Fisher-Harrell makes history at Hubbard Street Dance; vows to make diversity, inclusion top priorities

Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell is bursting with optimism about the future of Hubbard Street, but the new artistic director admits the she and other leaders of the longtime Chicago arts mainstay face no shortage of major challenges.

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Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, the new artistic director of the Hubbard Street Dance Company, dances while posing for a portrait in the Gold Coast neighborhood, Saturday afternoon, March 6, 2021. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, the new artistic director of the Hubbard Street Dance Company, demonstrates her dancing prowess while posing for a portrait in the Gold Coast neighborhood earlier this month.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell is the first woman and first person of color to serve as artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and she thinks those two milestones will have a significant impact on the 43-year-old company’s future.

“The representation matters,” she said. “I think it matters with my vision, moving forward and trying to diversify the body of rep we bring in and trying to diversify the dancers we bring on board.”

The Baltimore native launched her dance career in 1989-92 as a Hubbard Street member before moving on to the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and she has returned to those roots after being on the dance faculty at Towson (Md.) University since 2005. Helping her to prepare for this transition was her tenure as artistic director of that school’s dance company.

Artistic director Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell says she hopes to bring more “diverse stories” to the Hubbard Street stage and de-emphasize works created through what she called a “European lens.”

Hubbard Street artistic director Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell hopes to bring more “diverse stories” to the company’s stage and de-emphasize works created through what she calls a “European lens.”

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“Thinking about the next level and doing that professionally,” she said, “for me seemed like an organic transition. That’s why now and that’s why Hubbard Street. It only seemed fitting that I’m coming back to the company where my career started.”

Fisher-Harrell is bursting with optimism about the future of Hubbard Street, but the new artistic director admits the she and other leaders of the longtime Chicago arts mainstay face no shortage of major challenges.

She took over her position on March 1, about 11 months after the company announced it was closing its longtime home, the Lou Conte Dance Studio, 1147 W. Jackson, which has since been sold.

On March 27, 2020, David McDermott, the company’s executive director, sent out a letter to “friends and patrons” of the studio in which he outlined cutbacks and estimated that the company’s losses from the COVID-19 pandemic could be “well in excess” of $1 million. He tried to cast a positive light on the changes but raised questions about Hubbard Street’s very survival.

“It’s been a traumatic time for the company,” Fisher-Harrell said, “and all the arms of the company.”

But Hubbard Street has managed to endure, maintaining a company of 10 paid dancers and producing a series of on-line dance productions in 2020-21, such as Rena Butler’s “Tale of Two,” which was filmed outside in August and debuted in October.

During this difficult time, the company has been able to pull back, refocus and reinvent itself. “So, now we are ready to move forward,” Fisher-Harrell said.

Hubbard Street is renting space at present from C5, a Chicago aerial dance company and event center, but she said it is looking for a temporary home. “We want to, of course, have a strategic plan and move into something more permanent down the road,” she said.

The artistic director hopes Hubbard Street will be able to offer in-person performances starting this fall, but nothing has been scheduled. “Planning anything during COVID is kind of like ridiculous,” she said. “Nothing is concrete at this point.”

Although the Lou Conte Dance Studio no longer exists, Fisher-Harrell believes the company will go back to offering dance classes of various kinds, including bringing back its “hugely successful” Summer Intensives, which cater to top dance students from across North America.

“Once we get into a place where we can have classes,” she said, “and things like that, of course, we are looking to restart that arm of our organization.”

While addressing these fundamental needs of the company, Fisher-Harrell plans to put diversity and inclusion at the forefront of everything she does, starting with dancer auditions in April, when the company hopes to expand its roster to 14.

Though contemporary dance in general has done better than the ballet world when it comes to issues of equality, she believes there is always room for improvement and that her hiring can and will help. “Can we do better? Of course,” she said.

She also hopes to bring more “diverse stories” to the Hubbard Street stage and de-emphasize works created through what she called a “European lens.” “There are so many other contemporary stories and choreographers that need to have a platform,” she said.

Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater preforms “Cry” during a Saturday afternoon rehearsal at the Jay Pritzker Pavillion for the Chicago Dance Festival in 2009.

Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater preforms “Cry” during a Saturday afternoon rehearsal at the Jay Pritzker Pavillion for the Chicago Dance Festival in 2009.

Scott Stewart/Sun-Times File

She didn’t want to cite any specific names, but she is considering dozens of potential dance makers, including ones who are mixing contemporary dance with hiphop or African-based movement. Some have collaborated with the company previously and others have not.

At the same, she would like to revisit some of the company’s worthy offerings from the past, including jazz works from its early history and past audience favorites that were inadvertently dropped or forgotten. “The company has delved into a wide range of movement styles,” she said, “and I don’t think we should ignore any of them. I think we should embrace them all.”

As soon as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and performers can return to the stage, Fisher-Harrell believes that theaters are going to be packed. “And we want to be there to heed the call,” she said. “We want to be right there to entertain, to touch, to inspire, because we have all missed it.

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