Talkin’ Hubbard Street: Mr. Scatter speaks

On Tuesday evening Mr. Scatter stood before a friendly audience (including Scatter friends Jenny Wren and David Brown) in the lower-level lounge of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and talked for 20 minutes about Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the admirable company that was about to perform upstairs. Mr. Scatter discovered that (a) microphones are our friends, and (b) speeches are better with simple sentence structures and a lack of ten-dollar words. Mr. Scatter thanks White Bird for the invitation. If there’s a next time, he promises to do better on the simplicity bit. Here is the manuscript of his talk, in black and white:

Hubbard Street Fance Chicago in Johan Inger's "Walking Mad." Photo: Tom Rosenberg

Some of you know I do a lot of my writing these days for a Web site called, so bear with me while I scatter a bit.

At Art Scatter we practice something I like to call the Scatter Method of Indirect Analysis, which basically tries to bring some order to the chaotic collision of free association, intuition and logic that keeps batting around inside most of our brains.

The process goes something like this.

You find a topic, and you stick it in the back of your mind, and you sort of forget about it, like it’s a slow-cooking soup.

Except not really, because from that point on, everything you see and hear becomes part of your back-burner thinking process on that particular topic. And eventually it hits the front burner.

You’ve opened your receptors. Even when you don’t actively realize it you’re looking for connections, for clues, for ways to relate your everyday world to this thing you’ve decided to concentrate on. It’s all extremely conjectural. But sometimes intriguing clues drop in from very surprising places.

I happen to think that’s a good way to approach experiencing any sort of art, from reading a book to watching a dance. You, as the audience or consumer, are the finishing point of the art. Without you, it’s incomplete.

And because each of us brings something different to the party, any work of art has a million possibilities for completion. Or I guess that’s 7 billion and counting. The artist creates, but the implications and the impact are really up to us. We want to make it the best experience we can, so we keep our tentacles attuned. See what we pick up.

So. The subject is Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Let’s dive in.

One of the first things that struck me when I started investigating the company’s history was that in the mid 1970s, when it began, it grew out of a studio devoted to teaching tap dance. As in Bojangles Robinson and Brenda Bufalino and Gregory Hines.

Tap has a lot of international relatives, from the hornpipe to flamenco to Irish clogging, but it’s an American art form, with roots in slavery and the West African rhythms that became transformed on our own soil. And here’s something Count Basie had to say: “If you play a tune and the person don’t tap their feet, don’t play the tune.”

Bing. That stuck on the Velcro at the end of my tentacles. Didn’t know why, quite, but there it was. Something American. Something that pays attention to the audience.

Next: I was talking with a friend who’s a professional musician, and he has a son who’s in his early teens, and his son’s been playing an instrument for a few years. But he’s tired of it. He’s really into competitive sports, and he’s good at it, and that’s what he wants to do; he just doesn’t think he has time for serious music anymore. Dad’s a little stressed. He admires his son’s athletic aspirations. But he knows what it takes to do music. “He’s too old now, anyway,” he says of his son’s musical future. “You’ve gotta be serious about it a lot earlier than this. But I’d like him to keep it up, anyway.”

And that’s a bing. Because dancers start young, too. HAVE to start young. Cradle to – not grave, but cradle to burnout or the breakdown of the body.

And THAT brought me to something else about Hubbard Street, and one of the choreographers whose work we’ll be seeing tonight. Ohad Naharin, who is artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, which many of you have seen perform in the White Bird series, didn’t start dancing until he was 22 years old. In dancer training years, that’s a little like deciding you’re going to learn how to play baseball when you’re 45, and then starting in left field for the Yankees in the World Series.

So. Hubbard Street. Contemporary dance — maybe as opposed to ballet. Possibilities that defy the odds.

