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Dance Your Breath Away

The mix of jazz, ballet, and modern styles at Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance Company incorporates the work of Willie Nelson and D.H. Lawrence, and audiences are raving over the results.

By Bill Beuttler (American Way, Dec. 1, 1989)
Photos by Paul Elledge

You don’t have to know dance — or even like it — to enjoy the Hubbard Street Dance Company. Not that it hurts: Critics have applauded artistic director Lou Conte’s 12-year-old company wherever it has performed (that’s 31 states and eight foreign countries to date, including regular appearances at major summer festivals such as Jacob’s Pillow, Saratoga, DanceAspen Artpark, and Ravinia). Even Fred Astaire, after seeing the company’s first TV special — filmed in 1981, long before the troupe had achieved any national prominence — said that the show contained “some of the greatest dancing” he had seen in years.

But forget the experts. This group’s mix of ballet, jazz, and modern dance is accessible, and that’s what keeps people like me — who don’t know a plié from a grand jeté — coming back show after show. It isn’t so much the technical virtuosity that bowls people over, though that’s plainly there in abundance. It’s partly the humor, partly the big, diverse, always-evolving repertoire — but mostly all the good-time feeling and personality the company projects. “They dance,” writes the New York Times’ Jennifer Dunning, “as if they and the audience were friends.”

That may be what convinced me they wouldn’t mind my dropping by their studio. I had seen them perform a couple of times in Chicago, and had become especially enthralled by Conte’s wonderfully upbeat show-closer, “The 40’s.” So far, I’ve liked everything I’ve seen the company perform. A favorite is “Georgia,” the only piece that Conte himself has choreographed since 1982 (most new pieces are now commissioned from guest choreographers). It is a classically beautiful duet, danced by Claire Bataille and Ron De Jesus — perhaps the troupe’s most technically proficient dancers — to Willie Nelson’s cover of the popular Hoagy Carmichael tune. The simple elegance of the dancing matches perfectly the simple elegance of Nelson’s voice, and together they can take your breath away.

But I still like “The 40’s” best. The first time I saw it, at the Chicago Civic Opera House in spring 1987, I’d been quarreling with my girlfriend on the way to the performance. By the time the number was over, our fight was forgotten and I was walking out of the theater with a big stupid grin on my face. “‘The 40’s’ does that to people,” says Conte, who choreographed it for the company’s original four dancers in 1978, then kept adding sections to it as the company expanded to its present size — 15 dancers and two apprentices. It’s Conte’s “little classic contribution” to the Hubbard Street repertoire, set to big-band--–era jazz by Ralph Burns and Sy Oliver and based on “our impression of the celebratory mood that the people had at the end of World War II.”

Conte is getting a little tired of closing every show with “The 40’s,” but there’s little he can do about it — each time he has dropped it from an evening’s program, fans have made a fuss. And he really doesn’t have a comparable closer. It is the only piece in the repertoire with parts for all but one of the 15 dancers (dressed in identical black-and-white costumes, further enhancing the ensemble feel). The piece is maniacally upbeat, ensuring that audiences will depart in high spirits. And it features an especially exuberant performance by Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, a diminutive gymnast turned dancer who took over the lead role in the group’s signature piece after joining the company in 1983.

So “The 40’s” stays put, and Conte gets his kicks by commissioning new works from guest choreographers. One of them, Margo Sappington, will be in town working on a new piece the day I visit. It’s her fourth for Hubbard Street, and I’m familiar with two of the others. “Cobras in the Moonlight” is one of the company’s prettiest works. It’s a series of four tangos, the third of which Hilsabeck dances with two male partners. “Step Out of Love” is, in the words of one critic, “a proudly punk, femacho workout.” In it, five women explore the range of emotions felt when romantic involvements end. Very different pieces, but both are audacious and fun. I can hardly wait to see how Conte’s troupe brings off Sappington’s latest.

