What used to be known as an apprentice company, a training ground for those wishing to get into Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC), has finally stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. Hubbard Street 2 (HS2) is not only growing as a force in the Chicago dance community, but by showing their stuff alongside the main company in this week’s engagement at the Harris Theater along with the Chicago premiere of their new interactive children’s program Harold and the Purple Crayon: A Dance Adventure, they prove that this second company is anything but second rate. Under the impassioned direction of Taryn Kaschock Russell, former Joffrey Ballet and HSDC dancer, HS2 is growing high-caliber artists and engaging the community with inspiring and inventive educational outreach.
The young artists of HS2 (six company members and two apprentices) are an extension of her family — husband Greg, a former Joffrey dancer as well, and son Donovan. A birthday gift to her son from colleague Terry Marling — Crockett Johnson’s children’s classic Harold and the Purple Crayon — sparked an idea that soon became a labor of love for everyone involved. “As I’m reading the book to him, I’m thinking ‘this is choreographic process’,” she says. “This boy is creating his own world from scratch. Nothing exists before it. It’s his imagination and he’s empowering himself. What a great connection for children to understand.” The details fell into place quickly. HSDC Artistic Associate Terence Marling and HSDC dancer Robyn Mineko Williams agreed to choreograph. Williams had the brilliant idea to use local composer Andrew Bird, who opened his entire library for the team to pick from. Literary rights were easily obtained after finding out the executor of Johnson’s estate (Stewart I. Edelstein) is a big fan of HSDC. Other staff on board for production, Rebecca Shouse (costumes), Matthew Miller (lighting), Ryan Wineinger (scenic and projections) and long-time board member Joel Cory, a professional voice actor, agreed to lend his voice the read the story. By utilizing in-house talents for almost all aspects of the production, Harold is a Hubbard Street collaborative masterpiece.
Costumed in onesies — complete with a saggy butt! — the cast takes the audience on Harold’s journey in a new and incredible way. Dancer Jamal Rashann Callender, new to HS2 this season, plays a dreaming Harold as the curtain goes up. With extensive training (Eliot Feld program at Ballet Tech, Professional Performing Arts School/The Ailey School, graduating from Julliard and a year with Atlanta Ballet), he has found a happy home here in Chicago. “I had a bookmark on my computer for Hubbard Street,” says Callender. “It’s still there. It’s been called different things like ‘my dream job’, but now it’s just called Hubbard Street. It’s been my dream to be in this environment…where there is such an interaction that I don’t think you get at other places.” That interaction starts with company class every day with the main company and working with in-house and handpicked choreographers that will challenge the young dancers to grow and expand their experience and knowledge base. Working with veterans like Marling and Williams proved to be a new process for Callender. “When we first started, it was a mesh between improv and set choreography,” he says. “They both came in with a very open canvas. They were giving us phrases and then seeing how we could manipulate those phrases. It was very interesting to work that way.”
Along with Harold, this weekend brings HS2’s Chicago premiere of a work by Samar Haddad King, winner of HS2’s 2010 National Choreographic Competition. Getting there, staying here is a true collaboration with the dancers. Coming in with a few phrases of movement she created with her company in New York and some key words and ideas (dive, pointing, grabbing), King worked with the HS2 dancers to create a unique and emotional piece. Enlisting writing and acting exercises to help focus the abstract narrative of her work, during her two-week initial visit in September, was definitely different. “We created everything in the first week,” King recalls. “Everyone was kind of shocked, but that’s how I work…get a shell out there, then work backwards, editing, editing, editing.”
Implementing acrobatic moves (“I’m really into dive rolls right now.”) and using phrases of imagery like ice skating to feel a sense of gliding and freedom or referencing the movie Avatar to get the dancers to really feel a connection, King brings an edge to the broader theme of people feeling resistance and being stuck, but coming together and trying to find a path out. Russell says the company has really grown after working with King, and it shows. HS2’s success and growth, along with hard work and trust, comes back to Russell and her nurturing enthusiasm for these dancers, their education and their careers. “I’d say, hands down, that Taryn is one of the best directors and leaders of a dance company that I’ve come into contact with,” says King. “She’s such a great person. She’s nurturing and smart. I could sing her praises for years.” The bond she shares with her dancers goes on after they leave HS2. She works hard to make sure they are prepared for whatever comes next and actively helps to find them homes in other companies if there aren’t any spots open at HSDC (and openings are extremely rare these days). This mutual affection was on display last night at the Harris, when Russell ran up to former HS2 dancer Eduardo Zuniga (now dancing with Luna Negra) to give him a huge hug and excitedly chat with him during intermission.
Hubbard Street Winter Series runs through December 5th at the Harris Theater. Harold and the Purple Crayon: A Dance Adventure has its last performance Saturday, December 4th at 3 pm. (This show is SOLD OUT.)