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Stylistic overlap diminishes impact of Hubbard Street Dance tribute to Cerrudo

Hubbard Street Chicago dancers Alicia Delgadillo and Elliot Hammans in Alejandro Cerrudo’s "Lickety-Split." | Cheryl Mann

One-choreographer programs are hardly uncommon in the dance world. For companies formed around a choreographer like Mark Morris or Paul Taylor, such line-ups are their bread and butter. And the New York City Ballet has thrived for decades on performances devoted to its co-founder George Balanchine.

At their best, such programs supply a varied, insightful look at the creators featured. At their worst, they become repetitive and predictable. Unfortunately, Friday evening’s Hubbard Street Dance Chicago program, which will be repeated March 24, veered too much toward the latter.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
When: 7:30 p.m. March 24
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $29-$110
Info: hubbardstreetdance.com

The performance, the contemporary dance company’s first in the Auditorium Theatre in 20 years, paid tribute to Spanish choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. He became the company’s choreographic fellow in 2008 and was named its first resident choreographer a year later.

Make no mistake, Cerrudo is exceedingly talented. He has developed a distinctive, highly physical dance vocabulary that consists of exaggerated, arms-driven movement – extended lunges, crouched turns and billowy undulations – and duets with bodies turning into, wrapping around and pushing off each other.

But his single-most identifiable trademark might be synchronicity – dancers performing intricate, geometric arm gestures or more involved full-body movements in unison. Sometimes these combinations are lightning fast, but other times they are performed in slow motion or a kind of stop-action or deliberately jerky fashion.

All these elements are firmly established in the earliest and one of the best of the four works on Friday’s program, “Lickety-Split,” a title that is an apparent reference to the running that is a key ingredient. It was originally performed in 2006 at the Harris Theater as part of the Inside/Out Choreographic Workshop.

Seen on its own alongside other works by other choreographers, “Lickety-Split” or really any of the four selections on Saturday night’s program would shine. The problem comes when they are presented at the same time and the stylistic overlap becomes obvious and a little tiring.

Even the greatest choreographers employ recurring signature movements. But they find a way to alter their choreography and make it feel fresh from work to work. It is a long way, for example, from Balanchine’s spare “Agon” to his high-stepping “Stars and Stripes.”

Cerrudo rarely gives viewers that same kind of variety. Although it premiered nine years after “Lickety-Split” and features 10 dancers instead of seven, “Silent Ghost,” seen here for the first time in Chicago, feels and looks too much like that earlier piece.

Hubbard Street Chicago dancers Kellie Epperheimer and Alicia Delgadillo in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Silent Ghost.” | Cheryl Mann

It’s partly that so much of the dance vocabulary is the same or at least very close to the same. In “Lickety-Split,” for example, a male dancer in a duet places his head onto bottom of the outstretched foot of his female partner. It’s an intimate gesture that would be memorable if seen just that once, but Cerrudo uses it again and again, with a head placed on outstretched arms and against a stomach, dulling its impact.

Only in “Out of Your Mind,” the program-closing world premiere, does the audience really get something different when Cerrudo culminates the piece with a line of 15 arm-in-arm dancers undulating up and down, breaking apart and coming back to together. It’s not a totally new idea – the Rockettes do something similar – but he brings a real technical sophistication to it and works it to crowd-pleasing effect.

Another way to inject variety into a program is to vary the number of performers, but Cerrudo also does too little of that. Because the first three selections are all mid-size ensemble pieces with seven 10 dancers and there are no solo, duet or quartet offerings, the impact of jumping to 15 dancers in “Out of Your Mind” is significantly lessened.

Furthermore, all these pieces are performed in a puzzlingly unchanging semi-darkness with only white light – never any color. And, finally, there are few differences in terms of structure or feel. Most of these pieces are largely abstract works that seem to deal in some way with relationships. Only in “Off Screen” (2009) does Cerrudo take a different tack.

That work is set to 16 excerpts from movie soundtracks, something that is not obvious without reading the program notes. At the beginning and end are theatrical monologues, the first performed from a box seat, which talk about reality, dreams and self-identity and suggest a thematic overlay that never completely comes into focus.

Despite whatever shortcomings Cerrudo’s choreography might have, the Hubbard Street dancers were clearly committed to it. The company, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2017-18, has never looked better, delivering pinpoint precision, unflagging verve and no shortage of first-rate individual performances.

Kyle MacMillan is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

Hubbard Street Chicago dancers Andrew Murdock and Alice Klock in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Out of Your Mind.” | Cheryl Mann