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Hubbard Street Dance Chicago saves its soul for the familiar

January 20, 2003|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

In its amazing transition from a lightweight, feel-good jazz dance company to an authoritative ambassador of stark, contemporary, European-style dance theater, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has periodically suffered growing pains. Consider the half-familiar four-part program at the Alex Theatre.

Labeled a "new work in preview" (new for Hubbard, anyway), Nacho Duato's mercurial 1989 duet "Cor Perdut" to music by Maria del Mar Bonet received a technically proficient but soulless performance from Cheryl Mann and Tobin Del Cuore.

Duato's best works are always lighted from inside, using a rich flow of motion to reveal layers of thought, feeling, character history and shifting needs. Performed as mere showpieces, they diminish to a collage of physical effects, and that's what happened Saturday.

Will the work grow deeper after its official Hubbard premiere? Perhaps. But you can't add emotion to Duato's choreography as if you were putting on a costume; the movement impetus must come from an emotional base. That was the first great lesson of American modern-dance pioneers, but it seems very rare these days in its native land.

In the premiere of Lucas Crandall's dance drama "Atelier," walls of rising/collapsing curtains and a fusillade of bleary video projections overwhelmed faceless performances by Jamy Meek and Mann as the sculptor Rodin and his wife, Rose. Only Lauri Stallings as the archetypal woman scorned dominated the pictorial diversions and kept the work on track expressively.

Wearing the longest bridal train since the Mats Ek "Swan Lake," Stallings refused to be just another special effect and made even the act of slowly marching around the edges of the stage (one of Crandall's shared motifs) a statement of fearful tension. "Atelier" also featured an odd layering of Japanese percussion and Italian lyricism as its accompaniment, plus four subsidiary dancers who functioned as a kind of abstract garnish to the central love triangle.

Unfortunately, the result never achieved a life of its own. The technical components and movement ideas always seemed abruptly and arbitrarily cued into action, so the collapse of lives -- and yardage -- yielded the same dull thud.

The repertoire familiar from previous visits offered hotter performances: Joseph P. Pantaleon and Geoff Myers, for instance, as the odd men out in Daniel Ezralow's 1989 portrait of eroding conformity, "SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down" (music by Thom Willems). Stallings also made the most of her assignment as the principal abused woman.

The whole company turned up in "Minus 16," a delirious 1999 greatest-hits cavalcade drawn from the choreographies of Ohad Naharin.

Pop ballads and Latin dance music provided most of the accompaniment, but perhaps the strongest section featured recorded autobiographical sound bites of individual Hubbard dancers, played while they danced brief, compelling solos. This is one terrific company, but you can't always see it in its newest acquisitions.

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