It’s not often Springfield hosts a performing arts group in the elite strata of its field. That’s what made last week’s performance by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago so special.
It’s not often Springfield hosts a performing arts group in the elite strata of its field.
The Chicago Symphony and New York Philharmonic orchestras don’t spend a lot of time here, touring musicals often have casts for whom Broadway is still a dream, and many of the biggest concerts feature — sorry, Huey Lewis fans — artists decades past their glory days.
That’s what made last week’s performance by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago so special.
Like the musicians in the Chicago Symphony, the dancers in Hubbard Street are at the top of their profession.
In last week’s performance at Sangamon Auditorium, this was never clearer than in the second piece, “The Constant Shift of Pulse,” choreographed by Doug Varone.
The commitment of the dancers was absolute. Even when the only action called for was flapping an arm below the elbow, the performer was fully engaged and in the moment.
The work was set to “Hallelujah Junction,” a piece for two pianos by American composer John Adams.
The title of the dance can be found in the liner notes to Adams’ 2004 album “Road Movies”: “Here I take advantage of the acoustically identical sounds of the two pianos to make constant shifts of pulse (‘Is it in two? Or is it in three?’), which provide a kind of giddy uncertainty to the forward motion.”
And “motion” was the watchword.
Dancers would come running onstage barefoot and throw themselves across the floor.
Some must have thrown themselves down and picked themselves up dozens of times — a remarkable feat of strength made to look effortless through apparently remarkable fitness.
The whole show wasn’t quite that serious. The first piece, “Off Screen” by Alejandro Cerrudo, had dancers representing movie genres from romance to the Keystone Cops.
But the highlight of the night was “Minus 16,” by the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.
It’s an epic work filled with surprises and an eclectic soundtrack. The music begins with cha-cha — the kind in which you hear cowbells, muted trumpets and “Huh!” every few phrases. From there it progresses into the Hebrew folk tune “Hava Nagila” in a surf-music arrangement, and later includes everything from techno to bossa-nova to Dean Martin’s “Sway.”
The piece is constantly evolving — just when the audience thinks it knows what’s going on, it changes direction and tone.
“Minus 16” begins during intermission, with one dancer silently, subtly hamming it up on the edge of the stage. As audience members realize what’s happening, people scurry to their seats.
The lone dancer is wearing a black business suit with a white button-down shirt underneath. Other dancers slowly join him, and when they suddenly trade tight movements to cha-cha for an exuberant rock piece, there was an audible “wow” in the audience.
Then the dancers line up in an arc, sitting hunched forward on folding chairs. They repeat the same pattern over and over, slowly adding movements with every repetition. In each segment, they jump up and thrust their chests out, allowing the lights to catch their white shirts just so, reflecting a brilliant burst of light from the stage.
The dancers strip to gray undergarments, dance without music, redress.
It’s a testament to the quality of the work and the performers that, when a medical emergency in the audience forced the closing of the curtain for nearly 10 minutes in the middle of the piece, it resumed without skipping a beat. (A young woman had what people nearby described as a seizure.)
Later, each dancer solos in the middle of the stage while the others stand in a line to the side. Audio excerpts from interviews with each dancer are played as that person solos. Then the rest of the company slowly walks across the stage, sweeping up one soloist while releasing another.
Some dancers gave their names; others did not. Some were funny, others were poignant: “When I was young, I thought I was going to be a ballerina. But I didn’t have the right body for it, and I hated that.”
It’s remarkably powerful to hear a person’s pre-recorded voice while they move across the stage — you want to call it a disembodied voice, but the body is right there and far more alive than most people who are talking about themselves.
And that was just the halfway point of “Minus 16.”
Opportunities to see top-flight ensembles like Hubbard Street don’t come to Springfield that often. Keep an eye out, and catch them when you can.
Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.