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Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Winter Series | Preview

With Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa, Hubbard Street completes its star-studded pentacle.

A minor but frequent grumble against Swedish virtuoso Mats Ek is actually a compliment. “Given how deprived we are of Mats Ek’s work here in the U.S.,” one dance writer lamented, “the biggest treat was to see three of his short works.” Another: “Ek’s work isn’t well-known in the United States.”

The reason for that, according to the 67-year-old sporting light, snowy scruff on his chin, is simple: “In my case, I can’t deal with too many [productions] at one time,” he says. “I can’t have a rep being introduced to too many companies without being there [to stage the work] myself.”

Ek’s wife and collaborator—legendary dancer Ana Laguna, 57—nods in agreement during a roundtable interview at Hubbard Street’s West Loop studios. The duo splits staging duties for Ek’s 40-minute masterwork Casi-Casa, part of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Winter Series program Thursday 6 through Sunday 9. “I don’t regret it,” Ek continues. “One has to adjust to what works, not what doesn’t work, but I think it’s time to try [the U.S.] again. Let’s see.”

Hubbard Street is the first American company to stage the piece, and one of a few U.S. companies to feature an Ek work in its programming. Casi-Casa completes artistic director Glenn Edgerton’s goal, since becoming full-time artistic head in 2009, to represent five great international master choreographers in the company’s repertoire: William Forsythe, Ohad Naharin, Nacho Duato, Jirí Kylián and Ek.

Casi-Casa, which premiered with the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba in 2009, is a composite of two Ek pieces: Appartement (2000) and Fluke (2002). In multiple scenes, the sometimes dark, sometimes lighthearted domestic themes mix subtle theatrics with earthy gestures. Ek, the son of film actor Anders Ek (Cries and Whispers), is as concerned with the psychology of his dancers as he is with the technique. That’s partly why he prefers to cast in person when working with a new company. The process can be “a bit of a meat market,” he says.

In rehearsal, Laguna balances on a medicine ball, flanked by two couples: company members Alejandro Cerrudo and Ana Lopez, and Jesse Bechard and Kellie Epperheimer. Laguna’s having fun before directing the “kitchen” scene—directing being the operative word. Her prompts often sound more like theater directions, trying to elicit the emotions of her actors.

“The stretch of your thought and your thinking, rather than from here,” she says, pointing to her outstretched legs, indicating that the figurative stretch of the mind is as important as the literal stretch of the body. At one point, the choreography calls for Cerrudo and Lopez to separate in dramatic fashion. Laguna emphasizes the conflict, shouting out the desired feelings. “You have to say, ‘Damn it! Get away from me with this shit!’ ”

“When going to a new company to work with Mats’s language, I notice that many have a hard time linking the technique to the feelings,” Laguna says during the roundtable. “It tends to be a little bit strict. The way to get there, you need to have the feeling of the background. Otherwise, you don’t get there.”

As Cerrudo and Lopez finish, Bechard and Epperheimer prepare for their turn. Laguna, radiating like a protective mother, preps them. She dispenses with dance jargon: no “runs” here. Looking at them intently, she offers some new jargon: “Make it,” she says, “instead of run it.”

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs Casi-Casa Thursday 6 through Sunday 9 at the Harris Theater.