Two opposing lines of dancers connected like train cars converge center-stage and suddenly break into a cascade of female dancers rising into the air in seated poses, lifted by their male partners. The scene is a snippet of the creative genius of choreographer Nacho Duato in his "Gnawa," one of four contemporary dance works to be performed by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago here on Feb. 10.
Hubbard Street's skillful ensemble and leading-edge repertory place the company in the vanguard of contemporary dance in the U.S., and rival those of well-known European dance companies like Nederlands Dans Theater and Cullberg Ballet.
Led by artistic director Jim Vincent, Hubbard Street is acclaimed nationally and internationally for its high level of artistry and its commitment to new choreography and young choreographic talent.
One such talent is company member Alejandro Cerrudo, whose 2006 work "Lickety-Split" will open the Feb. 10 program. Set to music by Bay Area singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart, the dance for three couples is about the unpredictability of love. Banhart's quavering voice and spare acoustic guitar create a nostalgic sound that gives the work a very American feel, says Vincent.
"It's a tender piece," says Vincent. "Its characters express individuality as well as an interdependence [within] the group."
Following "Lickety-Split" will be Hubbard Street's newest repertory work, Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo's "From All Sides." The company premiered it Jan. 25, in Chicago, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Technically challenging, the virtuosic work is set to an original modern score by British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage.
"This piece almost demands a new viewer," says Vincent. "It is a fresh look at creating dance."
Former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre soloist Terence Marling -- now a dancer with Hubbard Street -- agrees.
"I have never seen dance language like this before," says Marling. "In dance, I don't think there are a lot of options left in coming up new ideas, but Elo has done so, creating a brilliant new dance environment."
An audience favorite at PBT, Marling left the company in 2003 to dance with the Nationaltheater Mannheim in Germany. The native Chicagoan returned home last year with wife Lauren Schultz -- another former PBT soloist -- so she could study English at Northwestern University. Look for Marling to dance in several works on this weekend's program.
The program's second half opens with former Irish step-dance champion Marguerite Donlon's "Strokes Through the Tail" (2005). This divine comedy is filled with highly stylized gesture, sight gags, a bit of gender-bending and, throughout, a delicious chain of bodies forming the structural patterns of musical notes on a page. Set to Mozart's animated "Symphony No. 40 in G Minor," the work for five men and one woman is an audience favorite.
Rounding out the evening is the aforementioned "Gnawa" (2005). The contemporary ballet "works on people's instincts toward movement and rhythm," says Marling. Choreographed to a blend of percussive music evocative of Spain and North Africa, the ballet in three sections will be danced by the full company.
"It is incredibly designed and sensual," says Vincent. "There is a feeling of suspension and celebration to it and it is the perfect closer to our program."
While audiences and the press clamor over Hubbard Street performances, Vincent says he tries not to buy into the hype.
"We are just pursuing what we think is the right thing to do in the evolution of contemporary dance," says Vincent. "Our focus is on creating new works and continuing to raise the bar."
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 10. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $19.50-40.50. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org