One dancer is lifting another in their arms, and a solo flute lifts with them, fluid as a reed in the wind. The clear tones are the voice of Syrinx — a naiad, the spirit of a river, a woman standing for her own independence.
Choreographer Amy Hall Garner remembers her mother playing the music when she was a child and her mother practiced her flute at home. Looking back now, she has woven the music and more through a new work with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. And this summer her work will open their performance at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
Hubbard Street’s artistic director, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, will return to Jacobs Pillow with her company for the first time in 30 years, and she looks forward with warm anticipation.
‘I am so excited. When we extended an invitation to Linda and she said yes — we are eager to welcome her back.’ — Pillow artistic director Pamela Tatge.
She came in summer 1992 as a performer with Hubbard Street, she said, speaking on zoom from Chicago — and now, after 13 years with the Alvin Ailey Company, and an international career with globally acclaimed artists and choreographers from Ronald K. Brown and Alonzo King to Lar Lubovitch, she returns at Hubbard Street’s helm, with a program of work, new and familiar, and altogether charged with energy.
“I am so excited,” said the Pillow’s artistic director, Pamela Tatge. “When we extended an invitation to Linda and she said yes — we are eager to welcome her back.”
For Fisher-Harrell, the works she has gathered in this evening-long performance hold the momentum of a fast-moving year.
“I took over the company in 2021,” she said — “it seems like it was just yesterday for me — and we got a lot of premieres, and we had a lot of revivals happening. When we got the invitation to Jacob’s Pillow, I wanted to bring a mix of things that maybe the Pillow’s used to, like Ohad (Naharin)’s works, for instance, and I wanted to bring my vision.”
‘She brings that back — like ‘oh my God, I was so excited and charged.’ That’s the feeling, the introduction, the audience is going to have.’ – Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, artistic director of Hubbard Street
Her vision warmly welcomes Garner — an important choreographer, Tatge said, becoming known for contemporary work with a broad background, from modern and ballet to jazz to Broadway.
“I love her work,” Fisher-Harrell said. “I think she shows the company in her own unique vocabulary and style. (Her work) reminisces to the company that I was in in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and that was very dynamic — there was a little jazz undertone to it. She brings that back — like ‘oh my God, I was so excited and charged.’ That’s the feeling, the introduction, the audience is going to have.”
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers stetch in deeply precice movement from Ohad Naharin or Lar Lubovich and curve in light and shadow in Azshure Barton’s Busk at Jacob’s Pillow. Press photos courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow by Danica Paulos.
She sees Garner’s love of music and her musicianship clearly in her choreography.
“Amy is a musical wizard,” she said. “When she starts working and choreographing, once the work materializes, there are nuances that she’s bringing out in the music that you’re thinking, how does she even hear that, let alone craft something on a body to bring that out?”
Garner works with each one of the dancers, Tatge said, to see their personalities on stage, until each movement blooms, beautifully honed and intentional.
“She likes to craft,” Fisher-Harrell agreed, “so she’s with that dancer, she’s looking at that body she’s working with and their personality and their capabilities, and she’s really crafting each step and each movement.”
‘She likes to craft, so she’s with that dancer, she’s looking at that body she’s working with and their personality and their capabilities …’ — Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell
And she finds Garner’s work deeply timely in her adaptability and attention and creative resource. ‘As the wind blows,’ she said, comes from Garner’s experience of the past two years.
“What have we learned in the pandemic? First of all, we learned not to plan,” she said — “you’d better not plan anything, in the pandemic, because the pandemic squashed all of those plans. And so you just take each day that comes, as the wind blows.”
In these summer nights, the company will move into the deep precision of two choreographers Hubbard Street and the Pillow have known for many years. They will perform Ohad Naharin’s b/olero, the first time any company has brought it to a Pillow stage, Tatge said. Two women will perform to Ravel, in a work she finds both demanding and thrilling.
“To me it’s one of the most virtuosic duets you can see,” she said. “… These dancers, you can give them anything and they rise to the occasion.”
