See This: Bright Chicago dancers meet exquisite Israeli moves

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's new show is a spot-on melding of individualized attention to movement and perfect unison choreography.
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Penny Saunders and Pablo Piantino in THREE TO MAX

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's new show is a spot-on melding of individualized attention to movement and perfect unison choreography.

During early rehearsals of “Three to Max,” which Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance troupe will perform this weekend in Seattle, studio mirrors were covered and windows taped over. “Feel juicy,” stager Yoshifumi Inao encouraged dancers, as he instructed them in the study of Gaga movement.

Inao is helping the dancers internalize Gaga’s goal of having them imagine their bodies as hollow containers. Or, as famed Israeli choregrapher and Artistic Director of the Batsheva Dance Company Ohad Naharin has said, to “feel the music decorate your body on the inside.” Because Gaga focuses as much on how a movement feels as on how it looks, “feel juicy,” isn’t just a mental image. It’s a way to help the performers embrace the body’s organic movement, like reflexes, that keep the body in constant, if almost imperceptible, motion. The goal is to establish a flow throughout the entire body that allows for complete fluidity.   

It’s a mark of the extraordinary adaptability of HSDC’s dancers that they were willing, and able, to push themselves outside their comfort zones and immerse themselves in Gaga. But that’s par for the course for this company, whose dancers have a chameleon-like capacity to adapt to the demands of a diverse Who’s Who of national and international choreographers. Whether performing ballets by Naharin, Jirí Kylián, Nacho Duato, William Forsythe, Jorma Elo, Daniel Ezralow, Twyla Tharp or many others, the troupe’s powerhouse dancers throw themselves into the spirit and technique of the choreographer at hand, managing to make every step and every dance work their own.

The program HSDC brings to Seattle this weekend is unusual in two respects. First, there are only two pieces rather than their usual three. Secondly, both are by Israeli choreographers: Naharin and his Batsheva protégé Sharon Eyal, now director of her own company. HSDC invested almost half a million dollars in this “Israeli project,” which allows the company to perform the two pieces at home and on tour, including in Seattle, through March 2014.

Naharin’s Three to Max is a reimagining of two Batsheva works. Though he has regularly remixed his own choreography for his own company, he’s almost never done so for another troupe — just one indication of the affinity between Naharin and HSDC. There are also a number of other Naharin works in the company’s repertoire and his "Minus 16" has become one of its signature pieces.

“What I see in the Hubbard Street dancers is that they are people with skills and with passion,” Naharin has said. “They are a mature company, but the dancers are curious, eager, open-minded.”

With its reliance on exceptionally flexible limbs and spines, deeply grounded movement and an explosive vitality, Naharin’s style is particularly well-suited to HSDC's talented dancers. Although Naharin is adept at crafting beautiful solos and duets, he is at his best when creating unison ensemble dancing where he unleashes the force of many bodies moving as one, often to a pounding score.

In Three to Max, Naharin uses the full ensemble to great effect, melding group dancing seamlessly with compelling solos and duets. The dancers, bathed in direct lighting and clad in street clothes, showcase his strength in designing unison movement that doesn’t hamstring individual dancers’ personalities or physical qualities.   

In stark contrast is Eyal’s Too Beaucoup. Like Naharin, Eyal does extremely well with ensemble dancing, often infusing it with an erotic, if androgynous, component. Too Beaucoup creates an eerie other-world, complete with white unitards, platinum wigs and face-altering white contact lenses, moving to a mash-up score by Depeche Mode, Leonard Cohen, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers and others.

There’s no question HSDC can take on such challenging choreography. Like their home city, HSDC is big, exuberant and athletic, radiating a million watts of energy and brilliance at every performance. This weekend's performance is a chance to see one of the most exciting and dynamic contemporary troupes around today.

If you go: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, February 9 at The Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine Street. Tickets $25-40 at the box office, or 1-877-784-4849, TTY 1-888-331-6774.


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