Back to that tap-dancing
for a minute. Hubbard Street has an extraordinary number of influences. International stars as diverse as Twyla Tharp and Daniel Ezralow and Nacho Duato work with the dancers. But here’s what’s offered at the Lou Conte Dance Studio, which still exists, and which launched Hubbard Street: ballet, jazz, modern, tap, African, hip hop, yoga, Pilates. This isn’t the performance company. But it’s the performance company’s daddy. And its attitude seems to be: We’re Wide Open. That sets a tone.

Next stop. Late last week I spent 90 minutes walking through Disquieted, the new show of contemporary art at the Portland Art Museum. The show is about those between places, the inarticulate brooding points of modern life. As curator Bruce Guenther says about one piece, it’s about “how the world shifts in an instant from pleasure to pain, from reason to chaos.”

Walking through, I landed on one piece in particular. It’s a hyper-realistic sculpture by an artist named Ron Mueck, and it’s called Crouching Boy in Mirror. That’s exactly what it is – the figure of a very small boy, crouching, perhaps in fear, in front of a mirror, down in a corner, staring into it so his image bounces back not just at him but also at the viewer/voyeur. It’s the kind of mirror that lines the walls of pretty much every dance studio in the land, but its effect is very different.

When I was done with Disquieted I walked a few yards to the museum’s European galleries, because something was tickling me, something I wanted to check out.

Stories. That was it. There were those familiar Luca Giordanos and Jean-Baptiste Greuzes and Michel Corneilles. They all told stories, except you didn’t know the stories’ arcs. Not quite stories, then. Moods. The essence of story, the elements, without the narrative facts. And after all this time of formalism, abstraction, the absence of content except for the form and materials of the artwork itself, here we were again: Art about something outside itself. Dramatic art. Art with stories, even if you weren’t quite sure what the stories meant. Connections. That’s what’s happening in the late 20th century and early 21st century art of Disquieted, too.

So – very contemporary art, with very real connections to the art of the past. Does dance work like that, too?

One more scatter.
Last Thursday night my wife and I went to see BodyVox-2, the young second company of the Portland touring dance troupe BodyVox. It was a program of short pieces, pretty much all of which I’d seen before, and several of which I identify specifically with certain dancers in the main company: I know the pieces through the way these particular dancers move. Seeing them performed by other dancers made me concentrate more on the dances themselves, and to appreciate them as discrete aesthetic accomplishments with lives beyond the original sets of muscles that performed them. It made me appreciate in a new way the invention and sharp editing that created them. In other words: Even contemporary works have histories.

Have we muddled this soup quite enough yet? Let’s add a little pepper and Tabasco and see if we can serve it up.

Let me read you the beginning of a review from a year ago by Marcia B. Siegel, the very witty and incisive dance critic, writing in the Boston Phoenix:

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Celebrity Series program at the Cutler Majestic last weekend could have been a primer of the ways not to dance ballet. All four dances sampled our taken-for-granted repertoire of everyday actions, gestures, and situations as a basis for movement. Working this way, the choreographer can develop the expertise and physicality of virtuoso ballet without the alienating effects of “technique.” Hubbard Street dancers are terrific turners and jumpers and precision movers, and they also look friendly.

Aha. Now we’re getting somewhere.

If I’m reading Siegel right, a couple of interesting things come out of this opening paragraph.

First, the way Hubbard Street dances is not the way you approach ballet. This even though most contemporary dance companies around the world include ballet technique in their daily studio routines, and at least deconstructed versions of ballet are knitted into a lot of contemporary dances. A contemporary dancer is expected to be familiar with, if not expert at, ballet moves. It’s part of a flexible dancer’s repertoire.

Second, Hubbard Street’s dances reflect the way we live: our “everyday actions, gestures and situations.” Unlike classical story ballet, it’s not mythic or fairy-tale. It’s an art of the people. Democratic.

Third, the company’s dancers are nevertheless virtuosic, but not in an off-putting way. Unlike ballet, Siegel seems to argue, Hubbard Street’s contemporary approach puts no artificial barriers between itself and its small-D democratic audience. Instead they show us a more “natural” virtuosity.

