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stg: hubbard street dance chicago – a review

Robyn Mineko Williams and Pablo Piantino in
“Lickety-Split” (Todd Rosenberg photo)

The program started quietly with resident choreography/dancer Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Lickety-Split.” It is as refreshing onstage as the YouTube version is preachy. Four black curtains rise in succession, but not completely, creating a space with a some depth and just the right amount of height to be human-friendly. Six barefoot dancers walk on, and four dancers run off, leaving only one woman and one man, Kellie Epperheimer and Kevin Shannon. Epperheimer seemed very vulnerable—and yet, so strong and resilient. Catlike and sensuous, she moved through this flowing, shifting-weight piece as though it were her natural environment. Her taupe shift showed off her suppleness better than her male counterpart’s slacks and sweater did for him. Both show the bent knees and rippling back, the intricacy and smoothness, the weighted/skimming “lifts” that characterize the rest of “Lickety-Split.”

Hedy Weiss, for a recent Chicago Sun review, wrote a spot-on description of the style of “Lickety-Split”: “Cerrudo’s alternately gentle, playful, push-pull gestural language has a natural poetry to it, and his easy musicality keeps the dancers moving quickly while always retaining a sort of easy, loopy flow.”

Parts of “Lickety-Split” seem liked creativity-generating exercises. (For example, two dancers keeping some part of their bodies touching as they move. Or, my stomach contraction and demi-pointe on one foot causes your similar movement, and then we get carried away and make bigger moves in unison.) It didn’t bother me, though. Cerrudo uses them to his advantage. Sometimes they get complicated…which can be cool (like when one woman lying down lifts her leg to support a man who is leaning over; the point of contact: her toes and his forehead)…but the simpler moments are just as effective (in one charming moment, the entire cast is lined up stage left for a moment, crouching a bit, just looking in the same direction with amusement).

The piece works its way through several of Devendra Banhart’s folksy songs, and through several group configurations, with some mystery, some desperation, and a lot of play. (At one point, a man knocks his head against a woman’s toosh a few times. Why? I don’t know, but we laughed.) A few stretches toward the end of this 17-minute piece lagged a little (for whatever reason: choreographic desensitization? the music? a crucial element I failed to perceive?), but because the dancers seemed to be approaching the work together, their energy level more than compensated.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the folksy, vignettish qualities that kept my interest in “Lickety-Split.” For me, the fascination lay in watching the dancers trace energy and make visible its varying momenta. (For example, at one moment, the impetus for the movement comes from the man’s left arm; his arm arcs up slowly, gains momentum as it swoops down, glides over the supine woman’s body, and picks up enough energy to lift her to a standing position.) This is that “poetry,” that “easy, loopy flow” that Weiss mentioned. It’s seductive, and quiet, and it gets under your skin.

Lucas Crandall’s “The Set” followed. This drawing-room farce, played out to music by Bach, “features three dancers—and a divan.” If the silliest bits of “The Importance of Being Earnest” were distilled down to a nine-minute-long ballet with some cross-dressing and little more groping, it might look like “The Set.” At first glance, we see two proper ladies from the turn of the former century seated on the couch; then we note that one of these ladies has a huge moustache. S/he disappears over the back of the couch when a third dancer (the husband?) jumps onto it. The “husband” is occupied with his, say, “wife,” until the gowned, mustachioed man finds a way to join them on the couch. While the three flit and twirl around and on and over the divan, arms flowing, legs extended, a round-off over one arm of the divan, a fainting spell over the other, it’s hard—and fun—to keep up with the changing affections. Just who has the hots for whom?

“The Set” lasts just as long as it should. It’s one long laugh from beginning to end—to the very end, really, when the man in drag fights for the right to bow on the husband’s right side, forcing the wife to take second place on the left.

We have room for hilarity in dance. We need some creative, funny pieces like “The Set.” What’s the harm in having a little fun?

Well, the harm is that the man in drag, who I’m told was Alejandro Cerrudo, danced later in the program and I just couldn’t forget the camp. He’s a very strong dancer, but every time I saw his moustache I thought about the comedic timing and expression he had displayed earlier, and I got pulled back into “The Set.”

And comedy didn’t really figure into the next two works on the program, the first of which was Jorma Elo’s “Bitter Suite.” “Bitter Suite” isn’t even a month old yet; it premiered earlier in October in Chicago to good reviews—although, given the financial state of journalism, not too many reviews. (HSDC’s website links to some of these reviews; be sure to read the SeeChicagoDance review, as Sid Smith did a great job at describing the movement quality.)