‘To me it’s one of the most virtuosic duets you can see. … These dancers, you can give them anything and they rise to the occasion.’ — Pam Tatge
As well as she knows Naharin’s work, Fisher-Harrell said, for her it is always living, thriving, changing according to whoever dances it. Like Lar Lubovich’s Little Rhapsodies, she has come to the work fresh.
“I am a huge fan of Lar Lubovich,” she said. “I have had the privelege of dancing a number of his works when I was with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, so I have worked with him on many different occasions, and he is delightful — his genius — and I wanted to honor him.
“He is also a Chicago treasure. People don’t know that, I don’t know why, but (he was) born and raised in Chicago, and so I wanted to bring his work to the company. … His is an American voice in contemporary dance that I would love to hold a space for.”
Her time with Alvin Ailey’s company has also led her to know Aszure Barton’s work, she said. Fisher-Harrell would come to teach and have the chance to see Barton’s work in rehearsal.
“She’s one of my favorite choreographers,” Fisher-Harrell said. “I’ve been following her for awhile. … I got to see all these works up close, and it’s like wow, who created this movement — she has such a unique voice and connection to music that I just fell in love with.”
She saw rehearsals of Busk with the Alvin Ailey Company — dancers in soft, dark hoodies hiding and revealing their faces — their bodies curled close together on stage and opening like petals. Clear individual movements can spill into a force that can move fluidly between classical and hip hop, group and solo.
“And I thought wow, if I could get my hands on this piece — whoo!” she said, laughing, “and so that was one of the first things that I thought about when I became artistic director.”
In response to Naharin’s duet, Busk fills the stage with people and movement in all directions.
‘Every person on the stage in Busk has their own story, and that’s a beautiful thing for the audience to try to figure out.’
“There are so many different bodies on the stage, and what is going on,” she said, gesturing expansively — “… it’s like every person on the stage in Busk has their own story, and that’s a beautiful thing for the audience to try to figure out … Like what is it with that —” as she looks one way and then another, and “— what is — oh — there are so many things to experience in Busk. It’s such a joy for the eye, for the senses, for the ear. It’s awesome.”
That energy and expansiveness and variety echoes as she talks about her first year with the company, and the changes she has already set in motion. She has held a vision, she said, in diversifying the dancers on the stage, the choreographers and the audiences.
A Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer lifts herself from the stage as her fellow company member holds a foot poised in Azshure Barton’s Busk at Jacob’s Pillow. Press photos courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow by Danica Paulos.
“I’m not saying the company has never had diversity of any kind,” she said, “because it has — it has. I think maybe it hasn’t been celebrated in the way that I would like to celebrate it. It is really important. We want to diversify our audiences, and in order to do that, people have to see themselves on the stage. They can’t engage if they have no connection to the beings doing the work.
“So there are a lot more people of color, different backgrounds, different bodies, on the stage, and that’s exciting.”
‘We want to diversify our audiences, and in order to do that, people have to see themselves on the stage.’
And she sees the effect, she said. Hubbard Street’s audiences are broadening.
“People are identifying with what they see on stage,” she said, “which is hugely powerful. And also the works that come in — sometimes, when you’re talking about contemporary companies … we think of a small cluster of choreographers in that realm, and why is that? I always question who holds the cards or the keys to contemporary dance.”
Contemporary means now, she said — movement in the voices of now. So she asks, who are those voices, and especially the ones who have never created on Hubbard Street before.
“I wanted to give them that invitation,” she said — “come in, come play, come play with us and see what transpires.”
‘I wanted to give them that invitation. Come in, come play, come play with us and see what transpires.’
As her company has worked with Garner on ‘As the wind blows,’ she has felt an enrgy that takes her back to the years when she first performed with Hubbard Street.
“It was synonamous,” she said, “the reactions we would get from the audience, and especially when we would come to the Pillow — the audiences were wowed. Everything we did grabbed their attention. We had different bodies on stage, and we could move as one. … And it was like oh my God, that company is so engaging — it’s so dynamic. …There was always something to see, always something happening.”
Her dancers share a sense of a vigor and elation, she said, as dance emerges from the pandemic. Hubbard Street has begun to travel again, she said, and the Pillow is their first performance away from home since 2020.
“These works are joyful,” Tatge agrees. “And we need that.”