Which leads to, fourth, they’re friendly. We like  ’em. They don’t make us feel like we don’t know the rules. They’re approachable. They speak our language. And when you speak the same language as your audience, you can say some things that are disquieting. Like, in the case of Naharin’s Tabula Rasa, which we’ll see tonight, maybe loneliness is a core element of modern life.

Now, as audience members, I don’t believe we have to choose between the high artificiality of ballet and the low artificiality of contemporary dance. There are many things to admire in both, and the relationship between the two is closer than a lot of true believers on either side care to admit. Contemporary choreographers create dances all the time for so-called traditional ballet companies. You’ll see that cross-fertilization especially tonight, I think, in Jorma Elo‘s dance Bitter Suite.

Time for a backtrack. Ohad Naharin? Jorma Elo? Didn’t I say Hubbard Street seemed like an American dance company? Yes, I did. And I don’t think that’s a contradiction. The physical borders of countries matter less in the modern world than the borders of the mind. My wife and I were to have a visit from a Chinese professor a few days ago, and at the last minute the Chinese agency governing her visit abroad canceled her trip to Portland, which hadn’t been pre-approved. She was in another state, and her superiors decided she couldn’t leave it to take a side trip to Oregon. End of story. She was outside of China, but China was with her every step of the way.

So, tonight we have a Finnish dancemaker, Elo, and an Israeli dancemaker, Naharin, and a Swedish dancemaker, Johan Inger, having their work set on a company of mostly American dancers whose new artistic director, Glenn Edgerton, comes to Chicago from running the Nederlands Dans Theatre, essentially switching jobs with Hubbard Street’s previous artistic director, Jim Vincent, who now holds the same post that Edgerton vacated in the Netherlands. Wow!

This openness, this internationalism, IS American, I think. That is, it represents America at its least xenophobic and at its generous best – the place that welcomes the best ideas and the most innovative thinking, no matter where they come from.

So. What will that innovative thinking look like tonight?

Like so many contemporary companies, Hubbard Street keeps a core of balletic movement in its kit but stretches its movements into new patterns that are more calisthenic, kinetic, street-savvy. This is going to show up in Naharin’s piece, Tabula Rasa.

The images in this dance can be very broad, as in a female dancer’s collapse to the stage as a male dancer walks away instead of catching and cradling her. Is that funny? Is it startling? Is it cruel? Is it, in Marcia Siegel’s words, part of “our taken-for-granted repertoire of everyday actions, gestures, and situations”? Is it just life?

I almost wrote that Tabula Rasa is more about form and less about story. But that’s not it. It’s what we were talking about earlier, the guts of storytelling without the skeleton to give it narrative sense.

Visually, this dance is a little like the smudging and softening that Impressionism brought to representational painting, or, in its more radical moments, like Cubism with its angular, barely recognizable evocations of the “real.”

Of course, dance is always dealing with the human body as its medium, not with paint or clay, and so it can never break entirely free of realism, and it always retains an element of story, even if the story is non-narrative and open-ended. Every human being is a story, at least implicitly. So when we move these human-being stories in patterns, what does it mean? No longer “once upon a time.” But something.

You’ll see a slow, sad swaying of these bodies, echoing up and down a line. Maybe once and again one body will stop swaying – will just stand still – and another will bump into it, then turn away. Like so much contemporary dance, this one seems partly “about” the difficulty of making connections, and about that point of extremity where trust and lack of trust meet and become quizzically the same. Can I trust you? Must I trust you? Will you catch me? Must you catch me?

Once, speed was of the essence. Speed, and also spectacle. Think of dashing dances like Le Corsaire, or of Martha Graham‘s visual feasts.

The dances we’ll see tonight are more elemental, more stripped down, less concerned with dazzling you and more with drawing you into the often elongated stillness of the moment. It’s disquieting. It’s modern architecture. No gargoyles jutting out from its sleek sides. Or maybe the gargoyles are sunken into the steel. Surely there are elements in this evening’s dances of Tanztheatre, or dance theater, that theoretical outcropping of German Experessionism in which the visual and movement aspects of performance are fused to create a dramatic whole.

