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Review: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago makes dizzying moves appear simple

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Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs Crystal Pite’s “Grace Engine.” Photo: © Todd Rosenberg Photography

How does a modern dance company endure and thrive for 41 years?

Well, if Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is telling the story through it’s performance Friday, Jan. 18, in the first of three weekend performances presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, these are the answers to those queries: Choose works of both emotionally vivid and complex content. Dance them with technical mastery, utter conviction and communal urgency. Use music — as well as soundscapes and silence — in striking and integral ways. And make lighting matter as a creative component of the whole.

All those things and more unfolded in abundance in Friday’s Program A of four distinctly different and absorbing pieces. (That bill repeats at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20. Program B, which includes three Bay Area premieres, runs at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19.)

Friday’s program took off with a cryptic but evocative image. As the lights slowly came up like dawn on Nacho Duato’s “Jardi Tancat,” six Hubbard dancers were huddled motionless on the floor. They could have been rocks stuck in a field somewhere, a scattering of fence poles measuring rural distance. Then, as if ruffled to life by a morning breeze, the dancers’ heads lifted to nod and flutter. The “rocks” were also as light as windblown wheat, it seemed, the seeds ready to blow off and germinate.

That dynamism of solidity and airiness persisted. Sometimes laboring, backs bent and arms sweeping the floor, the three men and three women worked the fields. Then, as if exhilarated or liberated by their connection to the land, they took flight. The women’s long skirts swayed and twirled in celebration. The men exulted and paid court to them. Maria del Mar Bonet’s Catalan songs kicked in and cut off. They all went back to work, repeating and repeating their tasks.

The high point came in a series of three ravishing, space-spanning pas de deux. Couples  — Jacqueline Burnett and Michael Gross, Alicia Delgadillo and Kevin J. Shannon, Ana Lopez and Florian Lochner — captured a consistent Hubbard strength. They danced, coming together and pulling apart with legs and arms and torsos attuned, as if they knew each other’s bodies as well as their own. It was sexy and demure, intimate and lyrically formal. As night fell, they settled back down and became part of the landscape again.

William Forsythe’s “N.N.N.N” — don’t bother trying to unpack the title of this 2002 work — is a work of enormous fun and physical wit. Performed in near silence, with only the four dancers’ huffing and babbling and an occasional electronic exhalation as sonic support, the quartet embarks on a kind of zany deconstruction of movement itself. It plays like vaudeville at times; like martial arts and CPR, slapstick and putty-bodied child’s play.

To summon all those possibilities, the dancers must execute a dazzlingly complicated set of micro-calibrated moves. The Hubbard ensemble, projecting a bemused, but game sense of bafflement, were like marionettes under the choreographer’s perversely delightful command.

Their arms dangled heavily, then roped up onto their own and each other’s shoulders. They shambled and sprinted on and off stage. They linked up in little chorus lines and wove daisy chains. They tried to stay connected, unraveled and tried again. It all seemed spontaneous and improvised, the dizzying math of it all made to look as simple as 1+1+1+1.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs “Jardi Tancat” by Nacho Duato. Photo: © Todd Rosenberg Photography

Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Lickety-Split” brought the long, first portion of the program to a close. As in “Jardo Tancat,” three couples made some strong, at times frankly erotic connections. Balletic moves blended with borderline twerking. Hands darted between legs. Bay Area songwriter Devendra Banhart’s long-night-in-a-barroom music heightened the atmosphere. It was effective, but also time for a break.

After intermission, it became clear why a single 25-minute piece, Crystal Pite’s “Grace Engine,” occupied the entire second portion of the evening. Executed by a full complement of 15 dancers in a grim, fluorescent-pierced gloom conjured by lighting designer Jim French, this intense “Engine” put them through an ordeal. As an unseen train clanked noisily and then seemed to pound directly through the playing space, the dancers writhed, contorted and froze into eerie back-lit tableaux. Clad in unisex business suits, they were urban toilers and rat racers down on all fours.

The ending was mysterious, disturbing and deeply moving. The ensemble, conjoined in a long line yet struggling to stay together, lurched to save someone who had fallen away. They tired. They couldn’t. Or would they? The curtain fell. Even when the sound of it had ceased, that remorseless train kept coming.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago: Program A: Works by Nacho Duato, William Forsythe, Alejandro Cerrudo and Crystal Pite. 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20. Program B: Works by Emma Portner, Teddy Forance, Ohad Naharin, Alejandro Cerrudo and Crystal Pite. 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19. Zellerbach Hall, 101 Zellerbach Hall #4800 (Bancroft Way at Dana Street), UC Berkeley, Berkeley. $30-$68. 510-642-9988.
www.calperformances.org



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