Hubbard Street Goes Euro; Varone Goes the Distance

It’s not just City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre that keep dance lovers and dance critics hopping through May and June. In the past weeks we’ve also had the popular Hubbard Street Dance Chicago at the Joyce and the interesting Doug Varone & Dancers at Symphony Space. Both groups have strong and committed dancers, but there the similarity ends.

Hubbard Street, now 25 years old, was the creation of Lou Conte, who led the company until he retired three years ago. His chosen successor was Jim Vincent, whose background includes many years dancing for Jirí Kylián’s Nederlands Dans Theater and a shorter stretch with Nacho Duato’s Compañía Nacional de Danza. No wonder that Hubbard Street, which at one time was heavily invested in the work of Twyla Tharp, is leaning further and further into the world of Kylián, Duato and the Israeli Ohad Naharin, all of whom were represented in the season recently ended. Next up, I fear: Mats Ek, Lar Lubovitch, William Forsythe and Hans van Manen, for all whom Vincent has danced.

The trend towards Eurodance began under Conte with the idea, I imagine, of counterbalancing the showbizziness and Tharpishness of the company, last seen here nine years ago. It was not a good idea; ironically, the most successful of this season’s works were two distinctly Tharpian pieces by Harrison McEldowney. One was Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off , a duet in which first a guy jabbers away in guilt and embarrassment (he’s turned up late, as usual, for a date) while his girlfriend dances her frustration, followed by the girl giving him an equal dose of lip while he squirms and writhes in a spastic solo. Needless to say, a third episode makes it clear that nothing’s been called off. McEldowney’s other piece, also to standard songs, has four couples satirizing another slice of contemporary life- Group Therapy -as they struggle to explain themselves to each other by acting out their various neurotic compulsions. One couple is in a fury. One guy is phobic about being touched. One girl is narcoleptic. Another girl can’t break her cigarette habit (to “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me”). This is the stuff of Jules Feiffer or Ed Koren cartoons, and McEldowney shares not only their point of view but their wit, a quality fatally lacking in the rest of the Hubbard Street repertory. You could say, in fact, that wit is the ultimate antidote to Euroangst, like water to the Wicked Witch.

More sprightly than witty but still amusing was Daniel Ezralow’s Lady Lost Found , set to a suite of folky songs arranged by Percy Grainger-“What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?,” “Danny Boy,” etc. A fellow in a mini-kilt breezily kicks up his heels while mingling with a corps of four, of whom the standout was the buoyant and expressive Charlaine Katsuyoshi. A painless event. Ezralow’s other offering was Super Straight is coming down , and it was a very different kettle of fish, although again it featured three men and two women (to a minimalist commissioned score by Thom Willems, currently William Forsythe’s composer of choice). It opens with the dancers standing upstage in isolated cellophane bags, out of which they emerge in order to leap and spasm, spasm and leap. This work is almost 15 years old, so we can’t blame it on Jim Vincent, and certainly not on these dedicated dancers.

The inevitable Kylián piece, No More Play , is also 15 years old, and it’s by far the most authoritative of the European or neo-European contributions. The music is Webern-Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5-and there are simple, effective costumes by Kylián himself. The vocabulary involves the usual splayings and flailings, but at least they’re well-organized: You may not like Kylian’s choreography (I don’t), but he’s a choreographer. Which I’m not sure you can say about Trey McIntyre, who unveiled a new piece, Full Grown Man , to recordings by Beck. Like Beck’s songs, it kept telling us that it was about something. But what? Beck’s music isn’t very danceogenic, and focusing on his words is a mistake. The whole thing seemed not only drearily derivative but longer than Parsifal .

As for Jim Vincent’s own counter/part , the music was a patchwork of Bach, and the piece was Everybody’s Baroque Ballet. (Paul Taylor’s wonderful Esplanade has a lot to answer for.) The costumes were ludicrous, particularly the boys’ little jerkins and skirtlets worn over tights. Jamy Meek, down to his own wee red skirtlet dangling from tiny panties, darted among the crowd. We had already glimpsed his bare chest twice before on this program, in two guitary duets, one (schmaltzy) by Duato, one (tormented) by Naharin. As it happens, Meek doesn’t have much chest to bare-he’s the thinnest dancer this side of Mark Morris’ John Heginbotham. counter/part was all generic filler, no crust, although it does, according to the credits, feature “Décor Construction,” “Sound Design for counters” and “Text and Voice.” It just had no point. Vincent’s offering was dedicated to the company’s board of directors, and I hope they enjoyed it. That the author of so uninspired a work is the new head of Hubbard Street is not a happy portent.

If Hubbard Street is an aesthetic mishmash, Doug Varone & Dancers is all of a piece-it’s a small company whose ideas and style spring from one forceful and convincing mind-set. The dancers are highly charged and strikingly individual (Hubbard Street’s tend to homogenize). The work, whether it’s telling a story-as in last year’s moving The Bottomland -or in more abstract pieces, seems to focus on people connecting or failing to connect. The dancers approach each other and grapple or shy away. And although Varone can produce a storm of kinetic excitement, there’s also a considerable amount of simple gesture. That’s one of the reasons Varone is often called minimalist, but if that’s what he is, he’s proof that minimalist needn’t imply empty.

The program at Symphony Space consisted of three pieces, all to music by Steve Reich. Proverb was more an exploration of certain gestures-one arm swinging out, swimming motions-than an attempt at following a throughline from A to Z. It was restrained, intelligent, cool-perhaps a little too cerebral. Of the Earth Far Below , to Reich’s “Triple Quartet,” was a high-voltage explosion of energy, its eight dancers churning, colliding, rolling on the floor, clambering over each other. Although these dancers are so distinctive, they complement each other rather than distract from each other. Suddenly an Eddie Taketa, an Adriane Fang, compels your eye, then is absorbed back into the intensity of the company as a whole. It’s quite a ride.

Even so, the most telling piece on the program was the duet Distance that Varone created for himself and Larry Hahn, who is leaving the company after 15 years. Hahn is a boulder of a man, less a dancer than a large, solid presence; Varone is small, delicate; neither is young. They do almost no “dancing” in this piece-it’s a slow, sad parade of hesitancy, expressed in the most tentative gestures. Varone is trying to reach out to Hahn, who stands there obdurate and inarticulate. A hand on the shoulder, a hand to the breast, the brushing of arm against arm rather than hands grasping, a stuttering embrace-this is the coin of emotion here. These are not men resisting physical contact, but men resisting the expression of feeling. By the end, Varone has receded upstage, while Hahn goes on standing there, possibly moved but unable to respond.

Distance can be taken as a farewell tribute and gift to Hahn. But although its gestures are highly particular to the two men who perform it, there is no reason why it couldn’t be performed by two other men, or by two women, or by a woman and a man. I’m sure Doug Varone knows that “distance” is not unique to any gender or any situation.