Now. I said something about even contemporary dances having histories. Elo’s opening piece on tonight’s program, Bitter Suite, has history embedded, both the history of culture and the history of dance. It starts in a darkened group, with individual dancers peeling away from the clump. We’re in an exaggerated place, and the exaggerations elicit laughter, but it’s rarely easy laughter, the laughter of lightness and escape. These are nervous jokes, ironic jokes. It’s the sort of pit-in-the-stomach laughter that comes from realizing suddenly that you’ve been caught in an awkward position and you probably look, well, kind of stupid. Elements of court dance pop up amid fanfare music. Isn’t this a saucy dish to set before the king?

This piece is in the netherworld between contemporary and ballet, and it seems to me to pulse with a sense of the past that is both celebratory and mournful. In a pas de deux you find something gangly and graceful, memories of myth and the matings of the faun. Here is a piece, stripped down as it is, that nevertheless retains the elegiac quality of classical romanticism. It makes me think of sleeping beauties and briar roses and Charles Perrault. In modern dress, of course, and somehow denuded. What if this dance were in fairy-tale costume instead of gym clothes? How different would it feel? Why is it stripped down? Without its pomp, can it stand on ceremony?

From what I’ve seen on YouTube of Inger’s Walking Mad – and that’s all I’ve seen of it – this closing piece has the chance to be both intensely disquieting and spectacularly funny. First, it’s set to the narcotic metronome of Ravel’s Bolero, and if that doesn’t make you think automatically of Bo Derek, you’re either younger or older than I am. I’m not sure this music can be treated in any way but with affectionate travesty, and that appears to be what Inger offers it.

Let’s return to that Marcia Siegel review and listen to some excerpts from her response to Walking Mad. It’s terrific writing, no matter what you think of her opinions:

The dance, she writes, is “an expert example of Euro-Dada, with menacing moving scenery and lights, joky movement, important but dispensable clothing, spastic love, and the kitschiest music in the world, Ravel’s Bolero. The piece has the manic energy of Ohad Naharin’s Minus series and the misogyny of Tanztheater. All the women seem to be victims; all the men are anti-heroes.”

She refers to “a jittery, pelvis-grinding chorus line wearing tiny red dunce caps.” She talks about a woman dancer – and this takes us back to the crouching boy staring in the mirror in Disquieted – who is “hunkering down in a corner between two walls.” Soon, Siegel continues, the woman is “beset by men barging in one after another and slinging her around, pinning her to the walls, in a nightmare of amorous entrapment.” And the walls, Siegel points out, literally accordion in to keep the woman in her corner.

That’s disquieting. There’s a story here, a story without a skeleton. And that leaves it wide open to conjecture. Is it tragedy? Is it Theatre of Cruelty? Is it farce?

So. Let’s take all these scattered thoughts and try to tie them together.

One. Hubbard Street has street roots.

Two. It’s open to a broad sweep of styles, inspired by everyday actions and everyday thoughts. It makes democratic art.

Three. It offers second chances. It works in an art form in which you can start late, because technique, while essential, is less apparent than in ballet. We talked about performers starting late, but I think the point is even more important for audiences. You don’t have to be a lifelong ballet geek. You don’t have to bring to this dance your study, only your life.

Four. Well, yes, that seems American.

Five. Like contemporary art of all sorts, Hubbard Street’s work reflects contemporary life. And that life is nervous and unsettling.

Six. Maybe it’s new, but this art rides on the shoulders of history. It can’t shake it off, and it doesn’t really want to.

We live in a time when time itself is malleable, when it comes at us in folds and waves, when we are free to pick and choose from it, to make a collage of our art and our lives, using what we will of our collective and personal pasts to create our currencies and our futures. These dancers, these dancemakers, this company reflect that.

It isn’t even postmodern anymore. It’s post-postmodern, because it’s no longer self-conscious. It just is. It’s the air we breathe. History, inhale. Future, exhale. And here we are, somewhere between.

Shall we dance?