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Silver Mettle 

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago turns 25 and avoids midlife stasis.

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Twenty-five years old seems early for a midlife crisis. But for an arts organization, reaching that anniversary can be an opportunity for reflection on whether to stay the course, or shake things up.

Case in point: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. A quarter-century after its inception, HSDC would be nearly unrecognizable to its original self. Founded by Lou Conte as an outlet for a few talented students, the company has added about one dancer a year since (a running total of 21), and now plays to packed grand theaters, as opposed to libraries and retirement homes. HSDC is clearly looking better with age.

That’s not to ignore the few wrinkles produced along the way. Gail Kalver, HSDC’s executive director for the past 20 years, recalls Conte’s very first rumple:

“He was very rooted in the American musical theatre tradition and by design, his first programs were strictly Americana, more concept programs than his sole artistic statement. Sure, he was also doing other work that was more contemporary, but he still felt that if we wanted to be a serious concert dance company, he had to change. He simply didn’t think that his choreography would hold the public and the critics forever, so he made Hubbard a repertory company.”

That move to a more diverse foundation worked wonders for HSDC. Modern, contemporary, ballet and jazz all quickly became a part of the company’s dance vocabulary. In 2000, after 20 thriving years, having turned a little project into a full-blown institution, Conte decided it was time to step down. That move ushered in another wrinkle-inducing dilemma for HSDC—i.e., trying to avoid a severe case of founderitis. Fortunately, an immediate cure was at hand in new artistic director Jim Vincent.

According to Kalver, the transition between Conte and Vincent has been remarkably smooth. In fact, she says she could use the same words to describe the company pre- and post-Vincent’s arrival. “We were looking for an artistic director who liked the company the way it was and who wanted to continue in the same vein,” Kalver recalls. “And really, the artistic profile of the company hasn’t changed that much.”

First and foremost, they are still a repertory company. HSDC does classic works by world-renowned choreographers, including the likes of Jiri Kylián and Twyla Tharp. And although they still perform some works rooted in American musical theatre—Conte, Harrison McEldowny and even the great Bob Fosse—they always try to do some cutting- edge contemporary stuff as well. For instance, HSDC is staging another work with Daniel Ezralow soon—although you never truly know how his things are going to come out. Some of them are somewhat traditional and some of them are really contemporary, which ultimately makes a great fit for the company either way.

For its 25th anniversary, HSDC has tried to embrace those all-encompassing elements into a fitting touring season. Slated for the Salt Lake City show at Kingsbury Hall is “Diphthong,” a progressive piece by a current HSDC dancer; Jim Vincent’s balletic, Bach-inspired “counter/part”; a passionate Spanish “pas de deux”; and, to cap it off, an extended trek through human emotions.

Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato’s piece, “Cor Perdut,” is an emotive duet heavily inspired by the music. Created as a birthday present for Catalonian singer Maria del Mar Bonet, Duato uses the complex rhythms provided by the percussion to add Mediterranean fire and sensuality. “I cannot recall partnering that is more perfect than in this piece; it’s simply exquisite,” adds Kalver.

Anchoring the program, clocking in at 40-minutes plus, is “Minus 16.” Best described as a journey for both the audience and the performers, the work was choreographed by Israeli Ohad Naharin, the recently retired artistic director of Batsheva, and is made up of excerpts from five of his other works. “It really travels from the ridiculous to the sublime,” says Kalver. “There are moments of true reflection and somberness, as well as moments of sheer hilarity.”

These two pieces, representing more than half of the evening’s program, perhaps point to the one noticeable change in direction for HSDC post Vincent’s arrival—an eye geared toward Europe. But according to Kalver, Conte was already looking there for inspiration. That is why after 20 years, Vincent fit well enough that Hubbard Street could welcome future anniversaries with open arms, instead of cursing its age.

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More by Jacob Stringer

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