If New York City is America’s dance capital, Chicago is not far behind. The city is considered the cultural capital of the Midwest, and it’s home to scores of dance studios, theaters, and companies. Preeminent among them is Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Next Tuesday, October 25, the company comes to the Granada Theatre courtesy of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures.
Unlike many modern dance groups, Hubbard Street has never focused on the work of a single choreographer. Ever since Lou Conte founded the company in 1978, it has been a true repertory group, commissioning works from a range of artists. In 2009, longtime Joffrey Ballet dancer and Nederlands Dans Theater director Glenn Edgerton assumed artistic direction of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Last week, he spoke to me by phone about the program they’ll bring to Santa Barbara and why modern dance matters. He also described the delicate balance between honoring the company’s history and pushing his dancers to go beyond what they’ve done before.
Tell me about the three works on this program: Jirˇí Kylián’s “2752” and “Petite Mort” and Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad.” Jiří Kylián is one of the more phenomenal choreographers of our time. He’s forever showing many facets to humankind to really get the essence of emotion and physicality. I’m always looking for choreographers like him who have their own individuality and a powerful sense of humanity.
Like Kylián, Inger is also a former colleague of mine from Nederlands Dans Theater, and when I was there, he created this piece “Walking Mad.” I think it’s a wonderful piece — it’s upbeat, there’s humor involved, and there’s also a clever conceptual set: a wall that creates different scenarios.
What do you look for in your dancers? What makes Hubbard Street dancers different? I look for dancers who are open-minded. Of course, there has to be a certain level of technique and physicality, but I have come to learn that you can have the most phenomenal technician in front of you, yet if they aren’t curious about looking further than what they know — if you constantly have to drag them along with you — then it doesn’t work. So first and foremost, I make sure we have good people who are ready to delve into the work.
How do you balance honoring the company’s legacy with moving things forward? Here’s an example: As we speak, Twyla Tharp is creating a new work on the company that premieres this Thursday. Lou Conte worked with her, but she hasn’t been in our studios for 15 years, and I brought her back into the fold. It’s vital to me that I’m taking care of the history of the company and also bringing it forward.
What’s most rewarding about your work? Seeing a dancer go beyond what she thought she was capable of is certainly a thrill. My approach involves challenging the dancers even when they don’t want to be challenged. Even though it can be difficult, they understand that we’re going somewhere for a reason, and they’re ready for the ride. In each performance I watch, one dancer pops out as having gone beyond what they did the night before, or what they did in rehearsal, or even what the choreographer is expecting, and that is my payback. I sit there in the audience, and I am very gratified by the tiniest nuances, because these dancers are at such a high level that to reach that next step is really a big hurdle.
Why is modern dance important? I find when I’m watching dance that I see something of myself expressed in the work. Even when I talk to people who are seeing dance for the first time, they talk about recognizing their own lives on the stage. In all of the work we present, there’s a sense of humanity at the core of the choreography. I find dance speaks to people differently than if they go to a museum or a music concert or a movie. Dance speaks to people in a unique way. If we were to lose that, we would lose a huge part of our culture.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago will perform at the Granada (1214 State St.) on Tuesday, October 25, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu. The company will also hold a master class at Gustafson Dance on Monday, October 24, at 5:30 p.m. To reserve a spot, call 966-6950.