Creativity Examined: How Hubbard Street Dance Constructs a Dynamic Program

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs Grace Engine. Photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography.

Hubbard Street Dance, Chicago’s world-renowned contemporary dance company, opened its 2019-20 season on November 7 at the Harris Theater. It was the first of three performances of a program, titled Forge Forward, that featured three mesmerizing but quite different pieces.

The program opened with Grace Engine, a piece by choreographer Crystal Pite previously performed by Hubbard Street in 2017, that had a notably cinematic quality: dancers clashing and embracing while wearing boxy business suits through most of the performance, bright stage lights, and the clacking sounds of a speeding train and of shoesteps.

The Bystander by Kyle Abraham (a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient) is best described as entirely original: set to lieder singing composed by Franz Schubert in the early 19th century, this piece is framed as a mystery with multiple characters dying violently (but returning to life), surtitles that appear to translate the German singing but instead are original text, and a comic Clue-like projection of the characters’ back stories.

The final piece This, That and the Third, focused on “code-switching” and cross-cultural communication, was created by choreographer Rena Butler, a Princess Grace dance award winner who also performs with Hubbard Street, and featured brightly costumed, youthful dancers of a variety of backgrounds seeking and, in the end succeeding at, connection with each other. The piece features a range of music, from Chicago’s Chance the Rapper to Dueling Banjos from the movie Deliverance.

I attended with the intention of writing a conventional review. But as someone who loves but is far from expert in contemporary dance, I wanted to go deeper in the creative process behind the program. And Glenn Edgerton, the company’s artistic director since 2009, was kind to sit for an interview, excerpted below, at the Hubbard Street Dance Center in Chicago’s West Loop.

Let’s look at the process for putting together this program.

It’s a year-long process, if not a year and a half to two years that were looking at. We’re looking forward to what’s ahead for the company… It’s kind of a two-fold sort of mindset… I would say the dancers are aficionados in the field and they have certain wishes, and I’m always looking to what’s the next step for the dancers. How will I best push them along in their creativity, guide them, direct them into their future into their creativity… The audience members, I’m bringing them along with us engaging them in what’s contemporary dance. What is the premise of today? What’s new? What’s vital and happening in the world that I think is important to bring to Chicago audiences…

The Grace Engine piece… I’ve watched it evolve over the last two and a half years… I thought it was important to bring it back to our Chicago audiences, because pieces just grow beyond time and they keep getting deeper and the nuances just keep getting better. So I thought that this moment, let’s do Grace Engine again, because I was excited to show that the range and the depth of the company.

Kyle [Abraham], we’ve been talking to get him for quite a while… I’ve been following his work outside the company, and it’s just logistics fell into place that we were able to get it.

And Rena Butler, our resident choreographic fellow, I keep wanting to cultivate her skill… She won Princess Grace Award for this program for this piece… She is a contemporary of Kyle’s, she danced in Kyle’s company, so I thought that it would be interesting to put them together on a program…

I thought the title Forge Forward was perfect because it’s bringing up being new and upcoming. Kyle forging dance forward with his profile, which is quite significant in the dance scene. It just seemed to fit.

Grace Engine.

Obviously having variety especially a three-piece program is important. Is it necessary to have a thread that connects them?

I like when there’s a thread, but I don’t think as an artistic director, that there has to be… Some audiences relish that it’s completely random and eclectic, and others want a hook where there is a thread. So I get feedback from all angles, shall I say, of different preferences.

How was Grace Engine different than the first time you produced it?

The dancers are owning the movement more readily. It’s just human nature that you work on something for two years or more, you’re going to get more versed in it… When they’re dancing, their minds are equally stimulated as their bodies, where there is a thought process per movement often that they’re creating an emotion rather creating an image. And then that facilitates the movement. So it’s not just routine dance moves, it’s really mindful intellectual processes that are being presented.

Now The Bystander. You were talking about challenging the audience. That’s a challenging piece.

