Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is one of the top contemporary ensembles in the United States. Matching innovative choreography with top notch dancing, this company stirs New York audiences with two repertory programs at The Joyce.
On Tuesday night, they presented two works by popular choreographers — Ohad Naharin’s Three to Max and Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa.
At first glance, the similarities between Naharin and Ek are pronounced. Both dance-makers present works stapled together from prior pieces. They prize a vast movement vocabulary, intertwining classical ballet with quirky gestures, which necessitates multi-talented performers who seamlessly move from glistening arabesques to lip smacking. Strong sonic messages — usually tonally and rhythmically accessible — add dramatic gravity to their movements.
Under closer investigation though, Naharin and Ek stand at opposite ends of the contemporary dance spectrum. Naharin shapes bodies that happen to be human while Ek works with humans who luckily possess substantial physical capacities.
In Three to Max, the curtain rises on a group of sixteen dancers, confrontationally eyeballing the audience. Gaga (Naharin’s signature movement style) presupposes that any movement — regardless of its aesthetic value — is valid. Like trick ponies, the performers, sporting denim capris and relaxed t-shirts, string together discordant chains of movements including academic fifth positions, ponderous stomps, guttural vocalizations, and epileptic gestures. The extraordinary facility of the company polishes these incongruent steps into something almost legible.
Things occur — a female coterie paces in a circle pinching themselves, two men perform a witty take on a Latin dancesport routine, and three lines of dancers try to outdo their colleagues with one outrageous stunt after another — but nothing seems to happen. The overwrought precocity fatigues, and what lingers is a sense of audacity: Naharin creates because he can, not because he needs it to mean something. He dares us not to like it.
Casi-Casa also utilizes an ample movement lexicon, but Ek streamlines his motions with a voluminous quality that sweeps across the floor. The dancers resemble like ice skaters, and even cramped gestures of their fingers billow. Suggesting the bare outline of a home, the stage set contains a door, a stove, and a curlicue of a chair.
Lush vignettes, set to wistful string music from Flesh Quartet, explore the fraught tedium of family life: A quintet of angry housewives stamp an agitated jig, one dejected man (the luminous Jason Hortin) spills down a chair in an attack of ennui, and a scorching duet culminates with the wife pulling a charred baby from a smoking oven. In one jarring moment, caution tape crisscrosses the stage and loud music blares. There’s no dancing for long minutes; it’s just you, left alone and haunted. Rich in emotive performances, the dancers plumb the dark shadows of domesticity gone awry.
Placed side by side, Naharin appears as the fast-talking hustler, overwhelming with feverish vivacity, while Ek is smooth eloquence, letting you come to him.
This review refers to the show seen on Tuesday, May 21st.