When Offstage Goes Off Track

hubbard street dance, space, in perspective @ harris theater, thursday, 21 September 2017.

Space, In Perspective, Hubbard Street’s site-specific promenade theater piece created with choreographer Peter Chu, ended up being more about time and the lack of perspective. There was information and beauty to glean from this, but also a sense of an opportunity wasted.

The first half of Space, In Perspective featured a ramble through the lobbies, hallways, staircases, balconies, and backstage areas of the Harris Theater, with audiences free to follow dancers as they wished. The experience was confusing. Instructed by Hubbard Street director Glenn Edgerton to “follow a dancer,” many audience members eventually drifted off on their own, uncertain where to go and when, perhaps worried that they were missing something. It was difficult to feel like one could get in the right flow with the performances. This itself could have been an interesting experiment in transforming the audience into the dancers, the movement of the crowd into the performance, but even that did not seem particularly intentional. Instead, the first half of Space, In Perspective felt out of whack, more an unguided tour of the facility than anything else.

Kellie Epperheimer, Elliot Hammans, Adrienne Lipson,, and Andrew Murdock of Hubbard Street Dance in choreographer Peter Chu’s “Space, In Perspective.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Part of the problem was that when one was able to experience it, the movement by the dancers was not particularly responsive to the site-specific environment. It felt as much like the dancers were out of their element as the audiences, moving in tentative ways as if in rehearsal testing out ideas. There was a painful duet with a mannequin and masks in the balcony nosebleed seats, a few dancers using the staircase railing as if it were a ballet barre without a mirror in the lobby, a circle race around one of the columns holding up the Harris, and lots of dramatic movement along the walls of long corridors. The dancers often seemed less focused on the spaces than in fitting their performances into the time allotted for each section. And the audiences seemed to grow increasingly frustrated: were they missing something? Where was one supposed to go? Where even were the dancers? If this was putting space in perspective, the vantage point was of being helpless in a maze.

The best move I myself made as an audience member was finally to sit down, on a striped couch outside the dressing rooms. From this more traditional vantage point, I could watch dancers and audience both. Spectatorship at its best. Things got even better when one of the dancers decided to purchase a bag of potato chips from the vending machine in front of the couch. He plunked himself down too, and munched away, perhaps also realizing that taking a break to watch the disorganized mess unfold was more fascinating than performing in it himself.

As a side note, it should be said that the transformation of the Harris into a site-specific dance space has been done before, and done better. In the evocatively titled “This Is Not a Dance Concert,” from 2012, The Seldoms managed to transform the venue much more dramatically, with a sharper focus on the particular locale and a more vivid response to the question of what it means to experience a theater as a not-theater but instead something else (full disclosure: I have worked as a dramaturg with The Seldoms subsequent to this performance).

The second half of Space, In Perspective ushered the audience onto the Harris Stage itself and culminated in a full ensemble performance with us on three sides of center stage, the empty seats of the house before us. Wavering projected imagery suggestively compared the dancers’ forceful yet graceful movement to sea kelp on the surf. A militaristic, propulsive drum beat slowly built to a pounding intensity as the performance unfolded. Here Hubbard was much more in their element. Soloists and small combinations of dancers moved through the space, often exploring extensions of the spine and limbs, sudden snapping to attention of the neck and heads or arms and legs, or stillness, as when one dancer, Rena Butler, sat on a chair staring out at the audience for a long duration of time.

Rena Butler of Hubbard Street Dance in Space, In Perspective. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Time and what to do with it became the focus instead of space, in perspective. Sequencing of returning motifs and patterns unfolded, developed, grew, receded, only to appear again in slightly new form. A bend of the arm by one dancer here repeated in the leg of a dancer over there. The curling of the spine and movement of the hip here seemed to bump another dancer to movement over there. A responsive clustering of support and extension, togetherness and departure began to emerge in sort of fractal composition of the ensemble, various lines and diagonals of dancers shooting like vectors across the stage until, eventually, the entire group of some 15 to 20 dancers ran as fast as they could from side to side. One almost felt as if we were on a ship in a storm together, the dancers a crew trying to keep us from tipping, then almost doing so with the sheer power of their sprints from left to right and windward or leeward. Something tidal, oceanic, swaying with large-scale energies presented itself: a sense of exertion to the brink of wild abandon, trying not to lose control, to go overboard.

Hubbard Street Dance, Space, In Perspective. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

We were at sea. Or were we on a plain with a herd of horses? There is, I find, indeed always something rather horsey about Hubbard Street’s movement. In all senses of the word. The movement almost always emphasizes proud, showy delivery, chomping at the bit, all musculature, gallop, and equestrian power and poise. One recurring gesture in Space, In Perspective had the dancers slapping the sides of their thighs with their hands, as if they were urging themselves to full stride in a race.

Hubbard’s movement also seems horsey in another way. It often feels extremely fancy, like dance intended for the aristocratic and moneyed set. Sleek, polished, impossibly perfect, is it movement ultimately for elites, not the people? Perhaps this is why the effort at more democratic site-specific roaming by the audience was so unsuccessful in the first half of Space, In Perspective. There was a lurking disdain for the audience rather than attention to how to coordinate mass movement.

Hubbard never seemed entirely sure they really wanted to level the playing field, cross the proscenium, put audience on par with the performers. The urge was always to reassert hierarchy in the piece rather than question it or inquire into its workings or even dissolve its order into a new embodiment of equality. As the signs placed to demarcate the no-go zones of the Harris put it, “Dancers only beyond this point.”

In the perspective of our current times, the rigid demarcation of hierarchy within a piece ostensibly about mixing up the power relations of theatrical space seemed out of touch even as it attempted to bring the dancers close enough to touch. And when the performers concluded “Space, In Perspective” by moving out into the seats of the empty house of the Harris to then give the audience up on stage a mock-standing ovation, it felt particularly like a misfired joke, a hollow, shallow self-congratulatory gesture rather than a hard-earned appreciation of accomplishment. This time, in this space, at this stage, it didn’t feel quite right, more a lack of perspective than anything else.

Hubbard Street Dance, Space, In Perspective. Photo: Michael J. Kramer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *