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A Latin bar mitzvah party: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Mad Beautiful

By Mae G. Banner

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
Proctor’s Theatre, March 7

A last-minute injury to Cheryl Mann caused Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to cut two dances from its program last Friday at Proctor’s Theatre, but the dynamic troupe more than made up for the omission with the wildly energetic finale, Minus 16.

The sometimes manic Minus 16 was a pastiche of Latin and Hebraic works originally choreographed for the Nederlands Dans Theater by Israeli dancemaker Ohad Naharin. Hubbard Street dancers first performed it in 2000, and it fits them like a bespoke overcoat, showing off the troupe’s precision, stamina and sense of humor.

The 30-minute suite was all over the map. It began during intermission, with the curtain closed and the house lights on. Massimo Pacilli, a wiry dancer with ballroom training, came out in a tuxedo, but with his shirt collar open, and set off a string of idiosyncratic riffs on the mambo. He moved like a ballroom-dancing doll in comic herky-jerky pantomime, every phrase offering a new delight.

One by one, the rest of the tuxedo-clad dancers entered and found their spots. Suddenly, the whole androgynously dressed lot coalesced into a whang-dang unison Latin groove with the exuberance of a bar mitzvah party in Boca Raton. The stage rocked.

Blackout. The sound of big, raucous horns playing a slam-bang Hava Nagilah. Lights up. The dancers, now topping their tuxes with black fedoras, set up a wide arc of folding black metal chairs and launched into the Hebrew counting song, “Echod Mi Yodea,” which is sung traditionally by tipsy celebrants at the end of the Passover Seder.

As the wild dancing began, a voiceover cautioned us: “There is a fine line that divides beauty from madness. There is panic behind the laughter.” So it was. The 17 dancers caromed around their chairs, repeating the frantic but tightly organized accumulation of dance phrases as the string of verses lengthened. Dancers leapt like rams, sprang like lambs. One man jumped straight up at the prescribed moment to land with both feet on the seat of his chair; another fell to the ground as if stricken at the end of a verse, but rose again to repeat the disaster at the end of each succeeding verse.

Also, to end each verse, the seated ensemble did something like “the wave,” but with their backs deeply arched and their arms flung back as if they’d been shot.

This was chilling. Yet, at the same time, while dancing vigorously and singing at the tops of their lungs, the dancers whipped off articles of clothing—jackets, shoes, shirts, trousers—with every verse, until they were down to their white cotton underwear. Burlesque, but with an undertone of Auschwitz.

From this scene, Minus 16 metamorphosed once more; this time into a series of confessional monologues as each dancer moved front and center with whiplash attack while their recorded voices told of childhood traumas or favorite recipes.

Now that we in the audience knew Massimo, Yael and Christopher as regular folks like us, the dancers flipped the card and made us into performers. They sashayed out into the audience, and each returned to the stage with a partner.

Audience members from age 12 to 60-something, in sequins or denim, looked marvelous under the stage lights. With their tuxedoed partners, they danced the cha-cha and the rumba and made it work beautifully. How exhilarating, how glorious to know that everyone is a dancer.

The program opened with another Nederlands Dans Theater work, Jardi Tancat (Enclosed Garden), made by Nacho Duato and first danced by Hubbard Street in 1998. Set to raw and hauntingly beautiful flamenco singing and guitars, Jardi’s three duets ring alluring variations on a square-shaped bodily motif and a fierce propulsion. The dancing is gay or yearning, but the leaps and lifts are always beaten back. There’s a striving quality, but the movement is confined within the curving perimeter of a set of wooden fenceposts.

The couples—Shannon Alvis and Christopher Tierney, Taryn Kaschock and Pacilli, and Yael Levitin Saban and Patrick Simoniello—sometimes looked like peasants with bodies bent at the waist until they were parallel to the ground, feet flexed, and arms performing abstract gestures derived from planting or hoeing. At other times, the dancers became the plants, springing up from the ground or drooping in a dry season.

Between the Limon-like, communal Jardi Tancat and the celebratory Minus 16, the troupe showed its Broadway side in Harrison McEldowney’s Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, a brash duet between Tierney and Lisa Keskitalo; and a tough-guy solo, Percussion 4, choreographed by Bob Fosse and danced by Joseph Pantaleon with Fosse’s signature isolations, acrobatics and floor-burning knee slides.  

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