For the past 12 years, Chicago resident Jessica Tong has made a habit of pulling on a pair of sturdy boots and hopping on the 126 bus toward the West Loop, whatever the weather. On the corner of Jackson and Racine, across the street from the Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, she has slipped into the Lou Conte Dance Studio season after season to stamp out a familiar training regimen: ballet class, rehearsals, and lunch, followed by more rehearsals into the early evening.
As a member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the celebrated contemporary dance company that set up shop in a once-desolate corner of the city some 40 years ago, Tong has seen the company (not to mention the neighborhood) transform considerably with each passing year. “We’re constantly working with a stream of fresh choreographers,” she said in a recent phone interview, “allowing us to explore a full range of styles. It challenges us and forces us to be more self-aware, but I like to think it’s what makes our work so electric.”
This season, change takes on a personal nuance for Tong as she relinquishes her illustrious position as a dancer for the main company, opting instead to flex her leadership skills as Hubbard Street’s newly appointed rehearsal director. “It’s strange: I haven’t really had time to process my new role, because it’s been so busy around here,” she said. “The transition feels comfortable because I’m so familiar with the environment, but of course being the person at the front of the room has its challenges.”
Her first order of business has been to prepare the company for a multicity tour under the artistic direction of Glen Edgerton, including a much-anticipated appearance in Santa Barbara as part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures Dance series. Rolling out a rich tapestry of choreographic expressions by William Forsythe, Robyn Mineko Williams, and Nacho Duato, Tong describes the evening’s bill as a concerted attempt “to push the classification of contemporary dance and invoke lively discussion among the audience.”
On the program is Hubbard Street’s newest commission, “Cloudline,” from former company dancer Williams, a dazzling succession of duets folding seamlessly into one another with the aid of a rippling swath of fabric. Spanish choreographer Duato will contribute two complementary works that echo his affinity for the pulsating and expressive: “ViolonCello,” a quick-witted excerpt from Multiplicity / Forms of Silence and Emptiness that spiritedly uses the pas de deux as a physical ode to Johann Sebastian Bach, and Jardi Tancat (Catalan for “Closed Garden”) a terracotta-hued ensemble piece that swirls and glides across the stage’s expanse, depicting the everyday human trials recounted in old Catalonian folktales. Rounding out the evening will be Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing, reproduced,” a high-octane masterpiece set on the company two years ago and so reliant on timing one is apt to suspend all manner of breathing until the final battement is executed over a striking grid of 20 metal tables.
Choreographers have often described the Hubbard Street dancers as a unified force of hungry participants, willing to sink their teeth into concepts that challenge their range with each visiting artist, which Tong attributes to the dance climate that Chicago cultivates. “The dance community here is so warm and supportive,” she stressed. “Everyone wants to strive and thrive, but the competitive undertones of other places aren’t really present here.” There are other benefits, too, she continued, “like a full-sized kitchen and a small outdoor space,” luxuries beyond her reach during her years as a dancer in New York City. When asked how she feels waiting for that number 126 bus come January, when Chicago temperatures have been known to fall easily below freezing, she laughed knowingly. “Well, you’d be surprised how far a good coat and a warm pair of boots will get you.”
Hubbard Street Dance performs Tuesday, October 3, 8 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.).
Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.