The dancers of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago don’t wear pointe shoes or tutus. This isn’t a typical ballet. Instead, they take the stage either barefoot or in socks with simple costumes. And on Friday night at the TD Arena, some of those costumes even had the audience questioning whether they were nude or not.
As the lights dimmed in the arena, heavy drumbeats broke the silence and started their performance with Gnawa. The Moroccan-style dance showcased the fluidity of the performers — not just their movements but with each other. Moving as one, members traversed the stage in an effortless fashion. And again, challenging the norm of ballet past, these dancers, while still lithe, represented pure strength. They were not waifs, but strong, beautiful, and graceful — more muscle than bone.
And instead of resting on the fast-paced, audience enthralling beats of Gnawa, the company merged the tribal and ritual with sensuality as it switched to a slower-paced section full of seductive moves, like a lesson in the birds and the bees in dance form. But before the audience got too settled in, the choreography and music changed back to the fast-paced, drum-heavy moves, ending the performance mirroring the energy from the start of the dance.
Before the second piece, we were a little worried about how the company would transition from one performance to the other as there weren’t common threads between them. The company chose to go with the simplest and most appropriate route: with an intermission. And it was needed. The drum-laden Gnawa needed to be broken, severed before the start of Quintett.
As the curtain rose, five dancers arranged themselves on stage and waited in silence, which almost became uncomfortable and had some audience members looking around to see if the sound system had broken. Then very quietly and subtly one of the male dancers started moving as a wobbling, warbling voice became louder and louder repeating the phrase “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” which is also the name of Gavin Brayer’s composition for the dance. And if we’re honest, it sounded like “Love never found me” from where we we’re sitting, which also worked. It was nice not to be blown away by the volume of the music, which happens more often than not with dance performances.
Quintett had the most narrative in comparison to the other dancers: five friends going through the stages of grief after losing a friend, but even with the description in the program, audience members didn’t seem to fully relate to the storyline.
As the five dancers moved through the stages of grief, the warbling voice matched the different emotions. At times I felt despair as they realized their friend was gone, followed by anger with dancers being pulled across the stage. But as the performance went on, more and more fidgeting was occurring around us. The long piece seemed to lose the interest of the audience, and by the time the dancers reached the acceptance stage of grief the audience seemed ready for a change. But while it did drag, there’s no doubt that the dancers managed to clearly illustrate the isolation, sadness, and anger that comes with grief. The performance may have been heavy, but it was beautiful, achingly so.
Knowing the whopper that they just served the audience, Hubbard Street Dance changed it up again. PACOPEPEPLUTO, choreographed by dancer and choreographer-in-residence Alejandro Cerrudo, brought the man thongs. As Dean Martin’s voice rang through the arena, a Greek god of a dancer twirled and leapt across the stage. Comprising of three male soloists, playing Paco, Pepe, and Pluto respectively, PACOPEPEPLUTO playfully showcased the technical talent of the dancers but brought in fun and joy and wit. Audible laughter erupted as the dancers shook their booties before breaking into some of the most difficult jumps, sometimes spinning three or four times with perfect extension, landing without a thud. The piece was short, but it was the perk the audience needed before Jiří Kylián’s Fallen Angels.
Without an intermission, the female dancers of the company took the stage, slinking in from the black curtains at the back of the stage that created the very basic set. Steve Reich’s music had the dance starting fast, never letting up. The repetitive drum beats — not tribal this time, more like a heartbeat — required the dancers to use precise and sharp movement, never missing a count to ensure they all performed as one. The timing was impeccable, and the eight ladies were awe-inspiring. It was 15 minutes of paradox. The ensemble moved as one, but we were able to see the talent and skill of each individual dancers; the movements sharp but fluid and graceful. The choreography, precise and difficult, came off looking easy and fun. There’s no question that these ballerinas stole the show, earning the loudest applause of the evening.
The sets were all simple — mostly all black, with the exception of Quintett that used white curtains. And the lighting was used to create different experiences for each performance. The sound was the perfect volume. The only negative of the night was the venue, which can’t be held against Hubbard Street. There was nothing desperately wrong with TD Arena, but sitting on hard plastic chairs where college students typically yell at refs over bad basketball calls didn’t match the tone of the evening.