By Sharon Hoyer
I met Alejandro Cerrudo for dinner on a Monday evening after a particularly challenging day in the studio. He is tall, boyishly slim with a warm, likeable manner, just the right amount of casual cursing to put one completely at ease and a healthy suspicion of big egos and bullshit. I’m probably the fourth journalist he’d talked to that day; he seemed relieved that the interview included food and sitting in one spot.
Cerrudo is Hubbard Street Dance’s first and current Resident Choreographer—a title created specifically for him in 2009. Cerrudo grew up in Madrid and performed with a handful of excellent companies in Europe—classical ballet with Victor Ullate Ballet in his hometown, the Stuttgart Ballet, modern/contemporary with the Nederlands Dans Theater second company—before moving to the U.S. to join Hubbard Street Dance in 2005. When asked, he says that Chicago is very much home to him, and while he enjoys visiting his family in Spain, he loves this city.
Happily for Chicago audiences, this will be Cerrudo’s home for at least three more years; Hubbard Street just extended his contract. The company takes fierce pride in their artistic resident, increasingly sought-after by companies across the country. This year, the Cincinnati Ballet and Tucson Ballet have picked up Cerrudo’s sensuous 2007 “Extremely Close.” He has been commissioned to create new works for Ballet Arizona and Pacific Northwest Ballet. All this is on top of ongoing commissions for his celebrated home company and fast on the heels of the current, monumental project.
A lot of Chicagoans, even those who don’t see much dance, have heard of Hubbard Street; when asked about shows coming up that a friend or acquaintance might enjoy, should I recommend Hubbard Street, the name is almost always greeted with a nod of recognition. To dedicated contemporary dance audiences, Hubbard Street is a respected name and rightly considered a peer to internationally revered companies like Nederlands Dans Theater and Batsheva Dance Company. In a phone interview two years ago, choreographic legend Nacho Duato (who was working with Hubbard Street on one of his pieces before scooting off to accept a post as director of the St. Petersburg Ballet) told me he considered them amongst the best dancers in the world.
Hubbard Street turns thirty-five this year and has commissioned an ambitious project from Cerrudo to commemorate the date: an evening-length work, a first for both the company and its resident choreographer. Glenn Edgerton, artistic director of Hubbard Street, conceived the project after HS2, their second company, performed in the Art Institute before Chagall’s stained glass America Windows. Edgerton proposed the windows as a creative launching point to Cerrudo, who agreed that he could find inspiration there. For the company, connections abounded: the windows were a gift from Chagall to the Art Institute, created the year Hubbard Street Dance was founded; Chagall dedicated the huge, six-panel windows to Richard J. Daley, then recently deceased; Hubbard Street would in turn dedicate this, their largest single endeavor—a full evening work combining the two companies—to the current mayor: a former ballet dancer and dedicated dance attendee.
The historical context is of little interest to Cerrudo—none of the web of meanings for the company and the city woven together and bulleted in the press release—just the windows, and the windows as an overall abstraction, a complete work of magical, mysterious art, and certainly not any particular representational image that may emerge from Chagall’s moody wash of blues. Did he research what was happening in Chicago in 1977? No. Did he have the dancers visit the windows? No, but they’ve all seen them. Sure there are suggestions of various art forms—music, dance, literature—amidst the pools of color, but mood, atmosphere are what one remembers about them. The simultaneous founding of Hubbard Street and creation of the windows remains at the back of Cerrudo’s mind, but explicit meanings like these do not and cannot direct the development of a choreography not attached to language or signification, but only to the rules and physics of its own abstract world.
“The process inspires itself as we go along,” he says. “I think anyone who comes to the evening and hasn’t seen the windows is going to enjoy it. And anyone who comes and is familiar with the windows will see how they are the starting point and inspiration.”
Then Cerrudo’s sensitivity to ego pokes him. “Or maybe I’m wrong about all this and I get to the end and think ‘oh no,’ but I feel I’m doing something directly related. But in an abstract way.”
For an artist who works in abstraction, Cerrudo’s expressions are by no means dreamy or vague; his face is more that of the mathematician than the poet. His light brown eyes and thick, dark eyebrows shift and knit behind wire-rimmed glasses with a critical precision that bespeaks the clarity of his creative vision. And his vision is precise. He is an auteur, mixing his scores into carefully calibrated “collages,” working closely with set and costume designers in the cases where he himself is not the designer. When he is, as he was with the sets in last year’s “Little Mortal Jump,” the results can be cinematic. That piece opens with a literal enactment of the title, a dancer in late-nineteenth-century garb hopping down a rabbit hole created by two monolithic, modular set pieces. The mood—heightened by smoke machines and subterranean lighting—is fantastical and charmingly anachronistic, perfectly harmonious with a score by charming anachronisms Andrew Bird and Beirut. Cerrudo told me he had a gift for making audiences not clap, but the end of “Little Mortal Jump” was met with a roaring ovation.
