Hubbard Street dancers set to explore Crystal Pite’s intense moves

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Choreographer Crystal Pite rehearses Hubbard Street Dance Chicago ahead of its Winter Series, running Dec. 7-10 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. | James Foster/for the Sun-Times

The work of the internationally acclaimed, Canadian-based choreographer Crystal Pite has been introduced to Chicago audiences in tantalizing bits and pieces during the past eight years.

First there was the all-too-rare visit by the Nederlands Dans Theatre to the Auditorium Theatre in 2009, when the company left an indelible impression with its performance of “The Second Person,” a complex exploration of the dynamics of human interaction as conjured through a mix of dance, puppets, voice-over narration by British actress Kate Strong (penned by Pite herself), and the music of Owen Belton, with whom Pite has collaborated for more than two decades.

Then, in 2014, it was Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s (HSDC) turn to do the honors with an excerpt from Pite’s “A Picture of You Falling.” It was reprised at last summer’s Dance for Life, where it doubled as a tour de force farewell by veteran HSDC dancer Jason Hortin, whose flailing limbs and sudden off-kilter falls suggested a man repeatedly buffeted by life in the manner of a character in a Samuel Beckett play.

A year later, the company performed Pite’s sextet, “Solo Echo,” capturing the kinetic and emotional changes in people as they move from youth to late life, with music by Brahms and a snowfall that poetically echoed such shifts. The audience went wild when it was reprised by Hubbard Street last month as part of the Auditorium’s gala.

HUBBARD STREET DANCE CHICAGO’S WINTER SERIES When:7:30 p.m. Dec. 7; 8 p.m. Dec. 8-9; 3 p.m Dec. 10 Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Tickets: $25 – $110 Info: www.hubbardstreetdance.com

Choreographer Crystal Pite (kneeling) homes in on Jacqueline Burnett during rehearsal with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. | James Foster/for the Sun-Times

Choreographer Crystal Pite (kneeling) homes in on Jacqueline Burnett during rehearsal with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. | James Foster/for the Sun-Times

Now Hubbard Street is devoting its entire Winter Series at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance to three of Pite’s dances: “A Picture of You Falling” (in its full length duet form), plus two company premieres — “The Other You” and “Grace Engine.”

“The dancers at Hubbard Street are so able, so dynamic, so seemingly limitless,” said Pite, 46, a former company member of Ballet British Columbia and William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt, who is now married to set designer Jay Taylor and the mother of a six-year-old son.

About “A Picture of You Falling” (previously performed by Kidd Pivot, Pite’s own “free form” company based in her hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia), Pite noted: “I did happen to be reading a lot of Beckett when I created it. I love the economy of his language and how he used it to tell a huge story. ‘Pictures’ explores the way narratives shared across cultures and generations reside within our bodies. It demonstrates how the simplest gestures can convey profound meaning, and how distortion, repetition and the analysis of familiar human action allow us to recognize ourselves in each other.”

“The dancers at Hubbard Street are so able, so dynamic, so seemingly limitless,” says choreographer Crystal Pite, photographed at the Hubbard Street Dance Studios. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“The dancers at Hubbard Street are so able, so dynamic, so seemingly limitless,” says choreographer Crystal Pite, photographed at the Hubbard Street Dance Studios. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Watching Pite in rehearsal you sense how gesture is at the very core of her work. She focuses intensely on the impulse that, for example, can move through an arched back and into the chest, or how the swipe of a hand can alter the angle of the head and shoulders. And while there is some sense of narrative in all her dances, Pite laughs when she admits, “I didn’t set out to correct the problems of contemporary dance, but I’ve always been interested in story. And gesture is the wordless language inherently understood by all human beings.”“The Other You,” a duet first performed by Kidd Pivot in 2010, is “set to music by Belton, plus Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ [and] explores the self and the other with contrasting images of man and beast. It is danced by two men who I cast for their physically similar bodies, and as their relationship changes, so do the sounds — from the city, with cars and rainfall, to the forest, where howling wolves suggest the beast inside,” Pite said.

“Grace Engine” is the highly cinematic full company work on the program. It was created for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in 2012, and features dramatic lighting and an electronic score by Belton.

“‘Grace’ began with the sound of a train and all its wonderfully rhythmic elements, the clanging of metal and the singing of the rails,” said Pite. “There’s a kind of nostalgia connected to trains, too — a suggestion of how we experience time from birth to death, and how we are linked to others and our ancestors, yet always moving forward.”

Former Hubbard Street dancer Jason Hortin in a 2015 rehearsal for “A Picture of You Falling,” by Crystal Pite. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

Former Hubbard Street dancer Jason Hortin in a 2015 rehearsal for “A Picture of You Falling,” by Crystal Pite. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

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