Something unique and stunning is on its way to the Citi Shubert Theatre April 15-17, part of the Celebrity Series of Boston. Its name — Hubbard Street Dance Chicago — may not stop you in your tracks, but its performances will.
You can count on one finger the number of dance companies that are named by the street where they live, and who would be attracted by an odd moniker anyway? Well, there is the inventive and gymnastic Pilobolus, which is named for a genus of fungi that grows on herbivore dung. Hubbard Street has no such biological bragging rights, but like Pilobolus, the group features works you’ve likely never encountered before. Its cast is as engagingly diverse as its repertoire, and — also very unusual and one of its defining characteristics — many of the dances are by women.
From its founding programs 38 years ago, the company has welcomed female choreographers as well as males.
“It just worked out that way,” Hubbard Street’s founding director Lou Conte told me by phone. “I didn’t have any kind of agenda for anything — male, female, white, Chinese, anything. Just whoever can do the best work that would be compatible with the company at the time.”
Conte recalled, “I was only trying to hire the best people I could.” And he wasn’t aiming for the homogenized look of most ballet troupes.
“In the corps all the women have to be 5 foot 2, have their hair in a bun and look exactly alike,” Conte said. “That uniformity is part of being in the female corps de ballet. The contemporary world is much more inclusive of different mentalities.”
And that’s part of what makes Hubbard Street exceptional.
The first two choreographers commissioned to create dances for Hubbard Street were Claire Bataille and Lynne Taylor-Corbett, and two more in the early years were Twyla Tharp and Margo Sappington.
“Claire Bataille was the first because she was a member of the company, and she knew the dancers,” Conte said. “It was that simple. We had a very small budget, Claire wanted to choreograph, I gave her the chance.”
The connection to the troupe’s next choreographer came just as smoothly. “One of our dancers had known Lynne Taylor-Corbett from New York. I called her, she sent a tape, and she became very instrumental for us, doing five pieces in just a few years. Claire was wonderful.”
Hubbard Street’s current artistic director Glenn Edgerton continues the tradition of showcasing works by women.
“Throughout its 38-year history, Hubbard Street has been consistent in inviting women to choreograph for the company, not because they are women, but rather because they fit our mission to find the most interesting artists in our field,” Edgerton said in a recent phone interview. “My focus is not to engage token choreographers, chosen for their gender, or for any reason other than the fact that I’m most interested in engaging excellence… And it just so happens that many exceptional choreographers today happen to be women.”
Each of the performances at the Citi Shubert include three works by women — “Out of Keeping” by Penny Saunders, and “Solo Echo” and “A Picture of You Falling” by Crystal Pite — and one by a man, “N.N.N.N.” by William Forsythe. Hubbard Street is the only company that dances these works.
Penny Saunders felt the magnetic pull of the studio as a little girl in West Palm Beach, Florida. Her father was in the Army and funds were tight.
“My parents didn’t have money for things like ballet school,” she said. “But I had fellowships all along the way. That’s a great thing about art. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your financial situation is, you may get a chance the way I did.”
But, Saunders said, “I knew I was never going to be a major ballerina in a major company. I knew my limitations. I also found it way more intriguing to create new work than to regurgitate classical steps and repeat a ballet I had already danced many times. I gravitated toward choreography really early on, making short recital pieces and dances we’d perform in competitions, and that opened many doors for me.”
The ability to choreograph gives women a chance to live a life outside the studio while staying in the dance world beyond their performing years. Saunders is married to former dancer Pablo Piantino, and they have a three-year old son, Elias. At 37, Saunders still dances with the company, but she’s aware this career won’t last forever, she said.
Happily though, Saunders can stay in the dance world, since a choreographer’s imagination can go on a lot longer than a performer’s muscles and joints.
Just as Saunders was irresistibly drawn to dance as a child, Hubbard Street’s artistic director Glenn Edgerton, growing up in Orange, Texas, was propelled by his own passion and energy.
“For me, from first grade until I was 18 years old, I danced on a full scholarship. I cleaned the bathrooms, I mopped and I scrubbed — I was fascinated by the environment of the studio,” Edgerton said. “This huge room, all that space where you could run and jump and turn and do all sorts of creative movements. To this day I have that excitement when I go into a studio. That’s where I feel most at home. It still thrills me.”
There was a particular challenge to being a little boy in ballet tights.
“I was 6 years old when I started dancing, and I would get beat up in the playground at recess,” Edgerton said. “But as the years went by I continued dancing, and my friends would come and see recitals and other performances. By the time I was 10 or 11, they actually respected me, and the bullying stopped. And by my teenage years, I didn’t have the problems because I’d passed that period of initiation, and it was all right that I was dancing instead of playing sports.”
Every dancer on stage has a story like that, about the magnetic pull of the studio and the sacrifices they made to stay there. Among the dancers you see in Hubbard Street company is a young Massachusetts native, Jesse Bechard. His hometown is Bolton, and he trained at Walnut Hill School for the Arts and at Boston Ballet.
No doubt you can find youngsters in every town with a dance studio who hope to be able to make a living doing what they love. They’re not in it for the money, and they’re willing to endure the physical punishment that comes with a dance career. They’re just driven to devote themselves to this creative life, and we’re lucky enough to be able to enjoy their art.