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Forsythe Works Elicit Mixed Feelings in Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Program at ADF

by Amanda Abrams
July 8, 2016
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian Street
Durham, NC 27701
919.688.3722
Does one amazing piece cancel out two ‘meh’ ones?

That’s what I was wondering as I left the Durham Performing Arts Center on a rainy Friday night (July 8). I’d just seen a show by Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance as part of the American Dance Festival in Durham, NC. The company had performed three pieces by William Forsythe, the American choreographer who made his name in Germany; two of them had never been reproduced by an American dance company before.

It was the third one, though, that had blown me away. I’d seen Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing, reproduced” on film years ago, and remember the impact it had on me then. Seeing it live was far more powerful.

The piece starts with a shock: the deafening roar of twenty people dragging twenty large metal tables from the very back of the stage to the center. The dancers retreat, then emerge gradually as the movement begins, accompanied by metallic, futuristic sounds by composer Thom Willems. Placed on a grid with just a body’s width between them, the tables were ingenious props that served as the dancers’ partners. It’s like a schoolkid’s exercise in prepositions: What can dancers do with a table? They do it all here, stretching legs and arms along the surfaces, scurrying between, hurtling over, squatting beneath, standing above, sitting on, sliding along, pressing through.

The stage was a frenzy of activity that no first-time viewer could hope to keep up with. There was simply too much going on. Not that everyone’s dancing at once; the roughly twenty-minute piece mixed large ensemble moments with smaller group interactions and some duets and solos. But the choreography was incredibly complicated. A clique of dancers might each be busily doing their own thing in one corner while a trio downstage broke into sudden, surprising unison—then everyone drifted apart again, and into some new formation. The energy was consistently high; from time to time, hands slapped the tabletops in unison, as if urging the other dancers to “keep it up, keep it up.”

There were instances of slapstick, and others of what appeared to be genuine, sweet connection. For a few memorable moments, a soloist lay on his back and carved the space with his legs, in perfect time with the music, which had been distilled momentarily to a single hollow sound.

But above all, the dance was a lovely example of graphic design in motion. The tables’ clean lines and angles provided a visual theme that the dancers were continually complementing and counterpointing. Their legs spoke into space at oblique angles, arms tangled and emerged, bodies clustered then dissolved: it was a constantly moving tableau that one simply took in, spellbound.

Unfortunately, the rest of the show was not as exceptional. The first piece, “N.N.N.N.,” featured four dancers who represented, according to the program notes, four parts of the mind in constant connection. The piece was performed entirely in silence, and maybe that was part of the problem: when the dancing isn’t quite enough, music can help carry the viewer along.

And the dancing wasn’t quite enough. It was intricate and incredibly smart, as is Forsythe’s style: the dancers braided in and out of duets, using momentum with each interaction to gather complexity. But to really take it all in took a level of concentration that, for me, was akin to watching soccer: I have to zero in on one small area and observe it with all the attention I can muster. With this piece, I could barely manage it for more than a few minutes at a time. Otherwise, the movement felt sterile; none of the dancers’ personalities or movement styles drew me in.

There was something more human about the second piece, “Quintett.” Five dancers, each clad in a different color, took turns participating in solos, duets, and trios that were at times romantic, conflicted, and jubilant. Two of the dancers have distinct personalities: a man in green was loose-limbed and goofy, clowning and falling and spiraling his way across the stage. A woman in orange was oddly awkward, with an almost feral grace. They stood in opposition to the other three, whose characters were more typically balletic and bland, with lots of preening and astonishingly extended legs, but not much else.

The piece, which was set to Gavin Bryars’ melancholy composition, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” closed on an interesting note. A projection of cirrus clouds appeared on the back wall near the end of the piece, and slowly the set grew darker. At the very end, one woman remained dancing onstage, backlit by lonely clouds as night gradually fell.

That ending almost redeemed the piece for me. What I realized when I left the theater is that Forsythe’s choreography is intricate, intellectual, and incredibly complex, and yet that’s not enough for me. I need something else—whether it’s mood, personality, or a brilliant visual addition—to fully enjoy a show.
Hubbard Street Dancers Jacqueline Burnett and David Schultz in William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, with, upstage, Jesse Bechard and Michael Gross.

Hubbard Street Dancers Jacqueline Burnett and David Schultz in William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, with, upstage, Jesse Bechard and Michael Gross.

Photo © & courtesy of Todd Rosenberg


Hubbard Street Dancers Jesse Bechard, above, and Kevin J. Shannon in William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, with, upstage from left, Florian Lochner, Alice Klock, David Schultz, Emilie Leriche, and Ana Lopez.

Hubbard Street Dancers Jesse Bechard, above, and Kevin J. Shannon in William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, with, upstage from left, Florian Lochner, Alice Klock, David Schultz, Emilie Leriche, and Ana Lopez.

Photo © & courtesy of Todd Rosenberg


Hubbard Street Dancers in N.N.N.N. by William Forsythe, from left: Emilie Leriche, Jacqueline Burnett, and Jeffery Duffy.

Hubbard Street Dancers in N.N.N.N. by William Forsythe, from left: Emilie Leriche, Jacqueline Burnett, and Jeffery Duffy.

Photo © & courtesy of Todd Rosenberg


Hubbard Street Dancers in N.N.N.N. by William Forsythe, from left: Alicia Delgadillo, Andrew Murdock, Ana Lopez, and Florian Lochner.

Hubbard Street Dancers in N.N.N.N. by William Forsythe, from left: Alicia Delgadillo, Andrew Murdock, Ana Lopez, and Florian Lochner.

Photo © & courtesy of Todd Rosenberg


Hubbard Street Dancer Andrew Murdock in Quintett by William Forsythe.

Hubbard Street Dancer Andrew Murdock in Quintett by William Forsythe.

Photo © & courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

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