Lou Conte greets me dressed as he is in most photographs of him: work shirt, blue jeans, banana-colored cowboy boots. He has retained the unpretentious warmth of his Southern Illinois boyhood, but years of city living seem to have altered his metabolism a bit — he talks a mile a minute and has a tendency to fidget. He fixes coffee, then sits down at a conference table and starts talking history, his own and the company’s. Conte was born on April 17, 1942, in Du Quoin, Illinois, a little town near Carbondale. Wen he was six, he was a tap-dancing performance that impressed him so much he asked for lessons. He started the next year, “the only little boy in Du Quoin who took tap lessons.” When his family later moved to Taylorville, a small town in central Illinois, he was prodded into learning other types of dance by Fred Hensey, a teacher he’d found in nearby Decatur, who “wouldn’t let me take tap unless I took ballet and jazz and other things.” He got good enough at these other things to begin doing summer stock when he was 17, yet still thought of dance as a hobby when he enrolled at Southern Illinois University. True, he was putting himself through school by teaching fellow students dance. But his major was zoology.

In Carbondale, Conte met ballet teacher Marie Hale, who persuaded him to put his zoology education on hold for a couple of years so he could try dancing professionally. Conte began intensive ballet training in Florida, Chicago, and New York. In 1964, at age 22, he danced in his first Broadway musical, Bob Fosse’s How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Other Broadway performances followed (Mame and Cabaret), but eventually Conte decided “what I really wanted to do was join the Joffrey Ballet. That was a company that really let the men dance, and they did modern, contemporary-type things.” Things didn’t work out for Conte with that company, however, so he went to Europe instead, where he danced 13 months with the George Reich Ballet before deciding that he wanted to return to the United States to teach and choreograph.

He moved to Chicago in 1972, and started choreographing for musicals and dinner theaters there and in Milwaukee. He also began teaching, and in 1974 opened the Lou Conte Dance Studio, at 125 West Hubbard Street, right up the street from the Billy Goat Tavern. He attracted talented students from the beginning, among them Claire Bataille, who has gone on to become his assistant artistic director as well as one of the company’s star dancers. In the summer of 1977 he decided to get back to his roots by teaching beginning tap. one of his tap students was Barbara Cohen, who was then working for Urban Gateways — a non-profit organization set up to stage cultural activities in schools and senior-citizen centers — and who liked to show up for her class early to watch the advanced jazz class before it. Cohen suggested Conte put together a short show for Urban Gateways. He choreographed a 35-minute program that included an early version of “The 40’s” as part of a dance-from-each-decade theme, chose four top students (all women) to perform it, spent a couple of months rehearsing that fall, and in January 1978 the women started giving two performances a week at senior citizen centers. By this time, the company already had its name: Hubbard Street Dance Company was chosen to distinguish the non-profit dance troupe from the for-profit studio when the company was incorporated in early 1978, with Conte as president and Bataille as vice president (roles they’ve since abandoned).

These early tours were anything but glamorous. The dancers toted a cheap reel-to-reel tape recorder to provide their music, took turns running their costumes to the dry cleaner, and often had to push aside lunch tables and sweep up their makeshift stage area before they could perform. Nonetheless, says Conte, “we worked as if we were doing a Broadway show. It was very serious to us.” Conte charged $105 per performance in those early days, $20 apiece for the dancers and $25 for the kitty, which paid for the dry cleaning and gasoline to get them to their shows.

“I never let them perform for free,” says Conte. “People would say, ‘Well, they need the experience.’ I’d say, ‘No they don’t, they need the money.’ Because I’d heard this ‘experience’ crap. Forget it, they need the money. The goal was so that they could spend their day rehearsing and taking class, and not go out waiting tables all night and then coming in exhausted. You can’t do anything that way.” Those puny wages coupled with part-time teaching at Conte’s studio enabled the dancers to eke out a living while they concentrated on dance. Meanwhile, Cohen — who had quit her job with Urban Gateways to come work for Conte — was busy lining up bigger venues. Several hundred people attended free public performances at the city library’s Cultural Center and the Latin School of Chicago, including a lucky confluence of four men ideally suited to boost the company’s fortunes. Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune wrote a glowing review (from which Conte still quotes) of “At the Rosebud.” It said that the dancers — there were seven women and two men by now — were “not just ready for the big time, they are the big time.” Roche Schulfer, producing director of the prestigious Goodman Theatre, decided to book the company’s first downtown engagement. And Richard Carter, producer-director of Chicago public-television affiliate WTTW, wanted to put the company on TV. The program was taped in July and aired in September, and — on the strength of the television show and Christiansen’s review — the Goodman performance in October was sold out before it even opened.

