Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is among the most original forces in contemporary dance. As one of the only professional dance companies to perform year-round, Hubbard Street is continually touring nationwide and internationally. Now in its 38th year, the main company has appeared in celebrated dance venues in 44 states and 19 countries.
Highly acclaimed for its exuberant and innovative repertoire, the company performs works by masterful American and international choreographers – including the prolific Alejandro Cerrudo, who made his Walton Arts Center debut in 2015 partnering with Wendy Whelan. With 18 artists hailing from five countries, the ensemble exudes virtuosity and versatility - and we got to chat with Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton of Hubbard Street Dance about what makes the company so heartfelt, holistic and.... well, human.
1. What inspired the creation of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago?
Our founding artistic director Lou Conte says he never intended to start a dance company. He had only just opened the Lou Conte Dance Studio in 1974 at 125 West Hubbard Street where he had four advanced students: Claire Bataille, Karen Frankel-Jones, Terry Lees and Ann Hodgkins Curley. Another one of Lou’s tap students, Barbara G. Cohen, invited Lou to create a work for these young dancers to perform, which could be presented easily in senior centers, through an engagement program Barbara worked with called Urban Gateways. The piece Lou made was a 35-minute program featuring “American dances through the decades” and in fact one of those scenes became a standalone excerpt which, for many years, was the company’s signature work.
To keep a long story short, these first four dancers were exceptionally talented and Lou was encouraged to put together at least one final performance so that the public could see the Urban Gateways program for themselves. Two shows were given at the Chicago Cultural Center where Richard Christiansen — then theater and dance critic for the Chicago Tribune — saw the program and championed the work. Two more shows followed at The Latin School and the group got its first review. By the following year, Lou had hired two more dancers, Barbara came on board as the founding executive director, and they started a dance company named after the street where Lou’s studios were. And that was that.
Claire Bataille is in fact still with us today as director of the Lou Conte Dance Studio. Lou was just with us in the audience for opening night of our Season 38 Spring Series here in Chicago in March. It’s wonderful to have such continuity, which I think is a real hallmark of dance communities no matter where you are.
2. What is a typical workday like for the company?
It varies greatly, depending on what our upcoming projects are. For major new works and acquisitions, such as our all–William Forsythe program, including N.N.N.N. which the Walton Arts Center audience will see, we typically carve out a couple of consecutive weeks, during which the company can focus exclusively on learning, rehearsing and getting comfortable with the choreography. The dancers work Mondays through Fridays, starting with ballet technique class at 10am and rehearsing as late as 6pm. It’s a full-time job for them with benefits and some well-earned vacation time.
Once we’re underway and juggling our home season — four programs a year — with our domestic and international touring, it becomes a more complicated mix of “maintenance” rehearsals for works we’ve had for a while, focusing on keeping them fresh and ready for the stage and rehearsals for dancers to learn new roles to step into or cover in case of emergencies. Our active repertoire right now is about 10 pieces total, which we perform in various combinations. It’s a lot of choreography for the dancers to retain and it’s one of the key responsibilities of our rehearsal director to stay on top of knowing what our priorities in the studio should be, day-to-day and week-to-week.
Workdays on tour are a bit more unpredictable and each situation is a little different. We may be walking distance from the theater or a short drive away. We might have just one performance or a longer run of multiple shows. Often there are masterclasses or other engagement programs with the local community. Our management team works as far in advance as possible to anticipate what we’ll need in each city so that our visits maintain a healthy balance between productive time with our stage staff and the local crew, and some time for all of us to rest, sightsee and just enjoy where we are.
3. How does your work connect to the larger world?
As an artistic director, I look for works that will connect audiences to some specific emotion or visceral response, which will then cultivate their imaginations or bring them to a place that might very well be indescribable. I’m always in search of pieces to present that speak of humanity and of how we are all collectively connected — I would say that’s my goal. I feel fortunate that dance is one art form that’s typically not tied to any language. The works we perform in the United States or on tour in other countries… They’re equally accessible, however abstractly, to whomever sees them.