Robyn Mineko Williams and Terence Marling in”Bitter Suite” …
the final pose (Todd Rosenberg photo)

I’d love learn what Elo’s working concept for “Bitter Suite” was. It’s an easy piece to make up a story for. Machines becoming human and learning to dance. Or, the same story but a different slant: the humanizing effect of dance. Or, dancers gaining control over their own bodies. (For example, early on, a man starts touching a woman’s knees to make them move, but she’ll have none of that! She shows him she can move on her own.) All of those storylines, as seductive as they are to concoct, diminish the piece. This is more than a concept piece. Best is to just watch the dance. It’s as though Tim Burton created a ballet: more magical than life and at the same time more broken. The music? Mendelssohn and Monteverdi. The costumes by Nete Joseph? More futuristic: blue, streamlined, neon-bright, borderline ice-skating-outfit but I thought they worked well.

What I liked best about “Bitter Suite” was that it seemed to say that every part of the body is made for dancing. And—I know it’s not new, but it worked here—every movement can become interesting dance. There was lush ballet (progressively more towards the end), there was typing, there was nodding yes and no. Gorgeous split-leg turns here, funny flat-footed jumps, there, a one-handed, hip-hop backbend here, a Lord-of-the-Dance clog-athon there. Elo references so many dance forms, but the work still feels whole.

I enjoyed the ending(s) more than the beginning. (The beginning resembled those now-our-class-becomes-a-machine-of-individual-interlocking-parts exercises we used to do in drama classes years ago.) Toward the end, with the crescendoing music and the increased drive and longer phrasing, “Bitter Suite” seems to be building to one of those old-fashioned ballet grand finales. It struck me as hilarious that the dancers laid down on the stage at that point, because, really, those high-energy finales are just that tiring. But it’s not the end; the work continues. And it’s worth it for the final image, where everyone is lying down again except Epperheimer and Benjamin Wardell. She creeps up into his arms and onto his shoulders. It’s poignant. It’s not the gut-punch that you get with the end of “Prodigal Son,” because there hasn’t been that much drama. But in this cold, broken blue world, it’s nice to see two people close.

I expected to adore “Gnawa,” which Nacho Duato created for HSDC in 2005 or so. From the increased applause and standing ovation, I’m assuming that most of the audience did adore it. But it didn’t grip me as Duato’s “Jardí Tancat” does. Maybe if we had seen “Gnawa” before “Bitter Suite”? Or perhaps something of its meaning has gotten lost over the years? I wondered if it were more a question of energy or intent than choreography or dancing. The dancers seemed to do the movement clearly and ably and with the same weighted roundness that, in my limited knowledge of his work, I expect from a Duato piece.

Here’s one example: At one point, many of the dancers enter, carrying lanterns. They aren’t held with care or with religious devotion or with fanatical mania. They are just lanterns. People just walking carrying every-day lanterns is kind of boring. People in mourning, for example, carrying offerings of light to their ancestors’ graves? Or, people placing lights around the village to ward off evil? Or, people setting up for a joyous party? I find those scenarios—and the energy and postures that go with them—more interesting.

Duato interspersed between scenes of the general, clothed community several pas de deux for a couple (Penny Saunders and Terence Marling in Seattle) dressed in “nude” leotards. These moments were beautiful, imbued with a sort of primal spirituality and breathing extension. They started and ended with the couple emerging out from or disappearing into the group, emerging out of or fading into darkness (what I imagined was a misty jungle). Saunders, with Marling’s careful support, made it look wonderful to be her character, so carefree and limber and light.

Everyone gushes over the HSDC’s choreographers (and, yes, yes, they’re wonderful), but it’s the dancers who establish the link with the audience. I wish HSDC were our hometown crew, so we could get to know them better. (For example, one woman—Jessica Tong I think her name is—was good and clean in the Cerrudo piece but incandescent in the Nacho Duato. I’m so glad I got a chance to see her twice.) A startling proportion of these dancers seemed in full, admirable control of their movements, able to pass between contemporary ballet and modern dance easily…not just able to hit the pose, but able to dance the in-between with multiple styles. Rather than just dancing steps or acting roles, many of them made the dance a part of their selves.

At 35-years-old and counting, HSDC appears to know what it’s doing and how to do it. One piece of advice: Try to schedule next year’s (and let’s hope there’s a next year) one-night engagement in Seattle on a night when there aren’t other dance events going on.

Seattle Reviews:
The SunBreak
Seattle Gay News