“The was phenomenally lucky,” acknowledges Conte. But there was more to come. David Foster, an agent with Columbia Artists Management, happened to read about Hubbard Street on a flight from New York to Los Angeles. On his way back home, he stopped off in Chicago to catch a show — and decided he wanted to represent the company. “I didn’t know it at the time,” says Conte, “but it’s real hard to get an agent to do that. I was going, ‘Well, I don’t know ...’ I thought we were being duped or something.” Conte chuckles as he recalls his naiveté, which may have closed off Hubbard Street’s move to the big time had it not been for Cohen. “Finally, Barbara convinced me,” he says. “She says, ‘Just give him two weeks.’ I said, ‘OK, you can have two weeks.’ And so he did a nice little tour for us, and of course we’re still with Columbia Artists.”

International touring started with a 1982 trip to a festival in Paris. Today, Hubbard Street Dance Company is doing 60-some performances a year in the United States and overseas. Total attendance was 88,978 in 1988, and could top 90,000 for the first time this year. The big time has brought other big changes: Dancers are now paid as full-time, year-round employees, earning salaries of about $20,000, with six weeks’ paid vacation (coordinated so that the entire company is off at the same time). A 42-member fund-raising board brings in half of Hubbard Street’s $1.3 million annual operating budget via donations (the other half comes from concert revenue). Barbara Cohen has moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, “to live an artist’s life,” and been replaced as general manager by Gail Kalver. New dancers now come to the company from as far away as Rio de Janeiro, not straight from Conte’s studio as in the old days. Conte’s studio itself has moved — and Hubbard Street Dance Company with it — to more spacious digs on Wabash Avenue, just around the corner from the landmark Berghoff Restaurant in the city’s South Loop business district. And, to the consternation of some, Conte no longer choreographs most of the company’s new pieces.

Of the 35 dancers in the Hubbard Street repertoire, Conte has choreographed 14, either alone or in collaboration wit Bataille. All but “Georgia” were done before 1983. Dancers Rick Hilsabeck and Ron De Jesus, like Bataille, have choreographed for the company. Guest choreographers have brought in existing pieces, such as David Parsons’ “The Envelope.” And Conte, for the past five years or so, has been commissioning new works from Margo Sappington, Lynn Taylor-Corbett, Richard Levi, and Daniel Ezralow.

Conte offers several reasons for the shift away from his own stuff: Four years of doing all the Hubbard Street choreography had burned him out, leaving him “really, really tired of doing it.” He became increasingly involved in the administrative end of things — “running the company and running my school and teaching at the school ... and I just decided to let other people choreograph for a while. And I got out of the habit, and sort of lost the craftsmanship for it. Plus I think I was hiring choreographers who were doing better work than me, and they were taking the company in new directions and making it more mature.”

Not everyone agrees with Conte on this last point. Longtime Hubbard Street admirers — especially his own mother and sister, Conte jokes — have complained that the troupe has lost much of its personality by having outsiders take over the choreography. Some former Hubbard Street dancers have said the same thing. Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, the star of “The 40’s,” likes the troupe’s shift toward more modern, abstract pieces. But she says that Conte is wrong to say that the choreographers he is hiring are doing “better” work than he did.

“That’s Lou talking,” she says. “All the choreographers that come in are putting out wonderful pieces, but Lou shouldn’t compare himself to them. It’s like apples and oranges — Lou’s a different type of choreographer, and his pieces are just as successful.” Conte, she says, is too quick to agree with critics who think that because his pieces are entertaining they’re not art. “Why can’t art be entertaining?” she asks. “So what if [audiences] came there and forgot their troubles and just were entertained and went out singing the music or wanting to dance? That’s great. And that’s a true art form, if it affects someone so much.” Conte’s also too modest to take credit for helping polish other choreographers’ work, Hilsabeck says. “He has this wonderful eye for seeing what’s going to show up. Maybe the choreographer would spend an hour working on this one little section, and Lou would take another section and say, ‘Wait, this is what people will see.’ Or he’ll go after a different dynamic. That’s what takes the piece to another level.”

