In Chicago they build things right -- and that goes for dance companies. In January, Joffrey Ballet of Chicago displayed its artistic vitality in Los Angeles with its splendid staging of Frederick Ashton’s postwar masterpiece " Cinderella” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
And now Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the next offering of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center, also augurs well. From humble beginnings in 1977 as a jazz-dance ensemble, the troupe of 17 virtuoso dancers has surged to international prominence on its high-quality delivery of eclectic, sophisticated European choreography.
A modern-dance empire -- comprising senior and junior companies (both of which tour), community outreach and education components -- now rules the shores of Lake Michigan.
And because empires must expand, Hubbard Street spills further into Los Angeles, where it annually conducts an intensive three-week summer dance workshop at the Colburn School. The troupe has launched key conversations to ramp up its L.A. presence, mirroring the Joffrey’s bicoastal model when it was the Music Center’s resident ballet company in the 1980s. All this on a modest annual budget of about $7 million comprising an impressive array of grants and corporate and individual patronage reflecting years of steady fundraising.
Is it something in the Great Lakes water, or just Midwestern know-how? Chatting over lunch at a Music Center brasserie while in Los Angeles in February to oversee a Pasadena performance by his junior troupe, Glenn Edgerton, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s artistic director since 2008, takes careful aim at the question.
“What we’ve done right is to create a reputation that Hubbard Street is part of Chicago,” he says evenly. “It comes out of Chicago, it speaks to the energy of Chicago, and it’s tailored to what Chicago audiences want in innovation, entertainment and art. Lou Conte [the company’s Broadway-dancer founder] was a master at implementing that reputation. He delivered an accessible art form to the public, so people would exit the theater whistling a tune or talking about what they saw.”
Edgerton carries the torch now. Once a 14-year-old protégé whom Robert Joffrey discovered at a Houston ballet school, Edgerton at 50 brandishes an impeccable international dance pedigree.
His professional career kicked in unexpectedly when a New York summer workshop morphed into a contract with Joffrey II. After a decade dancing for Joffrey in New York and Los Angeles, Edgerton smartly hopped the pond in 1989, just as the American dance boom was beginning to wane. From the superlative vantage point of Nederlands Dans Theater in The Hague, he encountered the European scene in blast-off mode. Five years later, he was running the adventurous contemporary ballet troupe, which in the 1990s attracted the world’s hottest choreographic talent -- most of it European and male.
“My time in Europe opened my eyes: [Jirí] Kylián, [Nacho] Duato, [ William] Forsythe, Mats Ek, [Hans] van Manen, [Ohad] Naharin. Dancing in that vicinity, I was very fortunate.”
Edgerton culled the upcoming Ahmanson Theatre program from that A-list. This weekend’s standout is the West Coast premiere of “27'52,” " a work for three couples by the Czech master choreographer Kylián and clearly an Edgerton favorite. “Kylián’s work operates on so many levels it’s phenomenal,” he says. “The imagery is so rich.” A relatively controlled man, Edgerton exudes passion for Kylián’s art: “He was my second mentor after Robert Joffrey. His work has arrived at a point of fine simplicity. There is nothing extraneous on the stage. No moment is inconsequential; it’s all predestined or put there specially.”
“When we stage Kylián’s work, I don’t want to just re-create. I want people to say that my company gets the essence of his work.”
In “27'52" " (the title as well as the length of the piece -- 27 minutes, 52 seconds), the stage floor, an element of the dance, becomes destabilized and is pulled from under the dancers’ feet. “It represents the instability and fragility of life,” says Edgerton.
The score by Dirk Haubrich, a German composer who has collaborated on four prior Kylián pieces, contains French, German and English text, played at times in reverse with the movement retrograding as well. “We all get that feeling that maybe we could take back our words,” he muses.
“Tabula Rasa,” made in 1986 by Batsheva Dance Company director Ohad Naharin, is also on the slate. Hubbard Street’s early recognition of the charismatic Israeli’s prodigious talent and the five Naharin works in its repertory earn the Chicagoans kudos. Set to music by Arvo Pärt, “Tabula Rasa” celebrates Naharin’s deep digging for movement impetus at the solar plexus level as well as his rhythmic momentum building. The first of two contrasting sections is bombastic, says Edgerton, “like a tsunami hitting you, relentless in its energy.” The second evokes a sense of longing and loss.
Finally, Johan Inger, a fellow Nederlands Dans alumnus and director of Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet, contributes the drolly titled “Walking Mad,” set to Ravel’s “Bolero.” The prop-driven comic piece, Edgerton observes, is also “angst-tinged.”
The Texan’s global career has brought him full circle to the capital of Middle America.
“I think it’s important to show both American and European choreography. Just put it all on the stage and let it speak for itself,” he says. “The difference is not in the result but in the process. Europeans have far more time to explore. Here, time is money. U.S. dance makers have to scramble to get rehearsal and tech time. In Europe, a piece gets teched in a week, in the U.S. in a day.
“Choreographers there are allowed to fail,” he notes. “Artists need to be able to feel it’s not the end of the world if they get a bad review. The repercussions of failing are too high here.”
Edgerton oversees a program of strong collaborations with mainstream cultural institutions, which entrenches Hubbard Street further as a player in the Windy City artscape. As he slyly puts it: “We have our fingers in the cookie jar in a variety of ways. We perform with Chicago Symphony Orchestra annually. We’re just finishing a yearlong residency in the new modern wing of Art Institute of Chicago -- which is sensational. And we’ve completed in-house choreographic designs with [architecture school] Illinois Institute of Technology, with dance installations performed at Crown Hall, considered a Mies van der Rohe masterpiece.
“It’s a mission of mine to bring these collaborations to L.A. It could be done with MOCA, the L.A. Phil and others,” says Edgerton, who knows Los Angeles from his two-year stint as the Colburn School’s dean of dance. “We can [replicate] the same dynamic. It would be very easy and natural for us to be seen more in L.A.”
On March 15, UCLA Live announced a similar kind of arrangement with New York-based Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet to begin in 2011, comprising biannual concert dance performances at Royce Hall, informal “installation” performances, master classes and educational outreach to kids. Ashley Wheater of Joffrey Ballet of Chicago expressed a similar desire to establish a serious presence in L.A. for his company.
Is this the best L.A. dance lovers can hope for? To be the Pacific outpost of established dance organizations from other cities? “Why not?” asks Edgerton. “L.A. is modern. It’s progressive. This city has a contemporary feel. It’s very hospitable. There’s synergy between Hubbard Street and Los Angeles. I think we will have a regular presence in L.A.
“Our eclecticism, our cultivation of new choreography is what makes Hubbard Street unique. We are poised to demonstrate what dance can be and where dance can go. We don’t even know where it is. Wherever it is, I want to be the catalyst.”