From Chicago, with Dance and Art

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The past week turned out to be challenging and very hard on some of my friends. I would probably still be singing the blues if not for the generous dollop of art and culture that I got last weekend.

at100413a.jpgWe, in southern California, are blessed with some of the best art schools in the nation, and last Saturday I went to Otis College of Art and Design for the opening of the exhibition with the titillating title, The Story of O. With Fine Arts graduates of the last 20 years showing their works, it felt like a boisterous family gathering. Installed with the particular panache one has come to expect from Otis' Ben Maltz Gallery, the exhibition marks two decades of leadership by Roy Dowell, a well-known Los Angeles painter and longtime Chair of the Fine Arts Department.

at100413b.jpgAcross town, at the Armory Center for the Arts in the far reaches of Pasadena, I was intrigued, and even chuckled once or twice over the rich variety of artworks on display there. This delightful exhibition left me in stitches, and I wonder if that was the intention of the organizers of the exhibition. After all, the name of the show is Stitches, and it refers to the sewing, knitting, and weaving techniques used by all the participating artists, men and women alike. On a few occasions I had to put on my reading glasses to examine the work closely, only to discover that I was looking not at a photograph but at an unbelievably intricately embroidered image.

at100413c.jpgTowering sculptures of animals, their soft bodies assembled from thousands of pieces of fabric and upholstery scraps, forced me to step back, trying to decide what exactly they want – to play, or attack? Nothing in this exhibition, with its numerous surprises, is what it appears to be at first glance; you have to see - and to see again - to believe your own eyes. It was a sheer delight to discover that so many artists still thrive by employing a centuries-old craft.

at100413d.jpgHowever, the biggest surprise of the week was the performance by Chicago's celebrated Hubbard Street Dance company at the Ahmanson Theatre. I've seen them before, so I knew that I was in for a treat: cutting-edge choreography, avant-garde music, and virtuoso dancing. And it was all that and more, but with an amazing variety of references to visual art. Watching the procession of dancers moving slowly and hypnotically across the stage, I couldn't help thinking about ancient reliefs carved on the walls of Greek and Roman temples. The set design was minimalistic, but the emotions expressed by the dancers ran deep, often evoking screaming, tortured characters from a Francis Bacon painting. In one unsettling moment, I felt as if the rug was being pulled out from under my feet. And it did happen, literally – not for me, but for the performers – when the white cloth covering the stage suddenly became an animated sculpture and started to interfere with the dancers in a rather dramatic, even threatening way.

at100413e.jpgAfter the performance, I had a chance to talk to some company members and to Glenn Edgerton, the troupe's artistic director. I learned about the company's deep interest in visual art and intriguing, ongoing collaboration with the Chicago Art Institute, whose collection these young performers are encouraged to study and respond to in a very particular way. This coming June, for one day only, Hubbard Street Dance will stage a performance in several museum galleries, on a day when the Art Institute is free to the public. I haven't been to Chicago for almost ten years, and this seems like the perfect excuse to go. Want to join?

The Story of O: Graduate Fine Arts 1989-2009
On view at Otis College of Art And Design through June 5

On view at the Armory Center for the Arts through June 6

Banner image: True connection proves hard to find in "Tabula Rasa," as created by Ohad Naharin and performed by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. The 16-member company, which is led by artistic director Glenn Edgerton, looked better than ever Saturday at Ahmanson Theatre, reviewer Laura Bleiberg writes in the Los Angeles Times.