Hilsabeck is 31 years old, and has danced with Hubbard Street for six years. That’s five days a week, from nine in the morning until 5:30 or six at night — and the days get longer, not shorter, when the troupe is performing. She started dancing after dropping out of Michigan State, first in her hometown, Detroit, and then for a handful of small companies in New York. Those early days were lean ones. She tells me she recently ran across an old tax form from 1981, when she danced full-time for nine months with a Detroit company. Her dance income for the year was $3,800. It didn’t get much better in New York, where she supported herself between dance gigs with waitressing and other odd jobs because she felt guilty about collecting unemployment.

In late 1982, she heard that Conte was in New York auditioning dancers for Hubbard Street. He was said to hire short dancers, something not true of all choreographers and an important detail where Hilsabeck is concerned. When I run into her in the corridor, she’s wearing a loose-fitting black Cats T-shirt over workout tights and carrying a gym bag. She wears her light brown hair short and has pretty brown eyes and a pleasant grin. She’s very athletic-looking, but tiny — says she’s 5-foot-1, and might be exaggerating. “There are still people — even in modern and jazz — who like to see that standard 5-foot-5 or 5-foot-6 woman,” she says. “It’s hard to get work if you’re short.” She decided to try out for Hubbard Street, even though Conte was mainly looking for me at the time. The auditions lasted for two days, about four hours each day. “He was much more intense and much more detailed and demanding” than most New York choreographers, says Hilsabeck. “That’s what I liked about it. We did parts of every piece in the rep, and he didn’t just watch — he picked it apart. He wanted to see how you took corrections and if you could move his way rather than move your own way, or add your own little thing to it.”

Conte doesn’t remember the auditions quite the same way. “I had about 85, 90 woman in the room,” he recalls. “I just gave them a little combination across the floor, and immediately Kitty caught my eye. The problem was, she’s so short. How in the world would I use her? So I debated and debated. I thought, ‘I really like her work, but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to use her or not because of her height.’”

She has since become one of his top dancers. New pieces were choreographed to take advantage of her shortness, and when the woman then dancing the lead role in “The 40’s” left to become an actress, Hilsabeck took over the part. “Kitty turned out to be sensational in the role,” says Conte. “See, Kitty is a true artist. She sees the material and she knows how to interpret that stuff without making it overcute. It’s cute but in a good sense; it’s not, like, cute.”

Good cute and good cocky. Hilsabeck bubbles over with playful self-confidence in the piece, and I wonder whether she’s as sure of herself as her character is. “I feel comfortable up there,” she says. “I feel, sometimes, more comfortable than I do in life, as far as communicating with people. I think that’s why I like dancing — because it’s communicating without having to talk. I don’t think I’m as shy as I used to be, but I still like that feeling of communicating through movement.

In the rehearsal room of Hubbard Street, you see how communication is sweated out. As I look on, two dancers are standing in the center of the floor. A handful of others are looking on. Rather, one of the two dancers being watched — a muscular blond man — is standing; the other, a woman wearing glasses and tights, is clutching the man’s arm as she slowly slithers down his right leg. There’s a telltale hint of gray in her long dark hair. Yes, this is Margo Sappington. She finishes her demonstration, then walks toward the tape player to cue up the music again (Debussy’s Danse Sacré et Profane). She says she and the dancers are concluding their first week of choreographing an untitled piece “based loosely on [the D.H. Lawrence novel] Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

Sappington’s choreography is much in demand beyond Hubbard Street. She has danced and choreographed for the Joffrey Ballet, and choreographed for Broadway (where her latest was Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, in 1983) and other high-paying commercial projects, including collaborations with director Bob Giraldi on music videos (Pia Zadora, Jermaine Jackson) and television advertisements (Diet Coke, Kodak batteries, Dunkin’ Donuts). She is called “computer brain” by the Hubbard Streeters, because of her ability to improvise a series of movements and then turn around and duplicate them exactly for the dancers to imitate. She also is know to like playing her accompanying music LOUD.