4. What moves the company to create a new project?
It can often be a long process to acquire new choreography for our repertoire or to bring in a choreographer for the first time. At any given moment, I’m following the trajectories of a lot of choreographers, in a number of places. Now, creating relationships with artists is a catalyst for everything else. Sometimes, that relationship building manifests itself as choosing to work with that choreographer. Always, my hope is that an artist will come to us at just the right time — both for where they are in their career and for where the company is in its evolution. Timing is everything.
5. What are the defining characteristics of tonight’s performance; what story does it tell?
The main story our Fayetteville program will tell is the story of where Hubbard Street finds itself today. My two points of focus – for a number of years now – have been to bring the best of international contemporary dance to our dancers and our audiences, as well as to help those dancers develop their own individual, creative voices. As such, our Walton Arts Center program is ideal for getting a snapshot of what this mission really looks like. We have on the program opener, Out of Keeping, choreographed by Penny Saunders, who’s also still very much a working dancer. We have Second to Last by our resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, who later this year will premiere his fifteenth original work for us. And then we have N.N.N.N. by William Forsythe, a major acquisition we are the first American dance company to perform, and I am Mister B by Gustavo Ramírez Sansano who is now an internationally recognized artist, though once was with Hubbard Street at the very beginning of his career. So, you’ll see examples of artists at all points of contact with Hubbard Street, at all stages of their careers.
6. Pick 5 words — that start with the letter H — that best describe your work.
Hm. Human, for sure. Heartfelt. Holistic. Healthy. Hard work.
7. What has been one of your most exciting performances to date?
Every program we produce is an exciting, unpredictable and very fulfilling process. That being said, I was absolutely thrilled with One Thousand Pieces, our Season 38 Fall Series celebrating William Forsythe, and The Art of Falling, a collaboration with The Second City.
One Thousand Pieces, made by Alejandro Cerrudo and inspired by Marc Chagall’s America Windows, marked our 35th anniversary season in 2012–13, was our first-ever evening-length work and involved all the dancers from both our main company and Hubbard Street 2. The all-Forsythe program was for me a bit of a personal victory and everyone rose to that occasion. The Art of Falling was such an adventure — none of us at Hubbard Street or at The Second City knew what we would have until opening night, then we realized how deeply it touched and delighted people. The response, both in Chicago and in Los Angeles, has been overwhelming and so, so positive — it’s the kind of impact you hope to be able to make with every project. I think it really validated us, in a way, with how human and how true it came across to our audiences, who might not think of contemporary dance as something so…universal.
8. Whom do you define as a visionary?
A couple of artists who are visionaries to me are Jiří Kylián, William Forsythe and Crystal Pite. Jiří because of what I learned working with him for 15 years and dancing his choreography. Bill and Crystal more in terms of their work itself – how thoughtfully and creatively it’s constructed, and what it represents in terms of an approach to making a whole world, a real universe of ideas, for the stage.
9. What is the best advice that you have been given?
It was Jiří Kylián, actually, who in a moment of feeling devoid of resources — almost without hope that a situation could be made right — who said to me, “Glenn, there is always a solution.” And I’ve tried to embrace that, in all aspects of my life. As an artistic director, it’s part of my job to creatively — and often quickly — find a solution when it appears there isn’t one. There aren’t really any limits to creativity itself. I will encourage dancers, especially younger ones, to try, to keep trying until you find a solution. Curiosity, the spirit of exploration and trusting the process as the way forward: that, to me, is what’s paramount.
10. What do you hope audiences take away from a Hubbard Street performance?
As I mentioned earlier, what I look for are works that prompt people to make some kind of connection to themselves, which elicits a distinct response, in their souls or imaginations. More broadly, I might say that each performance we give is really the product of a whole team of truly expert people — not just our dancers but everyone on our production team, the crew, our staff and management — giving the proverbial one hundred and ten percent. This is demanding work and at Hubbard Street, we keep our standards incredibly high. I’d like to think that it’s important to see what’s possible when everything fits together, simply because everyone involved has brought the full weight of their knowledge and experience to the theater. I hope that showing people what that actually looks like carries with it some kind of deeper understanding, about the magnificent value of collaboration and cooperation.