoted to choreography by Ohad Naharin, Artistic Director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company from 1990 to 2018 and now its House Choreographer, and Program B to choreography by Crystal Pite. Although neither included any New York premieres, the programs as assemblages of their component parts, like choreographed combinations of steps, were not previously seen here. As it became quickly apparent, the programs as a unity were at least as significant, if not more, than their individual components. Also quickly apparent was the reason both these choreographers are prior winners of the Dance Magazine Award.
I was prepared to dislike Program A from the outset. Having seen several of Naharin’s dances previously, and as much as I admired their quality, with one exception (Tabula Rasa, presented just two months ago at the Joyce by Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company), I rebelled at the seeming constant negativity. Moreover, the program consisted of excerpts from larger pieces, apparently gathered together to create a Naharin evening. Under the umbrella title Decadance / Chicago the program promised bits and pieces from nine Naharin dances, separated by a single intermission. I generally find excerpts, unless they’re meant also to be performed as standalone dances, to be inadequate on their own merits or as representative of the larger whole.
As has been the case of late with increasing frequency, I was wrong. The program is not just a compilation of excerpts. Decadance / Chicago is a collection of excerpts – segments, as they’re called in the program, is a better descriptive term – that, without regard to the disparate nature of the pieces represented, creates an entirety that makes unified visual, if not thematic, sense. Far more than that, and whether the credit goes to Naharin or Hubbard Street or both, the program was high quality entertainment, and a great deal of fun – and not just because, as I’ll explain in more detail later, I briefly became a part of it.
Decadance / Chicago may be new, but its concept isn’t. Naharin has presented evening-length compilations of pieces from his creations, many of which come under the umbrella “Deca Dance,” since roughly 2000. [One Deca program was presented in New York in 2007.] The components of Deca Dance programs have been modified over the years, so one Deca series performance (seen live, or as captured on YouTube) will likely not be identical in content to the Deca performed at another point in time. The compilation known as Decadance / Chicago premiered in Chicago last year.
And there’s another wrinkle – or two or ten. Figuring out the “title” of a particular piece from which the segment is excerpted is difficult, since some segments at different points in time formed parts of differently named dances. If that doesn’t sufficiently complicate things, the nine dances from which the segments in this Deca were drawn (Anaphase, Zachacha, Naharin’s Virus, Three, Telophaza, George & Zalman, Max, Seder, and Sadeh 21) are listed in creation date order, from 1993 to 2011, which is not necessarily in program order. For these reasons, the most accurate way to identify a segment, at least to me, is by referencing the accompanying music. But even the ability to identify a segment doesn’t help, because unless one is familiar with the particular Naharin dances from which the segments were drawn, or with the segment itself, one wouldn’t always know where the excerpt began and ended or if it had been modified for the Deca presentation, and whether the various “transition” scenes that made the presentation appear as seamless as it did were part of an excerpt or a standalone intermezzo.
But the seeming difficulty identifying Deca’s component parts is the point – or part of it. This isn’t Naharin’s Greatest Hits: It’s a sampling – significant though it may be – of Naharin’s choreography. If you try to figure out what’s what and where it came from and whether you’ve seen it before and what it all means – that is, if you try to dissect it either choreographically or thematically, you lose it – or at least the “Deca” aspect of it. It’s not so much what it, or any part of it, makes you think, but how the Deca makes you react to it, or feel. If the choreographic language that Naharin created, Gaga, is in generalized terms an attempt to free the dancer and his/her body from restrictions, these collective programs can be seen as efforts to free the audience in similar fashion.
Based on Decadance / Chicago, which has been staged brilliantly by Ian Robinson and Rachael Osborne, if there’s a universal thread to Naharin’s choreography, and I’m not sure there is, it’s that his movement appears driven by a flailing upper torso propelled by arms that seem to be everywhere at once, and a “pop” exclamation that punctuates movement at the apex of a phrase – not overly exaggerated, as similar choreographic punctuations are, and certainly not exaggerated muscle pops, but a point that makes … a point. Of at least equal significance is that what comes across initially as anger is really emphasis (sometimes with anger as an ingredient), and what I initially thought was stylistic orthodoxy is anything but – whatever orthodoxy there may be is delivered as a sort of anti-orthodoxy.
