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Balance and beauty: Cheryl Mann and Jamy Meek of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Lust For Life
By Mae G. Banner

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., Aug. 23

Eager dancers—that’s the word for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. They don’t have the enameled look of ballet dancers, nor the combative attitude you see on MTV. Nope, these 20 limber people just take a deep breath, step out and tear up the stage.

They commit their flexible bodies to a range of choreographic styles from Kevin O’Day’s sunny son-of-Twyla Tharp grooves in Quartet for IV (and sometimes one, two or three . . .) to the Moorish look of Nacho Duato’s Cor Perdut (Lost Heart). Always, they throw their whole soul into the work until their daily selves disappear into the shape of the dance.

Over the past 25 years, Hubbard Street has changed from a pop dance group to the bearers of an international modern dance repertory by worthy choreographers, including Duato (Spain), Ohad Naharin (Israel) and Jiri Kylian (the Netherlands), all of whose works they danced in the final week of the Jacob’s Pillow season.

We had such a good time at the Saturday matinee, we stayed to see the evening show.

Founded in 1977, by Lou Conte, who is a self-declared hoofer, Hubbard Street began to get serious critical notice in 1990, when Twyla Tharp gave them half a dozen definitive dances from her repertory. After Conte retired in 2000, Jim Vincent became artistic director. Vincent has danced and served as ballet master in the companies of Duato and Kylian, and he is bringing their dances to the Chicago-based troupe.

Vincent is also a witty choreographer in his own right, as we saw in counter/part (2002), which opened the matinee program. A dance for four women and six men set to excerpts from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and sandwiched with passages for Baroque lute, counter/part is a rollicking tug of war between base and noble impulses.

Five courtly men in black, blue or brown velvet tunics look like a crew of Prince Valiants as they cut angular figures in duets with three bodiced women. Peasant heartiness smashes through soon enough in thrusts of the hip, thrown-back heads, and a pronounced twinkle in the eyes. Before we know it, couples are on the floor and rolling in tight clumps.

To the music of the lute, we see the wiry, bare-chested body of Massimo Pacilli. His swaying hips are draped in a brief red velvet skirt. He could be the spirit of a deserted island in some Renaissance fantasy. He discovers the women as they enter one by one and dances amorous duets with each in turn. Then, red-haired Lauri Stallings arrives, dressed all in green, to dance with Pacilli in a duet of broken lines and broken rules.

Now, the Prince Vals return, and each has his way with Stallings. One strips off her skirt; another undoes her hair. This does not dismay her. Rather, it readies her for a second warm duet with Pacilli, the animal spirit who finally propels the whole ensemble into a free-for-all of swingy, loopy turns.

The last vestiges of artifice are stripped away, and the courtiers salute Pacilli, lifting him high and tossing him in a final magnificent flip.

Pacilli, who looks more like a comedian than a dancer, became an Arabian prince in Duato’s Cor Perdut, a 1989 duet which Vincent staged for Hubbard Street this year. Yael Levitin Saban, an impossibly long-legged, intense dancer, was his Scheherazade, turning under his arm to the music of the Tunisian oud, flute and tabla.

Duato has an affinity for Catalan music and song, here sung (on tape) by the contralto Maria del Mar Bonet. Desert winds blew through this sinuous dance of spiraling turns, wide-legged sits, and bends. I could taste roast lamb and lemon, cumin and rice.

Kylian’s No More Play (made in 1988 and staged for Hubbard Street in 2003) showed the dancers in a hard-edged style. They snapped an arm or a leg up, down or around to single notes of Anton Webern’s agitated violin music. The sense of fragmented bodies was reinforced by the backdrop, a black cloth with horizontal rectangles cut out. As dancers passed behind the drop, we saw only parts of their bodies.

Kylian often makes work in which the dancers seem to be laboring or frolicking in a communal village. There were no villagers here. Instead, the five dancers became abstract forms, creating constructions with cantilevered limbs, doing yoga poses, such as shoulder stands that instantly morphed into new shapes.

Increasing the risk, two dancers came forward to sit on the edge of the stage, moving almost into our laps, but focusing inward. Finally, all five sat there with their backs to us, leaned back and let their heads hang off the edge. It was a quietly provocative moment.

Naharin’s duet, Passomezzo, to unusual variations on “Greensleeves,” spiced the evening program with skewed, nutty moves. Cheryl Mann, elegant in a white tunic, and Jamy Meek, Chaplinesque in a black jacket, knee pads, and shoes (bare chest, bare legs) alternated vigorous striding and silly squat-walking as they danced with and away from each other in this “love-me, love-me-not” burlesque.

Kevin O’Day, a former Twyla Tharp dancer, made Quartet for IV in 1994 for the White Oak Dance Project. Hubbard Street premiered it the following year. Two couples, one boppy and the other silky, slide and slouch through Tharpian figures that look spontaneous, but in which every move is planned to the millimeter.

It’s that casual effect we strive for hours to achieve. O’Day and the dancers do it beautifully, flexibly, with breath-filled open chests, noodling feet, and knowing smiles. The music they’re fooling around to is “White Man Sleeps,” by Kevin Volans, performed by the Kronos Quartet.

Both the matinee and evening show ended with Naharin’s Minus 16, which Hubbard Street also did at Proctor’s in March. This dance, which celebrates life in the face of imminent destruction, is a complete knockout. It brings the dancers, the audience, and maybe all of humanity together in unquenchable joy.

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