- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

The smart, funny program Hubbard Street Dance Chicago brought to Strathmore Music Center Tuesday evening was newsworthy on three counts: It was a rare visit by this too-seldom-seen group from the Windy City; the company has been in the news because of its newly appointed executive director (Jason Palmquist is leaving his post as chief administrator of the Washington Ballet to become Hubbard’s executive director); and the program marked Strathmore’s first serious attempt to create a proper setting for dance.

It’s about time.

Strathmore’s hall is vast and designed without a proper proscenium. Yet, suddenly, voila! Problem solved, or at least addressed. Dark curtains at the top and sides of the stage framed and enclosed the scene, so the dancers gained greater prominence instead of looking like lonely wanderers in a vast undefined landscape.

Speaking of stagecraft, the setting often seemed underlit — whether by Hubbard’s choice or because of Strathmore’s need for a more sophisticated lighting board, it was hard to tell.

The Hubbard Street dancers are exuberant and highly trained — sometimes relaxed and casual but more often razor-sharp. They are bighearted risk-takers, moving through swift, intricate partnering and tossing each other in the air with abandon.

The program began with “Lickety-Split,” a fitting description of the witty number by company dancer and neophyte choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. It was set to a recording of loping, relaxed music by Devendra Banhart, a singer, songwriter and guitarist.

Mr. Cerrudo captures the music’s easygoing charm in a series of swift duets bursting with little movement ideas, flavored with bits of contact improv — dancers leaning against each other’s bodies for support — and punctuated by fast runs around the stage. It all felt fresh and lively. As a choreographer, Mr. Cerrudo is loaded with promise.

“Lickety-Split” is set for three men and three women doing fast-paced partnering, one after the other, while moving in dim spotlights.

“From All Sides,” a local premiere that followed, also is set for three men and three women doing fast-paced partnering — and also moving in dim spotlights.

That was a critical mistake in programming. While the first piece was performed to beguiling music, the second (by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elowas) was set to a strident commissioned score by Mark-Anthony Turnage. The similar look of the two works gave “From All Sides” the feel of an also-ran. It had plenty of invention, but by then, a series of intense, high-energy partnerings had worn out its welcome.

“Strokes Through the Tail,” which followed, was a long-running spoof that drew on a bundle of cliches, double takes, men in drag, false endings, gender bending and nonsensical exits and entrances. Choreographer Marguerite Donlon set the work to parts of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, which she seemed to have chosen more for its rhythmic verve than its incandescent beauty.

At any rate, Miss Donlon played her concept for all it was worth. Five men who started out bare-chested wearing tail-coated evening jackets ended up still bare-chested but sporting Romantic-length ballerina tutus. The sixth dancer was a woman, Cheryl Mann, who played her role reversal from fragile sylph to one of the boys with dispatch.

A lot of it was riotously funny, with the men swooping and swooning with butch good humor. However, the dance ran out of ideas halfway through, and the humor began to feel a little forced. Still, it was good fun and a bright change of pace.

The program concluded with “Gwana,” by the talented Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato and set to North African, Spanish-tinged music. Mr. Duato’s work is sensual, touched with images of nature and with a sense of community. At its heart was an incandescent duet. Beautifully performed, it was a lovely conclusion to an invigorating evening.

** 1/2

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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