In the beginning — and that was four decades ago — Hubbard Street Dance Company was Chicago’s principal claim to dance fame, and frankly, it didn’t have much competition. The company was the creation of Lou Conte, a Broadway dancer and teacher with a superb eye for dancers with distinctive personalities and supremely polished technique, who also had a gift for choreographing sophisticated pieces with popular appeal.

HUBBARD STREET DANCE CHICAGO
Highly recommended
When: Through June 11
Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph
Tickets: $30 – $102
Info: www.hubbardstreetdance.com
Run time: 2 hours, with two intermissions

Hubbard Street developed a fervent following in Chicago and beyond, and by the time Conte ceded the company’s artistic directorship to Jim Vincent in 2000 he had turned it into a full-fledged repertory troupe that performed the work of such internationally renowned choreographers as Jiri Kylian, Nacho Duato, Twyla Tharp and Ohad Naharin, and traveled widely to great acclaim. Its reputation has been honed further by Glenn Edgerton, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer and artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theater who, since taking the helm of Hubbard Street in 2009, has continued to draw on the work of major contemporary choreographers, and has even forged a collaboration with The Second City.

The company’s summer program, a prologue to its upcoming 40th anniversary season, is nothing short of sensational. And while the eight works (or excerpts of pieces) being performed here are not arranged chronologically, overall it offers a rare opportunity to savor the work from each decade in Hubbard Street’s evolution, and, by extension, the evolution of contemporary dance itself.

In addition, the eclectic nature of this program avoids a problem that has sometimes plagued Hubbard Street concerts, when a certain lack of any narrative thread, and a sameness in music and movement, have blurred the impact of the individual pieces, no matter how brilliantly they are danced.

“Imprint,” a hauntingly sensual duet choreographed by Lucas Crandall (the company’s gifted rehearsal director) opens the program. Set to a section of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” it features a ghostly couple (with stunning dancing by Emilie Leriche and Jesse Bechard), who seem to be getting acquainted or reacquainted in the afterlife, with a push-pull relationship that is achingly sad and moving in its intimacy.

A total reversal of mood occurs in “One Flat Thing, reproduced,” modernist choreographer William Forsythe’s fiendishly difficult work for 14 dancers and tightly packed rows of large, rectangular metal tables. The tables are the maze-like environment in which the dancers interact with such complexity of timing and ferocious intensity that you fear for their safety (and their sanity). Set to a grating electronic score by the Dutch composer Thom Willems, the work (best seen from the higher seats) has the quality of stylized combat as enacted in the feverish brutality of an urban jungle. Forsythe could use an editor (he generates a thrill but lets it become tedious). But the dancers are so relentless you can only cheer them for surviving the ordeal.

Hubbard Street dancers Jessica Tong and Jesse Bechard in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces.”| TODD ROSENBERG

There is always a touch of magic and eccentric lyrical poetry in the work of Alejandro Cerrudo, the Spanish-born dancer who joined the company in 2005, became its resident choreographer in 2009, and now creates work for companies throughout the world. Those qualities are fully evident in the excerpt (Water Section) from “One Thousand Pieces,” set to the music of Philip Glass. Against a backdrop of three towers of fog, and a floor splattered with water, Cerrudo explores several relationships in a pair of duets (featuring Alice Klock and David Schultz, and Emilie Leriche and Andrew Murdock), and then with a group of five dancers (Jacqueline Burnett, Ana Lopez, Jessica Tong, Jesse Bechard and Florian Lochner) seen in various combinations. The dancing could not be more exquisite.

Jim Vincent’s “Palladio,” to the music of Karl Jenkins, also featured breathtakingly lovely dancing by Kellie Epperheimer, Michael Gross, Ana Lopez and Andrew Murdock.

“The Golden Section,” set to the propulsive music of David Byrne, recalls the company’s 1990s project devoted to remounting the work of the ever-prolific Twyla Tharp whose stock-in-trade is the mixing of ballet and modern technique, acrobatic lifts, feverish high speed and an explosion of pop energy and technical virtuosity. The 13 dancers here, dressed in sunflower yellow leotards, flew through this marathon work with the greatest of ease. But I’d choose the work of the brilliant Canadian choreographer, Crystal Pite, over that of Tharp’s any day.

Pite’s dances will be the focus of an entire program by Hubbard street in December, but for now you can be blown away by “A Picture of You Falling,” a solo set to the music of Owen Belton, with narration by the British actress Kate Strong. Dancer Jesse Bechard’s bravura turn in this portrait of a man with a jointed and disjointed existence, and a tragicomic view of mortality, is alone worth the price of admission.

Closing the program are two classics by founder Lou Conte: “Georgia,” the bittersweet duet of love and loss set to Willie Nelson’s “Georgia on My Mind” (beautifully danced by Jacqueline Burnett and Jason Hortin), and “The 40s,” the work celebrating the sound of the big band era and the playful energy of the jitterbug that for years served as the company’s signature piece. A perfect ending to Hubbard Street’s journey back in time.