Eclectic, All-American Virtuosity Gives Hubbard Dance Group Mass Appeal

As American as apple pie and just as hard to resist, the Chicago-based Hubbard Street Dance Company is something of a good-will ambassador--both on the home front and abroad.

In fact, a captivated dance critic on the Toronto Star observed last summer that Hubbard Street is "so fully the embodiment of everything American in dance, it deserves to travel on a diplomatic passport."

How does artistic director Lou Conte, who founded the effervescent troupe in 1977, explain his all-American image?

"That's something a lot of people say about us," Conte acknowledged in an interview from his Chicago studio last week. "But I don't even know what they mean by an all-American company. Maybe it's our high energy and our wholesomeness.

"We do a lot of touring--around the country, and in Europe--and people are wonderful to us," he said. "We're not German expressionist. We're not Pina Bausch. We're different in every number and every show. But people certainly perceive us as purely American. Maybe it's our eclecticism. I don't really know."

This weekend, the Hubbard Street gang will give San Diego dance buffs a chance to judge for themselves. The Chicago-based troupe makes its local debut with a pair of concerts at the Spreckels Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The performances are sponsored by the San Diego Foundation for the Performing Arts.

With a repertory that combines everything from ballet and tap to funky show-biz jazz in one stylish package, the Hubbard Street dancers enjoy mass appeal everywhere they perform. They are so popular, even with non-dance audiences, that their concerts are often dismissed as sleek commercial entertainment, not serious art.

But Conte doesn't mind the labels. He is convinced that concert dance does not have to be heavy to be good.

"No, it doesn't bother me," he assured. "It's just that a lot of people think, if it's entertaining, it must not be very good artistically. They think 'art' has to be incomprehensible, but I find a lot of that stuff boring. The company is very serious. We work five days a week, eight hours a day, and, even if a piece is funny, we take it seriously.

"When we started out, we had just four women, and our intention was to entertain senior citizens," he recalled. "Now, we're a company of 16 (although they will be down two for the San Diego performances), but entertainment values are still very much at the forefront of what we do."

As a result, Hubbard Street dances tend to be bright, breezy and high- spirited, albeit technically challenging.

"We don't address serious issues," Conte said. "People might object to the fact that we don't make comments on mankind and where he is going or where he has been. But we have good

technique, and there's a lot of good dancing."

Conte was almost the exclusive choreographer for the company during its first five years. But he backed off considerably in 1982 to expand Hubbard Street's horizons.

Hubbard Street still shuns a highfalutin image. However, Conte now uses a wide range of well-known dance makers to flesh out the troupe's eclectic repertory, as this weekend's concert will demonstrate. Four of the seven dances slated for San Diego were created by guest artists, and two of those were commissioned by the company.

"I haven't choreographed anything for the company since I did 'Georgia' (1987), which we'll be dancing in San Diego," said Conte. "We've taken a new direction and lost some of our personality.

"But we're gaining substance and eclecticism," he pointed out. "Our choreography is ballet-based modern, not really jazz. And it's really difficult to find dancers who are well-trained in ballet, modern, and jazz. That's something we're constantly working on."

During the troupe's first visit to San Diego, Hubbard Street will give David Parsons' zany signature piece ("The Envelope") another airing. Parsons showcased the black comedy at his own company concert a month ago.

Conte commissioned Margo Sappington (formerly of the Joffrey Ballet) to create "Step Out of Love," set to a hard-edged rock score by Steve Forsyth. And Pilobolus/Momix alumnus Daniel Ezralow created "Super Straight is Coming Down" especially for the Hubbard Street dancers.

Ironically, Ezralow, whose contributions to both Pilobolus and Momix were witty and whimsical, made the most serious work on the program.

"It's a heavy, abstract piece," Conte said. "The vocabulary is based on improvisations with the dancers."

San Francisco-trained John McFall's "Tiempo" dates back to 1983, but it too will be part of Hubbard Street's San Diego debut concert.

"That's an old piece," Conte acknowledged, "but it's very modern and it goes like lightning. John took Stravinsky's clarinet solo, played it and choreographed it at half speed, then did the same thing at full speed, so you get two perspectives."

Local aficionados will see vintage Conte when the full company bands together for the rollicking finale titled "The '40s." This quintessential Hubbard Street dance evokes the flavor and dance styles of the Big Band period, complete with the top-hatted elegance of the nightclub set and the earthy jitterbug strutting of the bobby-sox crowd.

Also on tap is the high-spirited "Line Drive," co-choreographed by Conte and his assistant director Claire Bataille, an original dancer with the troupe. "Line Drive" offers the full company another opportunity to show off its hallmarks--high energy, good-humor and razor-sharp precision.

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