Even these generalized observations, however, cannot synthesize every one of the segments, each of which has an ebb and flow independent of the seamless flow of the entire presentation. My favorites: the “chair” dance (how many dances can be instantly recognizable just by one descriptive word?), to Echad Mi Yodeah, is a model of ritual and passion and anger and loss. If anything can be said to be a signature Naharin piece, it’s the “chair” dance – although it’s hardly representative of his body of work. Whether it’s directed at Israeli society, life as an Israeli soldier (or civilian), a condemnation of orthodoxy (religious or otherwise) in Israel and beyond, or an exercise (one of many in the program) that examines the visual and aural impact of increasing incremental phrasing in a choreographic context … it’s unforgettable. I’ve seen Echod Mi Yodeah before – as, apparently, has much of the world – but I’ve never seen it performed better than it was on this program by the remarkable Hubbard Street dancers.
And speaking of incremental, Naharin’s take on Bolero, while choreographically consistent with everything else, adds the qualities of sultriness and sensuality that are imbued in Ravel’s score but rarely emphasized (most productions focus on the repetition and create variations on Ravel’s “theme”), making the two-woman duet as mesmerizing in its way as was the repetitive movement in the “chair” dance. It instantly became one of my favorite Bolero incarnations. In another segment, this quality of sultry sensuality is converted into a stunning and passionate pas de deux to David Darling’s Stones Start Spinning, while the incremental additive phrasing is the guiding force for the choreography for five women to an incrementalized version of Charles Bukowski’s poem Making It, read by former Batsheva dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, which is grafted onto Arvo Part’s Fur Alina. And for sheer internal variety amid internal consistency, as well as a little Decadance decadence, there’s the low-decibel but powerhouse conclusion that begins with Na Tum Jano Na hum (by Kaho Pyaar Hai) and ends with You’re Welcome (by The Beach Boys).
And, of course, there’s the “audience participation” section that I subsequently discovered has been a component of many Deca presentations (and doubtless was awaited by many members of the audience with enthusiastic apprehension). To the strains of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, members of the cast pass through the audience to select a partner to invite on stage, and once there, the assembled pairs dance to the accompanying music (Hooray for Hollywood, then Dean Martin’s Sway) before being escorted off stage. And it’s an interesting psychological observation that the last woman (from the audience) standing – and dancing – with a partner exhibited the same movement quality, even facial expression, at this performance as can be seen in every YouTube video of this segment that I’ve since seen. It’s that way not because it’s rehearsed, but because, given its structure and choreography, there’s no other way that the segment’s final image could end. Naharin’s father was a psychologist. It’s in the genes. He knew it would always be that way.
But from the outset, one became aware that Decadance / Chicago has a character beyond what can be observed and absorbed from the assemblage of choreographic segments themselves, and which may be different from other Decas. An additional quality of humor, and of human nature, added to what would subsequently also be apparent in Naharin’s choreography. Instead of the usual disembodied announcement to turn off cell phones, etc., a tall thin man in a black suit, white shirt, no tie, and a hat pulled down to nearly cover his eyes (a “typical” Naharin ultra-orthodox – Haredi – costume), emerged from the wings to deliver the same message – in a deadpan voice and with impeccable comic timing.
The same dancer returned later, as part of what I assumed was a between-segment pause to allow dancers to rest and change costumes. He’d ask certain members of the audience to rise or sit based on their responses to certain pseudo private questions. When everyone was finally seated, instead of segueing directly into the next dance segment, he asked anyone with a birthday that day to stand. No one did. Then he asked a person with a birthday the previous day to stand. I did. I expected a round of “Happy Birthday” to end this seventh inning stretch, but instead was invited to the stage.
I won’t go into blow by blow detail, but I soon realized (it took awhile – I’m a little slow) that I was expected to follow what those wearing the black-suit costumes seated on chairs on either side of me would do. [For one fleeting moment, I had horrifying visions of being recruited into a mini “chair” dance. More Decadance decadence.] When it dawned on me (another year … a little slower), I did, or tried to. But I realized afterward that I could have done the opposite of what those seated next to me – and other cast members – would do, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was what you (I) felt at that moment, and whatever it was would have been right. Which is a neat little way to understand Decadance / Chicago. It’s constantly fascinating, a little unnerving, undeniably entertaining, technically demanding (especially getting that leg to cross in “my” scene), not quite as cerebral as it might appear, awesome fun, and free spirited. If Deca in any of its incarnations, or in a new one, returns to New York, it’s a must … experience.
Program B, the all Pite evening, was initially presented in Chicago in 2017. Though no less choreographically accomplished and executed than Decadance / Chicago, it proved somewhat less powerful and entertaining because instead of being a part of the stage action (by feeling it, as well as, in some cases, by being part of it), one could only observe and admire from a physical, and emotional, distance.
