Hubbard Street Shines in Ek’s Work

Hubbard Street dancers Ana Lopez and Alejandro Cerrudo in Mats Ek's "Casi-Casa". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Opening night of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago‘s Winter Series at the Harris Theater last night marked the first time a U.S. company has presented the work of Swedish master choreographer Mats Ek. Well-known in Europe for his theatrical creations for stage and film, Ek has worked with acclaimed dancers like Sylvie Guillem and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Now, with the help of dancers Ana Laguna and Mariko Aoyama, he takes our very own Hubbard Street dancers to new, extraordinary heights in his 2009 work Casi-Casa. A mash-up of two of his previous works, Appartement and Fluke, Casi was originally created for Danza Contemporánea de Cuba in 2009. Also on the program, Aszure Barton’s grand Untouched and two works by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo.

Although last on the evening’s program, Ek’s Casi is what everyone came to see. Even founder Lou Conte was there to witness his company make history. And make history they did, for once they raised the bar for themselves, the audience, the city and the country by excelling in this work, they can never go back. The cast of 12 dancers was stellar, but it was the staging and choreography that transfixed. Casi-Casa was stunning, ugly, casual, urgent, funny, human, disturbing and wonderful. Ek’s way of taking a mundane gesture or activity and turning it into something alternately beautiful, endearing and disgusting is true brilliance. With a cast of misfit characters like TV Man, Vacuum Woman, Stove Couple and Door Couple, the 40-minute piece flies by and leaves you wondering just what the hell happened. No, really…WTF just happened? Poking, sniffing, sighing, spitting, grabbing and whistling mix easily with insanely difficult, breathtaking dancing set to a score as schizophrenic as the characters. Vacuum cleaner-wielding women dance an OCD-frenzied jig, a couple struggles to stay together while tragedy roasts in an oven, and a man makes being a couch potato an art form. The work has everything you never thought you’d see on stage in a dance and then some. There is a sexual undercurrent throughout – a hand to the breast, a foot to the crotch, a groping embrace – that is sometimes nonchalant, purposeful, sad and almost crude. One of the most beautiful moments was a delicate, loving duet between Jesse Bechard and David Schultz. A section with no dancing had yellow and black caution tape zig-zagged across the stage as Hitchcockianly dangerous music blared as if to say, what happens in between these walls should not be seen. But Ek lets us look anyway.

Barton’s Untouched is a beautiful work that brilliantly showcases these dancers talents. Originally created on Hubbard Street in 2010, Barton incorporated bits of the dancers personalities into the movement. Even though a few of the performers have changed, the delicate intimacy of the gestures remain, punctuated by strong technique and creative partnering. With a lush red curtain pulled back on stage right as a backdrop and an almost formal informality to the structure, it is reminiscent of Edwaard Liang’s Age of Innocence, but on LSD. It’s just a little off. Where Liang’s duets are pristine with a feminine sense of longing, Barton’s transforms the women – Ana Lopez and Kellie Epperheimer – into wounded birds seeking freedom. Where Liang works within the structured lines of Victorian court dances, Barton takes that framework and alters it with syncopation and weight. Unexpected moments of impatience – a fast hip bounce, a dancer frantically running in place – dot the more serene essence of the dance. The dancers are at home in this piece. Plus, anything that begins with the gorgeous Meredith Dincolo in a floor length dress is assured to be spectacular.

In between Barton and Ek was a suite of dances by Cerrudo. Both have his penchant for dark lighting and mood, but to different ends. Blanco, a study in minimalist movement for four women, and PACOPEPEPLUTO, a tongue-in-cheek romp for three men to Dean Martin songs, highlight the rising choreographer’s serious and light sides. Both used similar movement vocabulary with results at the opposite ends of the dance spectrum. The audience seemed in awe of the raw physical beauty of the women, but the charming men – Johnny McMillan, Schultz and Pablo Piantino – captured their hearts wearing nothing but dance belts. Recently named to Crain’s Chicago Business’ “40 Under 40″ list, Cerrudo shows what he can do with just music, lighting and bodies. While all the dancers deserve high praise, Cerrudo gets a special mention. With his busy schedule traveling the world setting his work, he hasn’t graced the Harris stage – aside from choreographic bows – since last March. He showed that he still has the chops to hang with and stand out in this amazing group of dancers. Bravo!

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Winter Series runs through Sunday, Dec. 9 at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph. For a 20% discount on tickets use the code: CASI at www.hubbardstreetdance.com/winter.

Hubbard Street’s Quinn B Wharton: Man of Mystery

Hubbard Street dancer Quinn B Wharton. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Her: What’s the B. stand for?

Him: It’s a good question, isn’t it? I’ll never tell.

Her: Ooh, it’s top secret!

Him: It’s more interesting that way, right? There’s no period.

Her: Is that an artistic statement?

Him: It’s like that on my birth certificate, Quinn B Wharton. There’s a reason.

Her: Do you want to tell me?

Him: Then you’d know and it would be no fun. Maybe I’ll tell you someday.

That’s how my conversation began with the tall, lean, talented dancer at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Quinn B – no period – Wharton was bright, blithe and downright bewitching when we met over tea (for him, he was recovering from a cold) and decaf (for me, ’nuff said) two weeks ago. Who is this man with the mysterious initial and missing punctuation? I did my best to find out.

