Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, performing at the Joyce last Thursday, is comprised of clearly talented dancers, with nary a technical misstep, but there was a certain abandonment missing from the night’s program – and the program itself suffered from a noticeably stronger first half.

Hubbard Street: Penny Saunders and Pablo Piantino in Three to Max by Ohad Naharin © Todd Rosenberg
Hubbard Street: Penny Saunders and Pablo Piantino in Three to Max by Ohad Naharin
© Todd Rosenberg

Ohad Naharin’s Three to Max, a choreographic mash-up of some of his previous works, opened the program. The dancer’s precision and ability dance perfectly in unison was noteworthy; many of these movements are performed without counts and include abrupt directional and dynamic changes that happen without warning. The Hubbard Street dancers performed Mr Naharin’s twisty undulations and deep-pliéd spins with confidence and grace. This is an obviously well-rehearsed piece. In one section, the women in the company sat crab-like on their rears and supported themselves with their hands behind them, circling their pelvises slowly and evenly, often changing direction. Their unison was extraordinary – it was as if each pelvis were moving on one revolving dais.

Two duets stood out from this piece: the first, between Kellie Epperheimer and Jonathan Fredrickson, initially tricked me into believing that it would be just another prosaic boy-and-girl-manipulate-each-other-and-weight-share duet. (You’d think that by now I’d trust Mr Naharin’s exquisite and nuanced choreography enough to know that he will never give an audience something prosaic.) Weight shares and manipulation did exist, but in violent and aggressive ways, with little room to breathe and a beautiful sense of desperation.

The second duet – a sexually charged tango between two men, the very capable Pablo Piantino and Kevin Shannon – started out with just a hint of camp and quickly evolved into a striking vignette of intensity and partnering. This is dance at its most believable, when the choreography surpasses even the dancers themselves and all we see is pure, unfettered, delicious movement.

I was disappointed, however, by the final section of the piece. As the dancers come forward, one at time in three separate lines, each presents some part of his or her body or abilities as an offering to the audience – but in the most defiant manner possible. And while each of these dancers could hold my attention with what they brought downstage, from extreme flexibility to spurts of impressive breakdancing, it seemed a more selfish display of virtuosity and less a complete abandonment of form and rigor. Their hearts weren’t quite on their sleeves; their hearts were still inside their shirts.

Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa was the second and final piece on the program, and when juxtaposed with Mr Naharin’s work, it seemed a bit of a predictable and occasionally too-literal letdown. Although Mr Ek’s themes feel similar to that of Mr Naharin, his use of props and ecstatically flinging bodies leaves little room for varied interpretations. It’s hard to watch a group of women stomping on stage with vacuum cleaners and not think that they are all portraying the stereotypically unfulfilled housewife. (Though their attack is quite nice.)

Again, the duets were highlights of the piece. A first-love-esque pairing between the sublime Jacqueline Burnett and Mr Fredrickson (once more) was the least trite it could be and made interesting use of a door. A domestic duet involving a stove and danced by Alejandro Cerrudo and Ana Lopez was impassioned and tinged with an appropriate amount of believability.

But in the end, Mr Ek’s work pales too much in comparison with the energetic realism of Mr Naharin, though the Hubbard Street dancers are adept and nuanced interpreters of each.

***11