The emerging choreographers featured in Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Dance(Evolve): New Works Festival posed four different approaches to dancerly motion and its conveyance of emotion. In doing so, their pieces suggested four different ways to register what it means for dance to exert itself.
Julia Rhoads and Alice Klock were on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of how to approach the effort, work, labor, and force of dance choreographically: Rhoads played with pulling way back from maximum energy, while Klock pushed her dancers to extremes of exertion. Penny Saunders and Robyn Mineko Williams struck a middle ground in which little interruptions intruded on the flow of dance, as if to remind us that motion cannot occur without generating friction, and even the most graceful and limit-defying dance movement only takes place in and against resistance.
In Cadence, Rhoads continued her explorations of the informality of we might call relaxed dance. As with her own company, Lucky Plush, Rhoads drew the levels way down on the typical virtuosity one expects from contemporary dance, particularly in its Hubbard Street version. Instead, she explored the backstage musical genre, in which the scene onstage becomes a glimpse behind the curtains. The dancers appear before the house lights go down, in athletic-gear rehearsal clothes, and begin stretching while chatting with one another. Preshow is the show at the start, and the audience at the MCA did not know if it was to quiet down to silence and attention or not. This tone and spirit of uncertainty continued throughout the piece.
Only over time did the dancers slowly assemble from seemingly spontaneous individual offstage and offhand movement to ensemble work. They eventually became a company class doing breath exercises in time with David Schultz’s accordion wheezes and skitters of notes. Eventually, they fell into festive, ritualistic, almost hippie Hair-like patterns of singing and dancing, forming geodesic and flowery shapes that transformed the dancers’ individual bodies into spatial arrangements of collective flow and integration. In between, on the way there, they engaged in game-like sequences of negotiation—rehearsal experiments as final production.
The most intriguing of these investigations might best be described not as musical chairs, but rather as dance chairs. The performers lined up and each sat down on the knees and lap of the dancer behind her or him. This looked extremely difficult to do, and yet the company made it look easy, weightless, effortless. Of course, the choreography here raised a problem, even a crisis. What was the last dancer to do? Who was to support his or her body? Much friendly humor ensued while confronting this matter. Could the last dancer bear the load? What if everyone fell over because they forgot that at some point there would be an end of the line? What if they moved themselves into other shapes, such as a circle? Lurking within the funny scenario, Rhoads and her Hubbard Street cast quietly suggested profound ethical and political issues: dilemmas of dependence, mutuality, equality, and liberty flickered forth to the fore in this backstage comedy.
Overall, Cadence quietly, almost imperceptibly, offered a set of intriguing questions: what kind of effort, paradoxically, goes into remaining casual? What kinds of problems arise when social relations are more loosely organized than in the typical modes of dance performance, with their rigorous formality and structure? Cadence cleverly and cutely—maybe at times a bit too cleverly and cutely—portrayed how relaxation turns out to be full of tensions, how remaining leisurely and laid-back in fact takes a whole lot of work.
Alice Klock’s Clan(device) exploded in precisely the opposite direction from Rhoads’s mellowness. Here seemed to be a dance on cocaine, full of hyped-up tricks and maxed-out movement. At times, there was almost a kind of Las Vegas, Cirque du Soleil feel to it. The music was the sort of pulsating electronic music that arose in 1980s dance clubs but now often provides the background pulsations for corporate clothing stores at the mall. Dancers struck poses, one dancer facing backward ducked her head down and another dancers placed his head above her shoulders as if to create a kind of beautiful mutant being, part male and part female. The piece concluded with the ensemble repeating a difficult leaping move in which the dancers lifted their knees up and kicked out their legs. Here was exertion to the point of frustration, as if these dancers reached a point where they could not get any closer to the motion—or emotion—they were after. In wanting to be seen radiating effort, they turned us blind to their actual exertion. Putting on a dazzling show, flashy and demanding, threatened to leave one feeling hollow and empty. The desperate effort involved in being scintillating could so quickly turn on a dime to burn out.
Penny Saunders’s Berceuse stayed in the simpler realm of the male-female duet, but she returned repeatedly to a little motif of an awkward hop, made by both dancers at different moments and in varying postures and iterations. This leap was like a hiccup at a stately, formal dinner, a burp at the banquet, a gaffe that in contrast to the ease of the rest of the dancing, made its effortlessness and grace a bit more human. The hop brought the ethereal back to earth, made a ground from which the hints of pure fantasy and feeling could arise. These dancers were able at times to leave their bodies for abstraction and write a kind of dialogue with muscle and bone against the blankness of the stage because, in part, the choreography signaled the grasp gravity ultimately had on them.
Robyn Mineko Williams’s Cloudline used a huge parachute-like fabric that its dancers moved under, around, and sometimes over, often in pairs. There was something, as the title suggested, dreamy about the piece, and the movement of the dancers was kept at a medium level of exertion, as if they were balanced or poised. Even when one of the songs selected to accompany Cloudline was Julie London’s version of “The End of the World,” the performers never lost their grace and ease. There was more rigor and formality here compared to Rhoads’s choices, but far less exaggerated effort than in Klock’s.
Alongside Saunders’s duet, Mineko Williams proposed a kind of calibration point for contemporary dance: it was full of exertion, but not too much; it was solid, but maybe a little too centered; it was full of power, but doing nothing unexpected with its concentration of energy; it was good for remembering what is beautiful about contemporary dance, but the question is whether that is enough currently; its dancers made things look easy, but perhaps a little too easy. After all, beyond the stage at the MCA, more ominous clouds gather, pressing in with far more gloom and doom than Cloudline indicated.
What it will take to generate both the motion and emotion necessary for weathering these storms, for generating resistances and movements against that which threatens to destroy much that is held dear, this is going to take effort. The various approaches in these new pieces to the informal and formal, rigorous and casual, poised and crazed, balanced and off-kilter, most of all to the many dimensions of how dancers exert themselves, give us a few tantalizing clues for how we might carry forward this work.