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Forward Momentum 

The New Orleans Ballet Association looks ahead and back with the return of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago last performed in New Orleans in 1991, a pivotal time for the local organization that brought them here. That was the year the New Orleans Ballet Association (NOBA), which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this season, reinvented itself.

In its previous incarnation, NOBA was known as the New Orleans City Ballet. During the 1980s it had developed a "shared-city partnership," in the words of executive director Jenny Hamilton, with the Cincinnati Ballet. That company was in residence roughly half the year in Ohio, and half in the Crescent City. "It was an innovative idea -- it was written up in The Wall Street Journal," says Hamilton. But it did not prove financially solvent. "We found ourselves in about $1 million in debt on a $1 million budget."

Hubbard Street's first performance here helped usher in NOBA's new identity as "that all-important presenting organization that keeps dance companies from all over the country in business," Hamilton says. "The 1991-92 season was when we changed the name." As a presenter, NOBA adds to the city's cultural palette by giving New Orleanians the chance to see world-caliber troupes, Hubbard Street among them. In 2001, when NOBA brought Alvin Ailey's main company, Hamilton heard from a young woman whose decision to move here rested in part on their presence. "She said, ŒWhen I saw that Alvin Ailey was performing in New Orleans, I knew it must be okay,'" Hamilton recounts.

In addition to the timing of Hubbard Street's New Orleans debut, there's another reason the company makes an especially fitting anniversary-season opener, says Hamilton: "We've both evolved as organizations. They've experienced this evolution from a jazz-based company to a contemporary dance company with one of the most varied repertoires of any company in modern dance."

Hubbard Street's progression was more gradual. Founded in 1977 by choreographer Lou Conte and four dancers, the group took its name from the street where he had his studio. Conte was a veteran of Broadway musicals, and that style informed the troupe's early work.

Conte was a visionary who saw the need to expand his company's repertoire, and the diversity of works he sought out from other choreographers broadened over time. In 1989 they presented the first of several dances they would acquire by contemporary choreographer Daniel Ezralow, a veteran of MOMIX and Pilobolus. The company's relationship with him has proved ongoing, and they'll present one of his newest works in their concert here. Around that same time they began acquiring dances by Twyla Tharp, which they performed with the assured technique and attitudinal flair for which the company remains known. By the mid-1990s, Conte was looking to prominent European choreographers such as the Spanish Nacho Duato and Jiri Kylian of Nederlands Dans Theater.

Hubbard Street's connection with the latter group proved a harbinger of things to come. Conte retired as artistic director in 2000, and the search for a replacement reached across the globe, where it found Jim Vincent. Vincent was a 12-year veteran at Nederlands Dans Theater, having joined that company fresh from North Carolina School of the Arts. When he was recruited by Hubbard Street, he had moved on to Disneyland, Paris, where he conceived and directed original shows for the likes of Andersen Consulting and Coca-Cola. "When I went there, it had been time for me to become an artistic director or change careers," Vincent says. "I had always enjoyed doing my own taxes in addition to being in the studio. I needed to learn about the business side."

When at first Vincent turned down Hubbard Street, they called his wife. Four days in Chicago convinced him to abandon his 17th-century French farmhouse and move his family halfway around the world. Now in his fifth year, Vincent remains committed to aggressively expanding the repertory. This season, the number of new dances they perform will jump from two, on average, to seven, and the number of performances from 60 to 90.

Three newly-minted dances are on the bill in New Orleans. Lar Lubovitch's "Love Stories" is set to classics such as "Every Time We Say Goodbye," interpreted by Chicago vocalist Kurt Elling. "SF/LB" is the company's latest work from Ezralow who, when he's not making modern dances, has choreographed music videos for Sting and U2. According to company artistic associate Lucas Crandall (another Nederlands Dans Theater alum), the "LB" in that dance's title stands for Leonard Bernstein, who provides the score. When asked what the "SF" means, Crandall replies, "We don't know. It's the choreographer's prerogative."

The third new work is Crandall's own, a duet to music from a Norwegian folk quartet that involves a shoelace and combat boots. "I don't like to talk about it too much," says Crandall. "I want people to interpret it as they feel." Rounding out the program is a work the company premiered in 1996: Christopher Bruce's "Rooster," to the music of the Rolling Stones. "It rocks and rolls," says Crandall. Hamilton points to the group's versatility as a major reason to see this performance: "As one dance instructor locally put it, they do everything, and they do it all really well. We're really proud to be bringing them back.

click to enlarge Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is one of the more versatile dance companies around. "As one dance instructor locally put it, they do everything, and they do it all really well," says NOBA Executive Director Jenny Hamilton.
  • Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is one of the more versatile dance companies around. "As one dance instructor locally put it, they do everything, and they do it all really well," says NOBA Executive Director Jenny Hamilton.
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