February 25, 2020

Windy City’s Best Leap Into the Bowl

As artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Jim Vincent remains passionately committed to working with choreographers from all over the world. “This company has never been based on a singular voice,” he says.

Considered one of America’s leading and most distinctive contemporary dance companies, Hubbard Street will display its trademark eclecticism when it debuts at the Hollywood Bowl on July 25. Founded by Lou Conte in 1977, the company rose to prominence as it steadily acquired dances by acclaimed American and foreign choreographers, ranging from Lar Lubovitch to Jiri Kylián to Ohad Naharin. The artistic director of Israel’s famed Batsheva Dance Company, Naharin has been a particularly vibrant force in the company’s history, with two of his dances remaining in its current repertory.

Since the company will be collaborating with the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, musically appropriate dances have been chosen for the performance. “Counter/part,” choreographed by Vincent, features Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerti” while “Strokes Through the Tail,” by Irish choreographer Marguerite Donlon, has been set to Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40.”

Created for 10 dancers, Vincent’s work explores the effect that an individual can have on a group and how “things become more precarious when emotion enters a relationship. The dancers start off well-postured and erect,” Vincent said. “But when the lone dancer injects himself in the group, they start to slump over and collapse.”

In contrast to the dark poignancy infusing Vincent’s work, humor predominantly figures into “Strokes Through the Tail.” Created for five men and one woman, the dance features movement where the dancers seem to emulate musical notes on a page. Sly and playful, Donlon’s work toys with gender role-reversals and explores the struggle for control.

Both dances have been praised by critics for virtuosic, ballet-influenced movement, sharp visual imagery and, according to Vincent, they possess an exceptional compatibility with orchestral accompaniment. Having spent much of his career in Europe dancing with live orchestras, Vincent feels strongly about “the audience’s ability to see both the musicians and the dancers simultaneously. It deepens the perspective of the performance,” he said. “Whenever I engage choreographers, I always ask them to consider pieces that are possible for sharing the stage with an orchestra in addition to black box theaters with recorded music.”

While Hubbard Street has a seasoned history of performing with live orchestras, its Bowl debut “marks a first because we’ve never performed in that large a space,” Vincent said.

With a seating capacity of just under 18,000, the Bowl demands that dancers consider “the space they’re defining as important as the execution of steps. That’s critical for that kind of distance,” he added, admitting to “being very curious about the outcome. If you see some guy running all the way to the back of the Bowl during the performance, that’s me.”

Although absent from the Bowl program, two of Naharin’s dances — “Minus 16” and “Tabula Rasa” — are still performed by the company on a regular basis. Two other Naharin works, “Passomezzo” and “Queens/Black Milk” had also been part of Hubbard Street’s repertory.

When Vincent replaced founding director Conte as the artistic director in 2000, they had a conversation “about the future of the company, and we tried to agree on specific choreographers. The one person who immediately came to mind for both of us was Ohad,” he said. “What’s special about Ohad is that he perceives dancers as deeply human rather than just instruments of dance.”

“Minus 16,” originally commissioned by the Nederlands Dans Theater, contains the most specific references to Jewish-Israeli culture. Set to a boisterous blend of cha-cha, mambo, techno and traditional Jewish music, the dance can be viewed as a choreographic equivalent to a greatest-hits compilation. It borrows from several other Naharin works and involves everything from highly acrobatic movement to clothes stripping to audience participation. In one section, the dancers, dressed like Chasidism, chant in Hebrew and move as if in the midst of ecstatic prayer.

For a dance company that prides itself on eclecticism, “Minus 16” has proven to be a particularly good fit.

“Ohad’s choreography can be interpreted on different levels, from the enjoyable to the deeply contemplative,” Vincent observed. “Anyone can appreciate his work, whether they think the dancers are dressed like Chasidim or the Blues Brothers.”

Always on the lookout for promising choreographers from abroad, Vincent said he’s currently interested in the work of Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili and points to American expatriates as a potentially fertile source.

“Finding singular voices in a world that has become smaller is definitely a challenge, but I’m always trying to introduce the new and different,” he said. “Relationships with other choreographers are vital to this company.”

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Tues., July 25, 8 p.m., Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. $6-$43. (323) 850-2000. For more information on Hubbard Street, visit www.hubbardstreetdance.com.