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California Center for the Arts, Escondido
March 2, 2008

*This review first appeared on SanDiego.com

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has transformed itself in recent years from a staunchly jazz-focused company to a repertory one, presenting work from internationally renowned choreographers such as Jiri Kylian of Nederlands Dans Teater (former home of HSDC Artistic Director Jim Vincent), Nacho Duato, and Jorma Elo, to name a few.

Friday’s program, presented by the La Jolla Music Society at the North Park Theater, featured works by leading American dance artists Twyla Tharp and Doug Varone. So for a company that usually spreads itself choreographically thin around the world, it was interesting to note that the program in Escondido on Saturday was primarily homegrown. Three of the four works presented came from within the company’s ranks – one by Vincent, one by Associate Artistic Director Lucas Crandell (also on the program Friday) and the most satisfying one by company dancer Alejandro Cerrudo.

Cerrudo’s first work for the company, “Lickety Split,” a playful interpretation of the songs of Devendra Banhart, was the highlight of Friday’s performance in North Park. His newest work, “Extremely Close,” which was “In Preview” in Escondido, went in a more theatrical and dramatic direction, but still confirmed that Hubbard Street has found itself an in-house talent worth holding onto.

White feathers floated down from the fly space as the audience entered, coatingthe blue stage in a soft white cloud. The score of “Extremely Close,” by Philip Glass, set an ominous and almost tragic tone from the start. Using Glass’ music is almost a bit of a cop-out. The driving rhythms, pulsing repetition, and dramatic escalations all incite a visceral reaction on their own. A choreographer needs do very little to elicit awe when riding on the coattails of such sounds.

Yet Cerrudo’s choreography and images managed to hold their own against the score as dancers slid through the billowing feathers. The weightlessness of their falls gave the impression that time was moving in slow motion. The dancers swung each other through the space like an ice-skating pairs team and vanished behind three constantly shifting white walls. The walls gave the work a strikingly cinematic feel. The sudden disappearance and equally sudden reappearances of the dancers imitated the quick cuts of film editing; the walls moved forward and back, framing the stage like views through wide-angle and telephoto lenses.

If there’s one thing that Cerrudo can stand to apply to his work, it’s a more critical editing eye. The female trio in “Extremely Close” did not contribute any new ideas or suggest deeper dimensions (nor did the concluding group section of his “Lickety Split”. But “Extremely Close” ended powerfully with a ferocious duet between Hubbard Street veteran and apparent muse Jamy Meek and Jessica Tong that was alternately tender, unsettling, intimate, and simply human, a trait that is lacking when Hubbard Street tries on the over-sized dances of a Tharp or Kylian. In those instances, the company looked like a kid trying on mom’s high heels. On the other hand, Cerrudo’s work fit them like a glove.

Next up was Crandall’s period ménage-a-trois piece, “The Set,” a comic look at a peculiar threesome and a purple blob of a couch. There was Meredith Dincolo as a woman, Jason Hortin as a man, and Mr. Meek dressed in drag, looking every bit the fair maid, save for his obvious goatee. The three hammed it up with pratfalls and suggestive glances but just when the piece began to read like an interesting commentary on gender roles, sexual expression, and non-traditional partnerships set in proper colonial times, it dissolved into a fairly traditional game of silliness and “odd (wo)man out.”

Filling the international slot on the bill was Ohad Naharin’s “Passomezzo.” Pairing casual gestures and pedestrian strides with clever and humorous partnering, the piece expressed the tug-of-war that defines most relationships. Through dancers Kellie Epperheimer and Yarden Ronen, Naharin explored all those awkward moments, those guessing games, those times when you can’t decide if you’re bored or angry or just in love.

Closing the evening was Artistic Director Vincent’s “Palladio,” inspired by Andrea Palladio’s 16thcentury architectural movement. Despite some moments of strong partnering, the work wobbled on the unstable pillars of uninteresting ensemble choreography, distracting costumes, and a cheesy faux-baroque score by Karl Jenkins.

In the hierarchy of the HSDC institution, it’s interesting to witness the grassroots phenomenon of the strongest work coming from the bottom up. Throughout the remainder of the performance, leftover feathers from Cerrudo’s work continued to drop – at least one or two runaways managed to make an appearance in the other works by Crandall, Naharin, and Vincent. No one on stage paid them any mind, of course, but it was a subtle reminder that the pulse of “Extremely Close” held sway over all that was to follow, that the memory and impression of that work will not be easy to shake. And as the company moves forward and continues to build its repetoire with great big American and international names, it will be wise to keep this young man close. Cerrudo’s tapped into something genuine and organic within his fellow dancers and that honesty is something that Hubbard Street desperately needs in order to reclaim an identity of its own.