And so the Debussy is booming when the dancers start through their paces again. The piece is a duet, and three couples are learning it. Rick Hilsabeck, Kitty’s husband and a 10-year veteran of Hubbard Street (he was the first male dancer to join the company), is paired with Daniela Panessa, a second-year company member from Rio de Janeiro. De Jesus, a Chicago native in his fourth year with Hubbard Street, is with Shannon D. Mitchell of Abilene, Texas, who arrived in 1987 from the Atlanta Ballet. Sven Toorvald, Sappington’s blond demonstration partner, is from Palo Alto, California, and in his second season with the company; he is dancing with Lynn Sheppard, a tall brunette from Toronto who has danced with Hubbard Street since 1987.

Hilsabeck, dressed in a blue turtleneck, blue tights, and a sweaty bandanna, is talking with Sappington about a lift he’s having trouble with, looking and sounding — tights notwithstanding — much like a football player analyzing game films. “I’ve got to get under her more,” he says. Sappington agrees that it’s a matter of leverage. “She really has to stay <.i>that way,” says the choreographer, motioning behind her back.

The atmosphere is relaxed as the three couples prepare to take turns making their final passes through the piece for the week. Ballet master Warren Conover sits propped on the ballet bar, silent and observant. Sappington sits cross-legged on the dance floor beside a plate of burritos.

Toorvald and Sheppard, up first, take their places. He is on the far end of the room, naked to the waist as he simulates bathing. She has put on a black hat, black cape, black skirt, and black heels over her workout tights.

She carries a basket of fake flowers, which she tosses to the ground, a couple at a time, as she walks slowly across the dance floor. She pauses dramatically when she spots him through an imaginary window. He mimes toweling off. She approaches his door and knocks. He is just finishing putting on his shirt as he answers. He takes her hat. And then her cape. Then her dress, shoes, (imaginary) stockings. The dancing gets wilder, more earnest, building toward that big, climactic lift that Hilsabeck has been having trouble with.

Toorvald and Sheppard get through it all OK, not perfect certainly but impressive for a week’s rehearsal. Nothing happens for a beat — as if what’s just happened is still sinking in — then Panessa starts the dancers on the sidelines applauding.

Sappington is back on her feet, giving advice.

“Don’t be so furtive when you walk into the room.”

“Don’t touch his elbow. Turn to him” — she makes the haughty face she is after — “then take off your hat.”

“The cape should be less a big deal. More as a politeness, the cape.” Things shouldn’t start getting hot and heavy until a bit further into Lady C’s undressing, the point where “you both discover your hand is on her leg.”

Conte now enters the room with his golden retriever, Buddy, who makes a beeline for the flowers Lady C has been strewing around. This sends Conte into a panic: Only the week before he’d had to rush the dog to the animal hospital after he ate a box of Kleenex. Conte drags Buddy to the sidelines, and eventually leads him from the room.

The other two couples meet with similar success, except that Hilsabeck flubs that troublesome lift again. Rehearsal should be over now, but he insists on getting it right. Two more quick failures and he’s panting ... but unyielding. “I’m gonna get this [expletive],” he declares.

There’s a sudden awkward pause. The dancers turn toward me with sheepish grins. Conte likes his company to keep things squeaky clean; that means no swearing in front of visiting journalists. Too late to worry about that now, though. Hilsabeck shrugs and grabs his partner’s arm. “C’mon,” he says. This time they nail it, to applause and loud laughter.

Sappington passes out bottles of German beer as the dancers seat themselves around her for an end-of-week critique. “How do you feel?” she asks them. Good for the most part, comes the consensus reply — not altogether on top of things yet, but getting there. “There’s still a certain amount of nervousness on the man’s part,” someone says, which launches a discussion of the characters’ psyches. Sappington gets talking about the novel a little, noting how the characters spend half the book trying to avoid each other before finally giving in to those deep urges neither can control. “When she sees him there washing,” says Sappington, “it touches her in a place in her that she thought was dead.”

I’ve got to be honest. Things start getting slightly bawdy about here. Maybe that last remark sounds a little too saccharine to Sappington as soon as she says it. Maybe it’s just the beer, people loosening up for the weekend. But the next thing you know, Sappington’s cracking everyone up by talking about having Lady C hand her lover a note and telling him — in very unladylike language — it contains permission from her husband to, well, to do what they’re about to do. This time no one cares what the journalist might think. Even Conte, who has returned (sans Buddy) to listen quietly to the critique, is grinning. What the hell, it’s the weekend. Time to shower up and head home.

© American Way