BECKET — The group exhale of gratitude one can often sense at live dance performances lately reminds us of the things we’ve been deprived of during this pandemic. The sheer excellence of the majority of recent performances that I’ve seen, however, makes it seem as if the dancers — even if their careers skipped a beat — never missed a step.
The opening night performance of the 45-year-old Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, appearing this week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, bears gifts of the now rather than baggage of the past.
The evening’s two large ensemble pieces deserve their honorable program placement — Amy Hall Garner’s recent “As the Wind Blows” opens the show and Aszure Barton’s 2009 “Busk” closes it. But the two pieces in between — Ohad Naharin’s 2008 “B/olero” and Lar Lubovitch’s 2007 “Little Rhapsodies” — hardly get lost in the shuffle. It’s a testament to the thoughtful curation and ordering of the program, presumably the work of Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, the company’s new artistic director; the quality of the works themselves; and then there are the dancers. Oh, those dancers, the mighty Hubbard Streeters, at once a unified force and a community of individuals. So often, a mixed repertory concert like this one can, in the end, suffers from its own surfeit; details get lost or blurred in the memory’s afterimages; but this Pillow program is a night to remember.
Garner’s “As the Wind Blows” is an exuberant burst of fresh air with an easy blend of contemporary modern and ballet; in a nice tip of the hat to the company’s early, heavily jazz-inflected style, there is a strong thread of contemporary jazz in the movements, lending clear stylistic dynamics to the piece. The dancers’ hips are often crisply staccato, swiveling back and forth atop parallel legs, while their torsos and arms move in great contrast, all curves and undulations. Though the dance begins gently, to Claude Debussy’s softly seductive solo flute composition “Syrinx,” with dancers, in designer Harrison Pearse Burke’s mysteriously silhouetted-lighting, carving out deep lunges with their legs and reaching into wide extensions of their arms, the stage brightens, the pacing soon picks up, and then some. The engaging score also includes a piano work by Aaron Copland contrasted with a contemporary piano composition by Francesco Tristano, solos, duets, trios and larger groupings form and melt, the dancers layering and overlapping. While the company will benefit from more time lived in this new piece, to make the ceaseless pacing truly seamless (about two-thirds of the way in, the many exits and entrances, the running to and fro, begins to lose a sense of organic purpose), the dance feels like it’s got legs.
In “B/olero,” Naharin’s cheeky little duet, the two women, Jacqueline Burnett and Simone Stevens, are powerfully articulate. To Isao Tomita’s kooky arrangement of Maurice Ravel’s famously riveting/building score, the dancers are sometimes twins, sometimes mirrors, sometimes shadows, as they tackle, with deadpan expressions, their often-mechanical, wry choreographic tasks. Over-the-top repetitions threaten to become too clever, but Naharin’s humor, and the dancers’ fierce, exacting focus, are spot on. There are tiny hints that these are no robots; Stevens drops and then crawls away from Burnett, on her knees, her erect torso slowly reaching forward in a kind of painful keening. Later, Burnett’s lips brush at the back of Stevens’ neck; Burnett melts down, as if swooning, a moment of physical softness in this otherwise-brisk, steely dance.
The three men in Lubovitch’s entrancing “Little Rhapsodies” are also virtuosic, but, in beautiful contrast to the two women’s athletic virtuosity, also fluid and yearning. Set to Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes for piano, Elliot Hammans, Shota Miyoshi, and David Schultz easily move in and out of the subtle narratives within Lubovitch’s deeply-musical phrases. Schultz in particular evokes the brooding Romantic-era poet in his searching, searing solos, while Hammans and Miyoshi get to play more often, with charming, sailor chug-skips mixed in with sailing pirouettes, Hammans’ movements more grounded, Miyoshi’s lighter and higher. In their duets, and then in the brilliantly weaving, canonic trios, the dancers’ differences are what makes the dance’s sense of unity so compelling.
“Busk,” Barton’s tour-de-force dance theater piece, at once sinister and cartoonish, is a rousing end to the evening. In stark handsome lighting by Nicole Pearce and in Michelle Jank’s hooded costumes, the ensemble sometimes morphs between looking like a murmuration of crows, or a crowd of monks. (Soberly, there is one moment where a curled-up figure suggests a homeless soul, crumpled and invisible.)
In their wide-legged, long pants, the dancers look boneless in Barton’s hushed, weighted choreography, the luscious floorwork occasionally peppered with contrasting, vaulting somersaults. To an eclectic score interspersed with boisterous chorales, the itinerant life of the busker is sardonically linked to the supposedly-more stable life of the professional performer, depicting the ways in which performers and creators can sometimes feel like clapping seals, parading elephants, or grinning fools — commodities for fickle donors. It sounds depressing, right? Ah, but there’s the true magic of it all: these artists have the skills to communicate on many levels, and along with a great sense of humor within “Busk,” there is also humanity, and thus compassion, for those hard-working artists, but for their audiences as well.
IF YOU GO
What: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
Where: Ted Shawn Theatre, Jacob's Pillow, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
When: Through Aug. 14
Performances: 8 p.m., Aug 12 and 13; 2 p.m., Aug. 13 and 14
Reservations and more information: 413-243-9919, jacobspillow.org