Hubbard Street Dance Chicago : Quintett – Images by Independent Weekly

DURHAM/ DPAC—Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performed a long program in the Durham Performing Arts Center last night for the American Dance Festival: three pieces and two full intermissions, which they’ll reprise tonight. Each of the dances—created by 2012 Scripps/ADF Awardee William Forsythe, Hubbard Street resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo and Israeli choreographers Sharon Eyal and Gaï Behar—could have stood alone on its own. Each certainly contains an evening’s worth of content, but the evening doesn’t suffer in the least from that. Rather, it demonstrates the central characteristic of this repertory company that’s kept Hubbard Street relevant into its fourth decade of existence: versatility.

The program opens with the rare opportunity to see William Forsythe’s coolly elegiac Quintett (1993), created shortly after the death of his first wife. Known for edgy, energetic movement, Forsythe is constrained here—but not restrained. Five dancers cycle through solos and duets marked by high, sweeping, overhead reaches and kicks that succumb to small backwards stumbles. Often this main action is watched by one dancer loitering contemplatively from a dim corner of the stage. Sometimes the watcher springs into a solo, which provides a visual foil for the duet without undermining its almost wistful emotion.

A film projector occupies the right front of the stage, pointing its beam diagonally across the space but projecting onto a convex mirror (the kind that’s mounted where a garage enters onto a street, so pedestrians and motorists can see each other coming) rather than a screen. As the piece develops, and dancers pass through the beam, you can see that it contains an image but you can’t see what the image is until a dancer repositions the projector just before the ending. A grainy, slow-moving cloudscape appears on the backdrop.

You’re watching memory, remembered movement, in Quintett. The projector’s immaterial image, shining invisibly through space, speaks to the emptiness of reminiscence without judging it futile. The mirror, set up as a rear-view mirror might be, acknowledges memory’s distortion.

But the impotent machinery of memory doesn’t matter compared to the fact of an event’s occurrence in time. Sweet, intimate details in the duets shine through to provide genuine emotional connections to the past.

Facing each other at the end of a complicated phrase, one dancer tilts her head down to rest its top on her partner’s chest. Later, a tall, male dancer stretches his arm straight up to hold his hand horizontally flat; his partner glances up at it and leaps to bop the top of her head against his palm. You feel the pleasure of togetherness in these moments. Forsythe’s frank choreography sometimes looks like a pantomime of unselfconscious child-play. He does not wallow in the loss of these moments, even while acknowledging that they’re in the past.

Part of watching Quintett is dealing with Gavin Bryars’ mercilessly repetitive score Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in which a looped, quavering vocal and a stayed orchestral passage meander around each other, neither exactly in unison nor rhythmically contrary. It’s lonely-sounding music but the looping contains the emotion within the same analytical frame as the action.

Quintett is all about Forsythe resolving the fallibility and power of the past with the fact of the present, and Hubbard Street’s dancers bring the right objectivist approach to the movement. Forsythe will be part of a panel discussion in White Auditorium on Duke’s East Campus on Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Cerrudo’s new serial work Little Mortal Jump (2012) was second on the program. Technically impressive, the stage underwent successive transformations as four large, dark gray blocks—perhaps 7’ by 10’—were manipulated freely by the performers. Brought on and off, twirled and pushed together to be opened like huge doors, the blocks provided clever mid-stage entrances and exits and solved a common problem that choreographers face with an episodic structure—how to maintain intensity and stage presence from one episode to another.

Little Mortal Jump is a series of discrete dances to many short pieces of music by artists as varied as Beirut, Andrew Bird, Alexandre Desplat, Philip Glass, Max Richter and Tom Waits. The music begins before the houselights go down and the curtain goes up, and a dancer sprints down the aisle, as if he were arriving late, to clamber onstage and perform a frantic opening spotlight solo. This opening gimmickry is wiped clean when he jumps off the front of the stage as his spotlight goes off, seeming to vanish into thin air, drawing happy gasps.

Throughout approximately 10 sections, Cerrudo builds a fantastic abstracted realm in which other magical things worth gasping about happen. Two dancers are lifted and stuck with Velcro to the blocks. They tear themselves out of their clothes to leave red, flayed skins behind. Endowed with drunken lyricism, their duet opens as she head-butts him. It ends with her in a fetal curl on her side. He adopts an avian crouch on her hip and flaps his arms once.

Cerrudo makes many memorable images like this in Little Mortal Jump, but crisp images are hard to make with the whole Hubbard Street company onstage. Cerrudo’s choreography is strongest in partnering and solos. His ensemble movement tilts consistently over the schmaltz edge toward Broadway show dancing. Or it can altogether lose coherence into a twisting thicket of arms and legs.

But the serial nature of the piece moves it along, and Cerrudo finds ways of visually enriching the later sections to slide the tone from light to dark. Deep yellow lights from the wings turn the stage to gold but two dancers, in the final duet, move through it in bright white spotlights. Their exit, as the blocks reenter, ends on a spectacular gasp moment.

The final piece, Too Beaucoup (2011), is another full-company work by the choreographic team of Eyal and Behar. Like Cerrudo’s piece, it uses great musical variety to move between ensemble dancing and solos and duets, but the music is woven into more of a constant stream. Costumed identically, in white hair and putty-colored bodysuits, the dancers are rendered almost genderless.

Combining with Eyal and Behar’s robotic choreography, the costuming makes the female lead dancers look like Darryl Hannah’s android character in the movie Blade Runner—her final scene in which she unsuccessfully disguises herself as a doll and flails wildly when Harrison Ford’s bounty hunter fatally shoots her. It’s an apt reference, as the dancers are there for a choreographic purpose rather than an expressive one.

The twitchy-yet-smooth choreography, which by turns recalls cinematic representations from Charlie Chaplin’s cruelly ambivalent cogs in Modern Times to the chimerical simulated bodies in the Matrix franchise, seems programmed, leveraging a dehumanized dance-club musical pulse (carried even through Art Blakey and Cole Porter music) to project groups of dancers as multiple simultaneous images of one. It’s as if Eadweard Muybridge had been a choreographic consultant.

But the lighting gradually fades from white through yellow to a disturbing amber, bringing a desperation to the movement. The cyborgs aren’t emotionless after all, and they’re not sure how much they like that. At times, they dance at the audience, as if a wordless question is being asked to the auditorium. Humans learn that experience requires subjective effort to understand. But machines can at best be programmed to imitate that in a limited way. Existentially, they flail like Hannah’s movie android.

Unfortunately, Eyal and Behar make Too Beaucoup too long, losing a lot of the anxious energy of the amber section once the lighting moves to footlights and then floor spots at the back of the stage that shine through the dancers into the audience’s eyes. Although the Hubbard Street company seemed to have the most fun dancing this piece of the three, the vaguely humanistic point of the middle is dulled by the time it ends. It’s pretty terrific, however, to see dancers reveling in the charge of the choreography moving through their bodies which, perhaps, is a humanistic statement in itself.