It wasn’t like he came with a proposal saying this is where I see the piece going. It evolved while he had the dancers in the studio. We had a residency in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with an organization called Dancers Workshop… Kyle then introduces the concept to the dancers, “This is the music I want to use, and where do you see this going?” And so it was really, truly collaborative in the moment with the dancers… He wants to free himself, challenge himself. He said to me he’s always wanted to use this music. So we appreciate that you picked Hubbard Street to really formulate where you are artistically in this moment…

The Bystander

The last piece was the one that ended on a hopeful note, and really tapped into a variety of musical styles…

Rena is a wonderful, interesting, fascinating lady… She loves to travel and she has visited many different cultures around the world, and she always feels like that inspires her. She talked about code-switching in this piece as a springboard or catalyst to the inspiration… She talked about when she was young, she had language classes where she was taught to speak “proper.” But then she also spoke in a vernacular with friends and a language that you would talk in your social and everyday life… She feels like she’s had to navigate that, especially being an African American woman, which then she brings into the work and again in collaborating with the dancers, it just seemed to be an exciting process for the dancers and for Rena.

I saw opening night; there were two more performances. Do the dancers have flexibility to express themselves differently or is an expectation that you might cause somebody to trip over if you do?

It’s a funny thing. Every part of the performance is situated, it’s set, and it becomes this is the piece now, step for step. But there is freedom within the individual to maybe have a nuance in that there’s a sense of musicality, will they play with the musicality a little different from one day to the next? Will they approach a dancer with a little bit more verve in one moment, or in another moment be a little more timid? There is freedom within those little dynamics. But every step is set.

In Chicago, we just see your Chicago schedule. I think it’s very important for people to know that while you’re practicing and rehearsing for this performance, you’re doing completely different programs all over the country. How many away dates do you generally have? 

It can vary from year to year, from like 10 to let’s say 20… It’s kind of cyclical where you get invited every two to three years to the same locations, in the main venues in the United States, but we’re also touring abroad. We have next season a tour of Germany and through Italy, and we’re talking about going to Cuba… Our home series is where we bring in the new work and where we produce new work… I would say the best of the best get taken on tour, and eventually they come back. like Grace Engine, and then it is just kind of a cycle of every two or three years perhaps a piece will come back.

Do you find that your reputation precedes you, that people say, “Oh, wow. I’ve heard of this Hubbard Street Dance Company.”

It absolutely does. We go on tour, we often sell out, receive standing ovations; people get very excited, because they’re not accustomed to seeing the profile of a company like Hubbard Street. So I feel like we go somewhere on tour and we’re a novelty and people are excited to see the company…

I want to make sure I didn’t miss anything fundamental about the the program that we just experienced.

The costume design is also vital to the work. I think each piece had a different look to the evening, which is also important. I was really happy to see the last piece, the costumes were designed by a dancer in the company. I know Rena wanted color and then with the costume design warranted a lot of color in the lighting. Kyle ended up designing his own costumes because he wanted something just really pedestrian-looking. So he actually went shopping for those costumes and created that look. 

This, That, and the Third

Circling back to the audience… There are people who are modern interpretive dance aficionados and other people who just want to see what it’s all about. Do you feel that most of Hubbard Street’s audience comes trying to interpret and understand the meaning of the piece or is there an audience that just says, “I didn’t get it, but the dancing was just amazing.” 

I hear a lot of feedback, and I get the range of what you just talked about. From the aficionado, “Thank you, thank you for bringing this work to Chicago. This is really important and we wouldn’t be having this if Hubbard Street didn’t bring it.” And that’s fine, where I’m trying to create a library of work that audiences will, if they didn’t get it right away, let’s say we bring it back in two to three years, it will resonate with them in a different and more nuanced way later. 

But what I say is if you don’t get it, don’t watch the work in an intellectual mindset, watch the work from an emotional mindset. I would say the same as you would go to the Art Institute to look at abstract art. You’re looking at the abstract art from an emotional place, not the intellectual place, and don’t look for storyline, but look to how does it make you feel? And when you do that, it becomes a whole other experience… You shouldn’t view it like you would a movie, where there’s a narrative and there’s characters that you can relate to. This is not a movie where you’re watching TV. This is totally a different genre where you need to engage your imagination.


Hubbard Street Dance returns to the Harris Theater March 12, 13 and 15 with Decadance/Chicago, featuring the work of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. According to Edgerton, the “Deca” in the program’s name references a collection of 10 years of Naharin’s work, adding, “It’s interesting how eclectic the evening is, it’s a great testament to his range.”

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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.