Monday, March 25, 2024

Hubbard Street at the Joyce Theater

Alexandria Best in Coltrane's Favorite Things. Photo: Michelle Reid

New York is considered the world’s dance capital by many, boasting countless companies, choreographers, and dancers. And yet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, after 46 years and currently led by Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, sits atop American repertory troupes. The versatility required of the dancers cannot be overestimated; they are technically skilled, stylistically flexible artists with great mental toughness. The current company roster stands out for its diversity, both racial and in body type, with an unusual number of large men. 

Its 2024 Joyce run comprised two programs; the one I saw on Mar 21 featured work by Lar Lubovitch, Rena Butler, and Azsure Barton. Coltrane’s Favorite Things, by Lubovitch, is danced beneath a huge rendition of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, and set to a free-ranging performance by Coltrane of Richard Rodgers’ often cloying tune, from The Sound of Music. Per the program note, the choreographer aimed to juxtapose “Coltrane’s sheets of sound with Pollock’s field of action,” linking them through dance.

The performers wear sporty pieces in shades drawn from the beiges, blacks, and whites that might have dripped onto them from the suspended expressionist painting. Indeed, at times they dart and jiggle like Pollock’s paint drips, though with Lubovitch’s signature curving arms and graceful interlocked passages. Coltrane’s music indeed was sheet-like, or in another rock music term, wall-like—so much so that it dominated at moments, overshadowing the dancers, who split off into smaller groups for short duets or trios. Shota Miyoshi notably nailed the requisite refinement, split-second timing, and occasional abandon demanded by Lubovitch’s style.

Abdiel Figueroa Reyes, Shota Miyoshi, and Cyrie Topete in Aguas Que Van, Quieren Volver
Photo by Michelle Reid

Miyoshi danced with Cyrie Topete and Abdiel Figueroa Reyes in Aguas Que Van, Quieren Volver (2023) by Butler. Often moving as a three-headed being, they posed gymnastically and arrayed extremities to create new shapes. Every so often, one would slink off stage on all fours, seemingly ejected but always returning. (The title means "waters that go want to return.") Butler’s style makes ample use of the torso, rippling or flexing, convex or concave, with isolated movements and marked formations that recall Mats Van Ek. The music comprised a varied selection, including songs by Miguel Angel and Jane May. Hogan McLaughlin designed the geometric panel and illusion bodysuits which, with the chiaroscuro lighting by Julie E. Ballard, felt like a glimpse of a dystopic future.

Barton’s return to patience (2015, with the HSDC premiere in 2023) best fit HSDC. The company, wearing the same pale jumpsuits (by Fritz Masten), was spread evenly over the stage, reminiscent of Balanchine’s Serenade. As Caroline Shaw’s contemplative Gustave Le Gray played, they tilted nearly indetectably to each side as an ensemble. Cue Balanchine again, as they all opened their parallel feet into first position at once. Barton pulls ballet into her style, in which energy flows organically and satisfyingly, but she’ll tweak something slightly—an extended foot can be the epitome of balletic precision, but then it sickles just a bit, an absolute no-no in the classical canon but for the same reason, intriguing when intentional.

Every element in a Barton work is considered and well executed. The immersive vanilla lighting and white marley stage design by Nicole Pearce set an otherwordly atmosphere, as did the uniformly clad, evenly spaced dancers. Barton always considers the entire stage picture, which contributes to her ubiquity in repertory over the last couple decades. And she trusts audiences to discern even the most subtle details to add texture to the more dramatic phrases and shapes.

Hubbard Street remains one of the country’s top rep companies. Interestingly, New York has been less consistently represented in this area, although the recent rise of Gibney Company offers a solid choice. Before that, the Walmart fortune-backed Cedar Lake flashed as brightly as a bolt of lightning, and sadly, vanished just as fast. The Juilliard dance division can act like a top-notch rep company, with performances each season by its preternaturally gifted students who then graduate and populate troupes such as Hubbard Street and Gibney, plus myriad other New York groups.

But even the originally single-choreographer companies, by dint of the passage of time, are becoming repertory vehicles. Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, José Limón, Trisha Brown—all must diversify in order to survive. The choices they make not only recontextualize their founders’ visions, but power the inexorable evolution of modern dance.

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