The three Pite dances were connected very obviously by a similarity of style which, based only on these pieces, seemed more programmed than the Naharin “style,” with limbs, upper or lower or both, propelling (almost literally) movement forward, and with sudden periods of stop action incremental movement (like a strobe light effect without the strobe light). That’s not the case – the Naharin pieces are coordinated down to the last twitch or tremor or snap also, but they don’t look that way, and these Pite pieces aren’t as rigid-looking as I may be making them appear. Regardless, based on these three pieces and the segments in Decadance / Chicago, there’s also a subtle similarity of style that connects the two programs – as if they were created by distant choreographic cousins two or three times removed. I suspect that it’s no accident that Hubbard Street and its Artistic Director since 2009, Glenn Edgerton, elected to present these programs in the same engagement.
The first two dances had another common denominator beyond Pite’s apparent choreographic style: in A Picture of You Falling and The Other You, both duets, the focus is on “You.” The former, created in 2008, was originally a solo danced by Pite, but was modified into an alternative format, a duet, that Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot, premiered in 2010 as part of a program called “The You Show.” The latter piece premiered in 2010 on that same program.
In A Picture of You Falling, Pite examines a relationship that begins, happens, and ends, with scenes, as well as much of the movement quality, portrayed incrementally – to accompanying music (more like the ebb and flow of sounds) by Owen Belton, and incrementally additive phrases and sentences written by Pite and spoken by Kate Strong. [“This is a picture of you…This is your voice…This is you falling…This is how you collapse….”] Although the subject – meeting, ‘falling’ in love, ‘falling’ over each other, ‘falling’ out of love’ – is well-worn, here it’s given remarkable expression through the dancers’ (Jacqueline Burnett and Elliot Hammans) impeccable execution of Pite’s choreographic style, which in addition to what I’ve already described, looks at times like the dancers are being buffeted by forces from within and/or without that make the incremental and staccato movement twist, with the dancers becoming moving stop-action corkscrews. And having seen it as a duet, I can’t conceive of it as a solo – even though I saw and reviewed a solo version, performed by Hubbard Street at the Joyce in 2015. As a duet, it’s as much a dual psychological / choreographic portrait as it is a structural form of events and time condensed and shattered and then reassembled in bits and pieces of its original form.
A dual psychological / choreographic portrait is also evident in the program’s second piece. In The Other You, to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, Michael Gross and Andrew Murdock portray two sides of the same person – or maybe two distinct persons who seem to be almost, but not quite, mirror images, but with – almost but not quite – distinctive personalities. Although the movement quality is similar to A Picture of You Falling, here the overall impact is more cerebral – less what happened when, then who this person is (or these people are). As with the first program piece, the synchronization, and the variations from it, is astonishing.
Grace Engine, created the following year, is a larger piece in terms of the number of dancers (the full company), but it has the same movement characteristics – only more of them and in larger form. The common denominator is fragmentation. A story is being told, but it’s more cosmic than the two duets and filled with startlingly crafted group images that appear to illustrate stages of … something. And that’s my problem with it. Other than being some sort of life engine, and having fantastic and gripping images (groups and the solos / duets that spring from them), I don’t know what, if anything, Pite is trying to say here. But the piece is galvanizing, and what I perceive as an absence of thematic clarity, if there is indeed a theme, is not critical to appreciating its richness.
As described, these three Pite pieces illustrate a relative unity of style. But where the Naharin style as distilled from Decadance / Chicago is something that one becomes aware of after absorbing a seeming endless movement variety that spanned Naharin’s oeuvre, the Pite “unity” is relatively force-fed through these three pieces. On exiting, I overheard one man addressing his companion with respect to the dances’ common movement qualities: “Well, that must be her style.” To an extent it is. But wouldn’t it have been far more valuable if that Pite style, assuming there’s a common thread to it, had been gleaned from a greater variety of Pite’s work? Where, for example, do pieces like Solo Echo (a 2012 piece presented by Ballet BC at the Joyce in 2016), The Statement (presented by Nederlands Dans Theater at City Center in 2016) or Emergence (created in 2009 and presented by Pacific Northwest Ballet at City Center in … 2016) fit in? I think the opportunity to present something more definitive here, as was the case in Decadance / Chicago, was lost.
My focus here has been on the choreographers, partly because the individual dancers in the Program A segments were not identified, and partly because the programs are set up that way. But each of the dancers deserves individual recognition: they’re a fabulously accomplished group. In addition to those already mentioned, they include Craig D. Black Jr., Rena Butler, Alicia Delgadillo, Kellie Epperheimer, Alysia Johnson, Myles Lavallee, Adrienne Lipson, Florian Lochner, Ana Lopez, David Schultz, Kevin J. Shannon, and Connie Shiau.
The next time Hubbard Street, or a piece by Naharin, or one by Pite, comes to town, which doubtless will be soon, go.