“This land is your land,” American folk singer Woody Guthrie’s iconic anthem from 1940, echoed through the world premiere of Peter Chu’s hour-long journey through the interior spaces of Chicago’s Harris Theater. The magnetic dancers of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (augmented by a contingent from their training program) whirled, crept, tiptoed and bounded through hallways and stairwells, backstage, and across the balconies – stalked by an audience that was given license to roam these normally forbidden spaces. Occasionally, a dancer would gesture wordlessly to a roving audience member, take them chivalrously by the hand, or perhaps do-si-do them en route to the next station where they might discover a grainy video installation, or a patch of marley flooring littered with body parts from a dressmaker’s mannequins.

Jacqueline Burnett, Alicia Delgadillo and David Schultz © Todd Rosenberg
Jacqueline Burnett, Alicia Delgadillo and David Schultz
© Todd Rosenberg

Titled Space, In Perspective, this ‘immersive’ piece unfurled to a soundtrack teeming with American popular music from folk to the blues. Arrangements by Yo-Yo Ma and the border-smashing Silk Road Ensemble, with their imaginative deployment of instruments from far-flung climes, underscored the idea of a nation of immigrants – as did the diverse ethnicities of the Hubbard Street dancers.

This was no idyll of a melting-pot of civilizations, however. For the latter half of the program – with the audience corralled in tight quarters onstage, facing out toward the empty auditorium – the dancers enacted mysterious rituals of a struggle against unseen forces of oppression. On a scrim behind them was projected the nightmarish swirling of what appeared to be a storm at sea. As the dancers wafted on and off stage, dancer-musician David Schultz tapped out mesmeric strips of phrases from “This land is your land” on vibraphone. This gave way to a thumping electronic score (by Djeff Houle) that sounded like the syncopated footfalls of a jackbooted army. The company was at its most virtuosic in this segment, triumphing in a muscular movement vocabulary that emanated from deep within the ribcage and rippled out in heartrending convulsions and heroic feats of slow motion. Tender grappling by the pair of Jacqueline Burnett and Alicia Delgadillo, also by Adrienne Lipson and Ana Lopez, and the quartet of Rena Butler, Myles Lavallee, Minga Prather, and Kevin Shannon, left vivid and poignant impressions, as did a mercurial solo by Kellie Epperheimer. 

Dancers of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago © Todd Rosenberg
Dancers of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
© Todd Rosenberg

Fragments of social dance took on ominous new meaning when executed with military precision by the ensemble, in shadowy lighting. The sense of foreboding crested as throngs of dancers walked gravely toward the orchestra pit, apparently to be gunned down by an invisible firing squad. They collapsed to the floor in stylized, slow-mo fashion and rolled backward as the next wave of dancers stepped over them gingerly. 

This admirable, moving enterprise would have packed a much bigger wallop had the opening half-hour been more precisely engineered. Artistic director Glenn Edgerton instructed the audience initially assembled in the lobby to “follow a dancer” and wander wherever we pleased. This sounded like a delightfully liberating prospect – in theory. The evening was designed to yield a unique and intimate series of encounters for each audience member, in which no one would ever see 100% of the dance.

This might have worked in Europe. Or Singapore. But Americans are rugged individualists; it is not in their DNA to queue up, hang back, or give way. Anarchy ensued, with mini-mobs negotiating narrow hallways, canted over stairwell railings, pressed up against ledges in near pitch-black inside the main auditorium – everyone craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the dancers. Moments of exhilaration were supplanted by #FOMO – as when, after being swept up in a crush, I managed to come up for air only to find myself in a brightly lit space devoid of dancers and other mortals. Even in the final half, when the audience was gathered onstage, sightlines were impeded to varying degrees for anyone not seated upfront. Inconvenient as the experience may have been for the audience, equally dismaying was a sense of disregard for the dancers, who put on two marathon performances a night and who deserved to be seen more than they were.

Kevin J Shannon and Rena Butler © Todd Rosenberg
Kevin J Shannon and Rena Butler
© Todd Rosenberg

Travelling dance has been more deftly handled by choreographers like Rosanna Gamson, who scattered her dancers around various sectors of the ODC Theater complex in San Francisco in a riff on the Persian fable of Scheherazade, titled Layla Means Night. The audience was broken into groups and traveled through the spaces while the dancers mostly stayed put, repeating their acts in order to give roving viewers the opportunity to witness everything. That was a smaller venue and a smaller audience, but the principle is scalable and a sense of immersion achievable without forcing audiences to compete for prime real estate.

In the end, one of the most thought-provoking tableaux in my two visits to the Harris this past weekend turned out to be a glimpse of the projection booth in which a technician sat bathed in a dim golden light, staring pensively at his control panel, like the captain of a spaceship weighing a fateful navigational decision.