The Hubbard Street dancers spent three weeks this fall at Dancer’s Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, working on a commission with celebrated choreographer and MacArthur Fellow Kyle Abraham. By the time the company returned to Chicago in late September, the piece, “The Bystander,” was finished, allowing a rare luxury of time to rehearse and polish before the premiere as part of Hubbard Street’s “Forge Forward” program November 7-10 at the Harris Theater. The version I saw in rehearsal was pretty much final, I was told, and it showed. The choreography, a captivating blend of sweeping contemporary movement, gesture, popping and slo-mo had settled comfortably in the bodies of the dancers, who snap in and out of character-driven expression and body language with precision timing to tell a loose, abstracted tale of mystery and intrigue.
The stage is set with voiceover, which gives backstory of the six figures on stage and their entanglements with an organized crime outfit called The Black Ring. What unfolds is a not-exactly-narrative but not-entirely-abstract contemporary dance infused with delicious moments of melodrama and humor, heightened by a score comprised of art songs by Franz Schubert. There’s a corpse (occasionally reanimated), accusations, shifting perspectives, all woven into pure-dance groupings of duets, trios. The effect is dreamlike and utterly delightful. Dancers in “The Bystander” provided insights into Abraham’s process via email after my visit.
”A big part of Kyle’s process is how his improvisational impulses are translated on other bodies,” Andrew Murdock writes. “The way that Kyle comes about movement invention is that he would videotape himself improvising and we would watch the videos and learn his movements, then we would take that material and piece it together to make solos, duets and trios and start to build scenes. Kyle is quite specific in what he sees in his mind and has a very specific movement language, but is open to another individual’s interpretation and there is a lot of space for choice.”
Perhaps the clarity of the familiar, yet uncanny world Abraham creates and the authenticity with which the Hubbard Street dancers embody their characters can be attributed to this process, balancing singular vision and interpretive collaboration. I look forward to seeing it play out again, with the additional trappings of light and costumes.
“The Bystander” stands beside a new piece about code-switching by company member and 2019 Princess Grace Award-winner Rena Butler, whose transcendent “III. Third” premiered last year, and “Grace Engine,” a favorite by the incomparable Crystal Pite, whose cinematic sensibilities complement Abraham’s new work. (Sharon Hoyer)
Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)635-3799. November 7, 9, 10: Thursday 7:30pm, Saturday 8pm, Sunday 3pm. $25-$110. Tickets: harristheaterchicago.org