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St. Louis, Chicago come together in music and dance

David Robertson, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
St. Louis Post Dispatch

Most orchestra programs are mixed according to a tried-and-true recipe: a short curtain-raiser as appetizer; a concerto, usually featuring a pianist or solo violinist, in the place of the salad course; and, after intermission, the entrée, in the form of a symphony.

Not this time.

This weekend at Powell Hall, David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will offer a tasting menu of exotic (for an orchestra concert) fare: two programs of six compositions that incorporate dancers from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, sharing the stage with the players. (A Family Concert on Sunday afternoon will use elements from both evening performances.)

Robertson and Hubbard Street executive director Jim Vincent are dedicated to collaborating with other artists, in frequently unexpected ways. Hubbard Street's style is highly athletic and surprisingly balletic. Its dances have a layer of humor, making this a good choice for someone who's not totally certain about modern dance.

Robertson and Vincent first worked together four years ago, when Robertson conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a Hubbard Street performance and started considering ways to bring them to St. Louis.

Robertson says that he likes the dancers' "real feeling for music. (When) you integrate them with musicians on the stage, it's not like two entities. One feeds on the other; you begin to interpret the musicians' gestures as dancelike, and the dancers' as musical."

Most of the time, when orchestras work with dance companies, "the orchestra is firmly consigned to the pit, where it is to be heard and not seen," he says.

Most conductors prefer that, because it's easier. But Robertson and Vincent worked well together, "almost co-choreographing the evening," Robertson says.

Vincent, who says he was charmed to meet a conductor "who's actually into modern dance," says he finds "a level of enrichment" for both dancers and players in onstage collaborations.

"Sharing the stage like this enriches the experience for everyone," Vincent says. "There's a visual interdependence that's really quite magical."

There is, of course, the little matter of finding space for everyone on that stage. To accommodate the dancers, the apron will be extended by 8 feet, going over the first few rows of seats, and will be 64 feet wide.

Vincent, who wants the dancers and musicians to be closely engaged, also has his eye on a space directly in front of the podium onstage.

"There's a buffer zone where the dance space ends and the music begins," he says. "I'd like to do away with that as much as possible."

There are concerns with dancing close to instrumentalists: When dancers and singers share a stage, the singers are at least moving targets. Robertson agrees that it's a challenge.

"None of these things are plug and play," he says. "They're really refined collaborations."

Vincent says, "It's not easy or effortless, but it's wonderful. We adapt without compromising."

Friday night's program will include dances set to music of J.S. Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. March 7 has Mozart's Symphony No. 40 and the premiere of a dance to Benjamin Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge." Both concerts will have a nondance version of Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" as the second half.

"It's just tremendous fun," says Robertson, who thinks the Sunday Family Concert is a particularly good choice for introducing children to the orchestra.

For Vincent, working with an orchestra in a pit comes from centuries of tradition.

"I say to hell with that tradition."