Wharton grew up in Seattle and began taking hip hop classes with a friend through an inner city outreach program. Pacific Northwest Ballet School‘s Dance Chance program took notice and offered him a scholarship. After a five-year “drought” in his training when his family moved to Hawaii, he relied on the wisdom of his ballet-teaching grandmothers to find him a teacher to get him back in shape. A summer program at San Francisco Ballet (SFB) led to three years at the North Carolina School of the Arts before he returned to San Fran to join the ballet company’s trainee program, or second company, while completing his degree via correspondence. Wharton danced with SFB, under the direction of Helgi Tomasson, for seven years before joining Hubbard Street in the summer of 2012.

In 2008, during SFB’s 75th Anniversary season, Wharton sustained a lower back injury that kept him from dancing. He used his down time to develop an impressive talent in photography. After “working like hell” on his ballet come back, he started traveling and auditioning to see what else was out there in the dance world. Now, he joins fellow SFB alums Garrett Anderson and Pablo Piantino at Hubbard Street.

Wharton, 25, will be dancing the opening “TV Man” solo in Swedish choreographer Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa this weekend at the Harris Theater. Hubbard Street’s Winter Series will be the first time an American company has presented this work. Also on the program, Canadian choreographic phenom Aszure Barton’s Untouched, a dense and grand work make for the company in 2010, and a coupling of short works by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. One is a quartet for women, the other a trio for men.

Ek has been in and out of town working with the dancers for a while, but is aided by his wife/muse Ana Laguna, who notably danced a duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Harris Theater in 2009, and repetiteur Mariko Aoyama, who is well-known for her work with Pina Bausch. A rehearsal earlier this fall for the “TV Man” solo had Laguna riffing on the finer points of chair slumping and nose picking. Here is a peak into the rehearsal process filmed by HMS Media:

Wharton (also a gifted videographer) started his Hubbard Street career with a bang. Only two weeks in, he found himself learning Twyla Tharp’s SCARLATTI to replace an injured dancer the next night at the Chicago Dancing Festival. Welcome to Chicago! Here’s a bit of our chat on working with Ek.

I’ve read a lot of articles and interviews in the past few years and most of the dancers say they want to work with Ek. Is he someone you aspired to work with?

He wasn’t, actually…until now.

Since he wasn’t on your list, what makes it…

Amazing? It’s watching someone that’s been so thoroughly in his craft for so long, so specifically. It’s very different from how most dance is portrayed. It’s almost like from a theater background. You can tell from what he makes for film. I don’t know what it’s like when he creates, but it seems like he comes into the room with these characters and bases dances on them as opposed to creating movement and infusing it with character, which is what most people do, if at all. He’s a little soft-spoken. He’s tall. He wants really big movement. He’s not irrational with what he expects, but he does demand a lot. He’s respectful, which is nice. When he came back this past week, we were working on the TV solo. Watching it is really weird, but hearing him talk about it, makes complete sense. At first it seemed really obscure. The TV Man is in love with this game show hostess on tv and you write her a bunch of letters and she doesn’t respond to you. You love her, but you hate her and this couch is always here for you and it’s your friend you love it. There are people out there like that and it allowed me to relate to what I was doing.

What was it like working with Ana and Mariko?

I can see why Mariko was here first. She’s super sweet. She’s very detail-focused. She gave us a lot of information very quickly. She’s fast and she pushes. She’s quirky and she’s worked in very contemporary dance for years with Pina Bausch. They both just give us a base, because they know Mats will come in later. Ana is a sweetheart, beyond sweet. Obviously she knows Mats work inside and out.

In rehearsals you were playing with a black bowler hat. What’s with the hat?

What IS with the hat? I like hats. I am the hat man, as well. I die at the end of my solo. I turn the tv off and I die, because that is my world. “Vacuum Lady” comes on and has a hat. I go for it and she takes it away. I put it on and she sends me somewhere. It’s very conceptual. Either it’s another world or I’m a spirit. I provide transition and “slight leadership”. Every time I come in to change a scene, I’m wearing the hat…except for the finale.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago presents its Winter Series at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph, on Thurs., Dec. 6 at 730 pm, Friday-Saturday, Dec. 7-8 at 8 pm and Sunday, Dec. 9 at 3 pm. Tickets are $25-$99. Call 312.850.9744 or visit hubbardstreetdance.com.

CDF 12: Opening Night slideshow

After School Matters #CDF12
After School Matters CDF 2012
Bolero Chicago CDF 2012
Bolero Chicago CDF 2012
Bolero Chicago CDF 2012
Bolero Chicago CDF 2012
GDC CDF 2012
GDC CDF 2012
HSDC CDF 2012
HSDC CDF 2012
HSDC CDF 2012
Joffrey CDF 2012
Joffrey CDF 2012
Joffrey CDF 2012
 
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View some great photos taken of the Chicago Dancing Festival‘s opening night program Chicago Dancing taken by the ever-lovely Cheryl Mann.

1 & 2: After School Matters in Touch of Soul by Nicholas Leichter

3 – 6: Bolero Chicago by Larry Keigwin

7 & 8: Giordano Dance Chicago dancers Maeghan McHale & Martin Ortiz Tapia in Two Become Three by Alexander Ekman

9-11: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Kellie Epperheimer, Johnny McMillan, Garrett Anderson & Pablo Piantino in Scarlatti by Twyla Tharp

12-14: Joffrey Ballet dancers Victoria Jaiani & Rory Hohenstein in In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated by William Forsythe