Saturday, March 16, 2019

Hubbard Street's Crystal Pite Program

Grace Engine. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Choreographer Crystal Pite harnesses the potency of the stage and all its components to create an atmospheric microcosm within each dance. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performed three of them at the Joyce recently, giving New York audiences a concentrated, if bleak, dose of an accomplished choreographer whose work is primarily seen here in mixed repertory programs. The company, under the artistic direction of Glenn Edgerton, also brought a program of work by Ohad Naharin.

In the first of two Pite duets, A Picture of You Falling, the lighting design by Alan Brodie is the de facto set design—the lamps, fixed on poles, are on rolling stands that form a semicircle upstage. Dancers move through and around them. Jacqueline Burnett and Elliot Hammans performed to a mellifluous voiceover by Kate Strong, Owen Belton contributed supplemental music. To the line, “This is the sound of you collapsing,” Hammans sinks, articulating each limb onto the floor; descriptive hand gestures are done with a theatrical flourish. The overall effect integrates the movement with the text/sound and lighting, creating the sense that one element could not be removed without subtracting substantially from the whole.

Grace Engine. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
The second work, The Other You, was also a duet, which alone is a quietly radical gesture in the world of modern dance. This is especially for an out-of-town company in New York, where there’s a tendency to pull out the stops with large ensemble works that vary in tone. It was performed by Michael Gross and Andrew Murdock, who appeared interchangeable at a distance, with the same buzzcuts and suits. One mimed pulling up his knees with invisible marionette strings. A found soundtrack by Belton of rain, traffic, dogs barking, and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, accompanied the work, which also used the same lighting fixture semicircle. The second man joined; they mirrored one another in sync, seemingly two sides of a coin.

Grace Engine, which completed the program, premiered in 2011 on Cedar Lake, the New York-based company with which Pite most often worked, and whose ex-artistic director, Alexandra Damiani, restaged it. (Despite garnering lots of early negative juju for its Walmart empire-derived funding, Cedar Lake did fill a big niche in commissioning contemporary work performed by skilled dancers; many of those dances live on today in other companies’ repertory.) 

Again, all elements of the piece cohered to create a taut, gritty, urban atmosphere for 15 dancers in suits (by Nancy Bae) who rush on and off, flowing around a soloist. Pite does not utilize a conventional dance lexicon, instead connecting graphic, articulated poses with flowing movement, channeling energy into organic-feeling phrases. While it’s related to the more commercial “contemporary” style seen in popular tv dance competitions, it doesn’t exist only to serve freakish feats of technical prowess. The chiaroscuro lighting (by Jim French) and the urban soundscape (Belton again) contributed to the overall feel of a busy city sidewalk at night. It ended a cohesive program notable for its dynamic and atmospheric continuity, as well as Hubbard Street company's all-around excellence.

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