“I’m feeling like: Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell tells me when I ask how she approached curating “Re/turn,” November 18-21 at the Harris Theater—the first live, in-person program for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago since the start of the pandemic, and her first as artistic director. “I’m looking at the company from so many different angles. First of all, from being a former company member, I know how we used to impact audiences. I’m trying to bring that back while meeting the company where they are as a leader in contemporary dance.”
Fisher-Harrell, whose credits include thirteen years dancing with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater after a three-season tenure with Hubbard Street, stepped to the creative helm of the company in 2021 as the first woman and person of color to serve in the role, bringing both institutional memory and a hunger to showcase the talents of choreographers as-of-yet unseen by Chicago audiences. One such artist on the program is Jermaine Maurice Spivey, an emerging choreographer who, despite having danced and toured with numerous high-profile companies across Europe and the United States had, at the time of this writing, never set foot in Chicago. When I speak with Spivey, he is preparing to travel to the city to begin work with the Hubbard Street dancers on a new piece designed for them.
“I can’t believe I haven’t made it to Chicago once before,” he says. “I’m happy I’m coming now and I’m happy it’s with Hubbard Street.”
Fisher-Harrell has had her eye on Spivey for a long time. Both were graduates of the Baltimore School for the Arts, though years apart, and crossed paths more and more often over the years at performances and in classrooms. “I’ve been watching Jermaine grow as a technician, an artist, a dancer, a choreographer,” Fisher-Harrell says. “In the field, he’s highly regarded. He’s admired from how he views movement we all can’t get a grasp of. He knows his form. He knows all forms and he breaks all forms. He’s one of the first people I reached out to.”
Spivey is coming to Chicago with concepts for the commission, but has no predetermined choreography. “It’s funny, making a piece you kind of know what you’re trying to make and at the same time you have no idea how it’s going to turn out,” he says. “I want to work with [the Hubbard Street dancers] on something that feels community related—their community, as a group. Their experience within the piece, and the piece being about group exchange, about rhythms and dynamics amongst groups and individuals within a group. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of the world and the larger issues we’re dealing with. How do these groups get formed and keep this rhythm going? Why do some rhythms fizzle and end as quickly as they begin?”
The group in question has changed shape since they last appeared on stage. In April, Hubbard Street held virtual auditions for four open spots. Nine-hundred people showed up. “It’s a testament to the dance community that 900 people showed up wherever they were—their bedrooms, their kitchens, their makeshift studio spaces—and had the courage to audition,” Fisher-Harrell says with enthusiasm. “It was an honor to watch them audition.” She saw all 900 applicants over the course of three days, ultimately narrowing down the pool and hiring Alexandria Best, Michele Dooley, Michael Garcia and Simone Stevens to join the fourteen-member company. “I couldn’t have made better choices,” Fisher-Harrell says. “If I can feel your personality and dynamics online, imagine what it will be in person.”
The new talents join longtime company members whose power, precision and versatility have come to define the Hubbard Street ethos—extraordinary dancers who get better at their craft every year. Several, namely Andrew Murdock, Kevin Shannon, David Schultz and the transcendent Jacqueline Burnett, have been with the company for a decade or more.
The interweaving of fresh and familiar will be seen in the performers on the Harris stage and in the composition of the program. Nacho Duato’s sweeping, pastoral-poetic “Jardi Tancat” from 1997 will be revived—the “something old”—and the company has newly acquired Aszure Barton’s “BUSK,” which Fisher-Harrell has wanted to bring to Hubbard Street since she saw the Ailey company perform the piece in 2019. “I got a good view of ‘BUSK’ up close and personal,” she says. “I thought, ‘these dancers in Hubbard Street need to be doing this movement.’ They can bring an edge and a power to it.”
Fisher-Harrell’s philosophy of preserving the excellence of Hubbard Street, while connecting it more strongly to its history and seeking out new creative voices bodes well for the company’s return to live performance and the seasons ahead. “It’s incredible to have a plan and see it carried out,” she says, voice brimming with delight. “We released season forty-four and I chuckled. The dream is coming true! I want audiences to enjoy it.”
“Re/turn” at the Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph. Thursday-Sunday, November 18-21. Info and tickets at hubbardstreetdance.com.