Commanding that level of attention for seventy-five minutes is his biggest concern for the current work, entitled “One Thousand Pieces.”
“It’s a lot of steps, a lot to take into consideration. It’s a challenge to keep the audience’s attention for a long time. I’m curious at how well or badly I’m doing at keeping the audience engaged. Am I making you want to see the next thing or are you thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner tomorrow? I get bored with dance very easily. I love dance. And I only love twenty-five percent of the dance I see.”
He immediately follows with, “I’m not saying I’m good, I’m not saying I like my stuff. I’m just saying I like twenty-five percent of what I see. I’m one of the most critical people I know of my stuff. I’m insecure in a way.”
Cerrudo clarifies this way again and again throughout our conversation. He needs to be specific, never to generalize and always to acknowledge, if not agree with, all perspectives. The dancers respect him…well enough. There are, of course, some who like his work more than others. He likes all of them… of course there are dancers he likes more than others, depending how well they connect with an idea he has. There is no story present in his work, but there’s no way to remove story entirely, because people will always find a narrative. But that’s not to say there’s any story. The very hint of cliché is met with disgust. Precision is of the utmost importance. Anything less is dishonest. He is rigorously resistant to absolutes and a perpetual devil’s advocate. These countervailing forces of self-assuredness and insecurity, abstraction and specificity, pull his elegant structures into easy balance. His respect for the audience’s subjectivity and his simultaneous worry about boring them as he is so easily bored fuels a fluid, conversational choreography that is inviting and deeply pleasurable to watch. Cerrudo tells me he has his detractors—and I don’t doubt that he does—but it’s tempting to call the appeal of the bulk of his work universal.
I visited rehearsal for “One Thousand Pieces” at Lou Conte Studio a few hours before meeting Cerrudo for dinner. Edgerton talked with me for a few minutes in his office before escorting me upstairs and into a sensory bath of sound and movement in Studio A. Music by Philip Glass poured through the door and down the hallway and into the empty studios of the second floor. We took chairs by the mirrors and Edgerton leaned to his side and said, “this generation is so accustomed to having on headphones, they want the music at volume that feels like they’re wearing them.” Indeed, the music felt as much inside my body as without and the two couples on the floor appeared to be carried on arpeggiated waves of sound. A half dozen more company members were scattered about the periphery, marking steps or self-massaging on foam rollers and tennis balls. The few at rest rested more completely than most people sleep, spreading across and sinking into the floor in a profound stillness.
Edgerton told me that when the combined companies are together on stage it’s a beautiful sight. I could only imagine: the handful of dancers at work felt energetically like twenty. Concentration was palpable, every face as serious as Edgerton’s own deadpan one, minus the undertone of bone-dry humor. They were bumping up against a problem spot in a sequence, stopping, restarting, adjusting, pausing, noodling. Cerrudo sat in a chair at the front of the room, directing verbally or sitting quietly and gazing into the middle distance in contemplation.
At dinner, I ask what he was thinking about during those long, motionless pauses. “It’s like when you’re driving,” he said, “you’re not supposed to be looking at what’s close to you, you’re supposed to be looking at what’s further away and be ready for that. I make the pause because I find myself looking at what’s right in front of me and I need to look ahead at what’s coming in the music.”
When I ask about the lack of demonstration, he says, “I try to move less and less. Sometimes it’s like, ‘can you get the hell up from your chair and show what you mean?’ But I’m trying to push myself to show less. I’ve been a successful dancer in my career, but there are so many dancers who are so much better than me and can do things I can’t do. I can ask them for things I can’t do as well. And I might be able to show steps that look good on me, do they look good on you? It’s hard to make someone else look natural.”
Very hard, yet so many of Cerrudo’s pieces look fully realized, comfortable and complimentary to the various bodies on stage, playing to their strengths and appearing, as the best dancing does, completely spontaneous and alive. It doesn’t hurt that Cerrudo is blessed with a group of dancers reputed for their versatility and technical excellence; one new member to the company, Quinn Wharton, came from the San Francisco Ballet and Princess Grace Awards have been bestowed on two different company members—Jacqueline Burnett and David Schultz (rather adorably, a couple)—two years running. Then there’s the fact that the dancers know him, they’re fluent in his choreographic language, they provide useful input and anticipate what he wants.
