BECKET — This week at Jacob’s Pillow, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago shows, once again, that this regionally named group deserves its world-class reputation. The program of four dances is also a fascinating primer on what it means to be a contemporary repertory company today.
Does it make a difference if dances are created for a group by a visiting choreographer (as is the case with Nacho Duato’s “Gnawa,” which he made for Hubbard in 2005), are created for other bodies (Jirí Kylián choreographed “Falling Angels” for his own dancers at Nederlands Dans Theater in 1989; Hubbard added it to its repertoire this year), or are “in-house” dances like resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s “The Impossible” and “PACOPEPEPLUTO?” Yes, in sometimes subtle, sometimes important ways. Does it make a difference if the dancers are, like the Hubbard Streeters, proficient yet earnest? You bet.
Indeed, the troupe may have conquered the weaknesses in “Gnawa,” which dilute the work: Duato has a curious predilection for overkill, which appears not in the more complicated and beautifully lush sections, but in some of his purposely simpler ensemble moments. The Hubbard dancers bestow a kind of sincere majesty to some of that plodding chorus work. With its Mediterranean- and Moroccan-inspired flavors, “Gnawa” seeks to evoke exotic ritualism; now we see more somberness in the ceremony; these sections of the dance, raised off the surface, meld more seamlessly and therefore are more of an uncomplicated pleasure to watch. The always-transcendent main duet, performed opening night with creaturely tautness by Kellie Epperheimer and Jason Hortin, is ever so. “Gnawa” is still not perfect but, it turns out, it’s not bad.
I’m not sure where on the spectrum “The Impossible,” Cerrudo’s latest work for the company, lies. It’s a compelling but rambling dance whose theatrical overtones explore memory and the warp it can lend to our perception of time and history. Ana Lopez and Jonathan Fredrickson are tragicomically moving in their depiction of the now-stooped, now-lissome lead couple. Though much of the surreality is welcome, and much of the duet work is striking in its gossamer beauty, a good deal of tweaking is in order before we can see what this is.
What is clear, however, throughout the program, is the articulation with which the dancers perform; always the movement is etched, not blurred. It’s a particular treat to see, in Cerrudo’s 2011 male trio “PACOPEPEPLUTO,” how luxuriously expressive some of the men’s backs are. Johnny McMillan, David Schultz, and Fredrickson perform “PACO” with charm, cheer, and superb technique. Sporting flesh-colored dance belts and ballet slippers — and that’s all, folks — they unfurl a sequence of solos to Dean Martin songs. Cerrudo keeps a drily humorous leash on them, so they manage a go-for-broke virtuosity without hot dogging, always just servants to the dance.
The all-women cast of “Falling Angels” is likewise faultless in dedicated pursuit of Kylián’s myriad details, which — following the metronomic certainty of the music, Steve Reich’s “Drumming (Part One)” — leave no room for hesitation. And the Hubbard women dive right in: The physical wit is there, but so is an element of anxiety; there’s a vulnerability even while they pick through the dance’s quirky Amazonian movements. In the break-out solos these dancers are sometimes more daring than pristine, and I prefer this touch of the wild, a nice complement to the exhilarating tick-tock of the unison work. If that ensemble work isn’t yet absolute, oh they are so close, and meanwhile, so riveting.