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Cerrudo’s high-flying ‘Pieces’ an extraordinary window into Chagall’s brilliance

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Garrett AndersAnLopez 'One ThousPieces.'  |   © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Garrett Anderson and Ana Lopez in "One Thousand Pieces." | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012

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When: Through Sunday

Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $25-$99

Info: (312) 850-9744;

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Updated: November 21, 2012 6:04AM

By sheer coincidence, two of the most widely recognized works in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago can now be seen as works for the stage.

At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater there is Stephen Sondheim’s masterful musical inspired by “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Georges Seurat’s exquisitely formal pointillist painting of 1884 that exemplifies his complex system for capturing color and light. And at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (for a brief fall engagement through Sunday only), there is Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, celebrating its 35th season with the world premiere of “One Thousand Pieces,” resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s full-length work inspired by the “American Window” (installed here in 1977), the large, three-section stained-glass mural of radiant blue with a swirling, windswept, symbol-strewn, fractured-looking surface.

While Sondheim and his collaborator, James Lapine, chose to interpret Seurat’s painting by essentially assembling many preparatory sketches and then putting them together to re-create the finished canvas, Cerrudo has taken a very different, far more abstract approach to evoking the spirit of Chagall’s windows, though the interplay of color and light (and considerably more motion) also is of the essence. Like Sondheim and Lapine, however, Cerrudo (with the crucial participation of set and costume designer Thomas Mika, and lighting designer Michael Korsch) also has tapped into a love story, though it is one told in a far more high-flying (both literally and figuratively) way.

Like Chagall, in whose work both human figures and objects seem to float in a dreamy space that defies gravity, Cerrudo has a way of setting his dancers into motion that is so fluid, torquelike and shape-shifting that they seem to skim the surface of the stage — an effect amplified here in the second of the piece’s three sections as the dancers move on a sleek black Marley floor beaded with water. But more about that later.

Set to an unusually wide range of pieces by Philip Glass (several from film soundtracks), “One Thousand Pieces” begins with a single male dancer moving in a large spotlight and then standing wholly still as he gazes upward into the light. Is he the artist? The seeker? A man in search of his other half? All possibilities are open as a wall of reflective screens comes into view and a series of couples move into the space, sometimes dancing in synchrony, sometimes in canon form, sometimes more chaotically. At moments a partner will fold or manipulate his partner’s legs, like an artist bending a piece of iron. Sometimes he will lift her so that she appears airborne of her own volition. All is shape, gesture and flow here, with Cerrudo subsequently orchestrating the full company of 23 (including Hubbard Street 2 dancers), who gather from either side of the stage, forming columns and then separating, creating a wonderful tension and surprise.

In a brief interlude, Jonathan Fredrickson is lowered on a wire, hovering above the stage as he narrates the simple story of a pair of lovers — the sort who invariably appear as a floating bride and groom in Chagall’s paintings. Once he ascends, the stage opens onto a very different scene, with misty waterfalls and a silvery, water-streaked floor on which the superb dancers move with hypnotic fleetness.

In the work’s final section, Mika’s reflective panels, like shards of glass, are suspended at various angles in a way that picks up fragmentary images of the dancers. (The designer’s minimalist costumes for the women are black mesh tunics with a subtle layer of dark blue and red — a deft riff on the windows.)

In one of the most beautiful sequences in the work, the full ensemble gathers in a single line, walking downstage to face the audience in a long moment of stillness (the influence of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, a Hubbard Street favorite, can be felt here). The line eventually fractures with shrugs and backward tilts, suggesting the brief glimpse of a ballet class. And there is much more, including a finale in which a couple has clearly sealed their bond.

The dancers, led by Ana Lopez, Garrett Anderson, Jessica Tong, Kellie Epperheimer, Jacqueline Burnett, Jesse Bechard, David Schultz, Pablo Piantino, Meredith Dincolo, Kevin Shannon, Jason Hortin, Alice Klock, Quinn Wharton, Laura O’Malley and others, are extraordinary throughout.

Cerrudo has a great sense of structure, and, like Glass, an ability to repeat certain themes until they change almost imperceptibly. Though this piece might be stronger were it somewhat shorter and performed without an intermission, it is fascinating as a window into Cerrudo’s free-flowing interpretive powers. And it is a very good bet that anyone who sees it will never look at Chagall’s windows in quite the same way again.

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