To this pool of talent comes a choreographer less interested in setting steps “on” a dancer than creating movement for the dancer. “If I’m choreographing for you, I want you to look good,” he says. “It’s not about steps or even about my concept. If I have a great idea and you suck at it I’m not going to keep doing that. I need you to look organic, like you’re supposed to be there, not like you’re fighting to do my choreography.” He has compared his process to that of a painter coming to a blank canvas, allowing one stroke to follow the next, subject to the circumstances and tools at hand. The notion of imposing an unnatural movement or even an instructive image on a dancer is problematic for him. For better and worse.
“I don’t use enough images. Sometimes I think they’re silly. A choreographer wants to create a specific movement and I hate it when they tell me ‘imagine you’re seaweed and move like seaweed.’ Why not let me imagine what I want to imagine? But in a way, images can help to translate what you want. I use ‘Fraggle Rock’ a lot.”
Not a handy reference point to the company members born after 1987 maybe, but definitely appreciated at this table. I think about seven-year-old Alejandro watching dubbed (is translated puppetry considered dubbed?) “Fraggle Rock” in Madrid. I think of how muppets dance, bouncing up and down or throwing their heads back and thrusting their hands and bodies in opposition.
And therein lies the problem; that image is useful to me, but certainly not to every dancer. Invoking an image immediately negates infinite possible images the dancer might find more useful. There is a tyranny in suggestion and Cerrudo would no more wish to push an image on a dancer than impose meaning on an audience.
Remarkable, then, how firmly footed and specific are the atmospheres and imagery he puts on stage. I remember sitting in the Harris for the premiere of “Blanco” in 2010, afraid to breathe well after the house lights came up. Set to Mendelssohn, caressed by austere lighting and spare costumes, four women danced a meditation on strength and beauty. The holiness of the human body in motion flooded my throat and eyes. I felt I had seen a perfect dance: every movement absolutely necessary, fully embodied and perfectly formed as a grey pearl. Exhaling threatened the moment.
Contrast that to last year’s “Little Mortal Jump,” with its clever sets, theatrical costuming and playful, kinetic partnering—it too a vision of precise intent. Cerrudo has a restless desire to reinvent himself with each new work. He deeply admires Jiri Kylian, artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater, for his evolution over the decades. “He was an amazing choreographer in the late seventies and he’s an amazing choreographer now. I don’t think Martha Graham or Twyla Tharp evolved very much. Even Balanchine.” Then the ego check, “I don’t mean to judge other choreographers. I’m just admiring Jiri Kylian.”
The next incarnation of Cerrudo will be choreographer of the large ensemble. His comfort zone is duets—he’s fast at them (“put a woman and a man in front of me,” he says, “and I’ll come up with something”), free-associating endless, swirling phrases—large and odd-numbered groups take longer. This is the largest group he has worked with to date: twenty-five between the combined companies, each with their own individual talents and limitations, each needing to connect with Cerrudo’s the new, nascent vision.
Returning to the studio a week later, I saw a more animated Cerrudo, working on a duet section that one dancer was struggling with. He was forced to demonstrate, even step in with her partner to dissect the physics of the move, and seemed none the happier for it. The building was abuzz, now just a week and a half out from opening night. Set and costume designer Thomas Mika, in from Germany, appeared at the door with dancer Jonathan Fredrickson for costuming feedback. Tall, lanky Fredrickson was dressed in a slim, narrow-lapelled suit cinched at the sides with a dozen safety pins. Cerrudo asked him to dance a bit, then gave the suit a lukewarm okay.
Meanwhile, in Studio A, rehearsal director Terence Marling was working with a half-dozen dancers, the men stripped to the waist, the women with thin nylon socks on their feet, all soaked to the shoulders, splashing about on a special reflective flooring that was puddled with water. Blade-like arms carved the air and sliding feet splished through phrases that caught and spun suddenly in whirlpools of sound.
A half hour later most of the cast convened in the dry Studio B to work on an ensemble section. Here was the beautiful crowd Edgerton had promised, arresting in size, searching for the fragile place where unison movement and individual conviction coexist. Abundance of sound and energy flooded the room to the lofted rafters, the music massive, forty arms sweeping large. Then, abruptly, the group retreated upstage save one dancer: Jacqueline Burnett. She didn’t pause, but continued into a solo of piercing virtuosity. It was the visual equivalent of an orchestra at fortissimo falling silent but for a single violin. The choreography was close to the ground, drawing boundless power from the earth. She danced it completely, from the inside out; no part physical or psychological was excluded. Emotions welled and washed across her face like the tides. She equally owned the movement and was moved by it. Then, mid-phrase, she stopped, stood, looked at Cerrudo for feedback. He reflected quietly for a moment and rehearsal continued.
The world premiere of “One Thousand Pieces” will be performed at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park from October 18 through October 21.