As part of its 40th anniversary tour, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago came to Quebec’s Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur with a sophisticated, upbeat and varied program. The company ethos, under the artistic leadership of Glenn Edgerton (a former principal dancer at Joffrey Ballet and then executive artistic director at Nederlands Dans Theater), is to bring the spirit and the love of dance to an eclectic repertoire. The Saint-Sauveur mixed bill was clearly designed to soothe and stimulate the minds of audience members on a hot summer’s evening.

Known for its exuberant and innovative repertoire, and its virtuosic dancers, the repertory company has made its name in the Windy City by presenting acquired dance works as well as commissions. Various genres including jazz, modern, ballet and theatrical styles by renowned choreographers, including Twyla Tharp, Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe and more recently Crystal Pite, are on the roster, and a next generation of dancemakers are given important platforms.

Two of the dancemakers featured in the Saint-Sauveur program also happen to have been former dancers with the company: Robyn Mineko Williams, who was selected as an emerging choreographer for Springboard Danse Montréal in 2013, and Alejandro Cerrudo, originally from Madrid, who serves as Hubbard Street’s resident choreographer and to date has made 15 pieces for the company.

The evening opened with a piece by Spanish-born Nacho Duato, a crowd favourite, who matches contemporary ballet with pulsating musicality in his soulful, earthy Jardí Tancat (Catalonian for Closed Garden), created in 1983. It features songs based on Catalonian folk tales, composed and sung by the Majorcan singer-songwriter Maria del Mar Bonet with a stirring melancholy. The folk songs and Duato’s dance capture the story of the people who till the soil, burdened by drought, yet enduring difficult lives with spirit, love and forbearance. It’s in this kind of choreography, with its solos, duets and choral sections, where, as I’ve seen on other companies, dancers’ technical expertise, musicality, sensuality and magnetic energy can blossom.

The six Hubbard Street dancers were capable interpreters, but never quite ignited with the expansive and explosive nuance of Duato’s genius. More specifically, the challenge in this expressive dance, set in an enclosure of vertical sticks (Duato also created the set and costumes), is to embody the weight of the piece, that pull to the earth, while still maintaining the fluid quality of the composition. Jardí Tancat’s choreography demands pushing an extension through flexed feet to an nth degree, and working the percussive punctuation, with crooked arms and sudden starts and stops, to counterpoint the roundness and the glorious lifts.

In Cloudline (2017), Mineko Williams featured seven dancers, dressed in street clothes (designed by Branimira Ivanova), in a seemingly unconnected series of vignettes highlighting walking, a circle run, some lovely adagio lifts and an energetic solo by Elliot Hammans. The piece makes use of a musical montage, including Jherek Bischoff, Sufjan Stevens, and Julie London singing Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee’s old country-pop song, The End of the World, to create different levels of feeling and emotion. The eye-catching highlight of Cloudline was the impressive use of billowing lengths of silk, manipulated by the cast.

Cerrudo’s work has received accolades for its dynamism, fluidity and sensuality. Saint-Sauveur audiences saw a one-two punch of a pair of his short works, presented one after the other.

His well-packaged Pacopepepluto (2011), set to three popular Dean Martin crooner hits, sees three men (Hammans, David Schultz and Michael Gross) suggestively clothed in stylized flesh-coloured dance belts (by Rebecca M. Shouse). Designed as a fun romp in essentially three solos, the piece shows off the guys’ physicality and has them busting out in a series of leaps, runs and jumps. Cerrudo stirs the mix with a mounting dose of coy burlesque bump and grind. He stays away from being too musical, but gets the rhythm of songs, and knows how to pepper his moves in synch with the lyrics (“How I like to hear the organ,” was a key ba-dum line). Not surprisingly, the audience went wild.

The evening’s closer, Cerrudo’s Lickety-Split (2006), was developed at one of Hubbard Street’s choreographic workshops. It perfectly embraces the warm human qualities of the company’s appealing dancers and imparts their love of dance.

Performed to the melancholic and poetic music of folk singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart, and created for three couples, Cerrudo is working with the catalytic potentialities of unrushed partnering, with one dancer “listening” to the other, exploring the sensual, fluid movement that’s begun in a kind of organic mimetic connection. The choreographer builds on movement equally steeped in quiet, playful flirtatiousness and the tug between sensual and sometimes shy engagement, tapping into the dancers’ individual strengths, camaraderie and dynamism.

— PHILIP SZPORER

DI WINTER 2018

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Jason Hortin and Jessica Tong in Robyn Mineko Williams’ Cloudline
Photo: Todd Rosenberg