In advance of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's 40th anniversary performance Jan 27, I had the pleasure of talking to dancer, choreographer and teacher Lou Conte, founder of the Lou Conte Dance Studio and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, both of which have been important Chicago cultural organizations that have gone on to achieve world-wide fame. A wonderful storyteller, Conte talked about the company’s early years, and the changes that the organization experienced over the decades. Serving as artistic director for 23 years, Conte got to know hundreds of dancers, and his eagerness to find new choreographers to continually challenge his dancers is one of the things that has helped shape Hubbard Street’s repertory and establish its reputation as one of America’s most influential contemporary dance companies.
Below are some highlights from our discussion as well as audio files from the interview:
Lou Conte’s early years and his love of dance: Growing up in the tiny town of Du Quoin in southern Illinois, Conte saw his first dance show at an early age, and immediately asked his parents for tap lessons. “It was thrilling for me,” Conte said. Those first dance lessons were 30 minutes long during his elementary school lunch hour with Mildred Hall. “She would hold my hand and teach me the steps and then go to the piano and accompany me.”
At age 12, his family moved to Taylorville, Ill., and he was lucky to find teacher in nearby Decatur named Fred Hensey who wouldn't let me take tap unless I started ballet classes. He studied with Fred until age 17. "He was a wonderful teacher," he said.
Entering Southern Illinois University at Carbondale as a Zoology major, he discovered dance teacher Marie Hale and that sealed his fate. Conte started taking class from her and became good friends with her and her husband. She had studied with Christine Du Boulay and Richard Ellis in Chicago who later became Connte's first big-city teachers.
Hale told him, “‘You should quit zoology and go dance.” So he did. His coal miner father wasn’t thrilled with the prospect but he still supported his son, advising him: “You have to do in life what you want to do.”
Through his 20s, Conte danced professionally and had all kinds of dance jobs, including Broadway shows, national tours, summer stock, club reviews. He also choreographed and taught during this time. His travels took him from Florida to New York City to Milwaukee and eventually back to Chicago. By age 27, Conte had set his sights on dancing with The Joffrey Ballet, because, “….they were performing ballets that were so different from the modern stuff” he was used to dancing. He admits he had a difficult time keeping up with the younger dancers. After a 13 month European tour, Conte was ready to return home: “I felt really American. I missed my culture.”
How Lou Conte Dance Studio formed: Back in Chicago, Conte had the chance to play the Rabbi in “Fiddler on the Roof” when the original actor had a heart attack. While it wasn’t a “dance” role, his background enabled him to learn all of the staging in one day, and his reputation inspired some of his fellow actors to ask for tap lessons. Conte taught them in the basement of the dinner theater where the show was running. From there, he went on to open the Lou Conte dance studio on Hubbard and LaSalle streets and the enrollment kept growing. He recounts with pride the time The Second City Improv group (where famous comedians such as John Belushi, Fred Willard, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd all once worked) wanted to put a tap dance bit in their show and came to the studio for lessons. One of those Second City actors was Bill Murray.
The origins of Hubbard Street: As his dance studio continued, Conte wanted to find work for local dancers and to showcase their work. "The company started as a real simple program with four women performing for senior citizens," Conte explained. "Those four women got paid from Day 1. That employment thing was the genesis."
The original group of four got so many requests to perform that a second group of four women was needed, and then two male dancers were added. “It sort of grew out of the need to figure out what we were going to do next,” Conte said. Thinking he’d call the troupe The Lou Conte Dancers when filing for their non-profit status to take advantage of some new arts development funding in Chicago, he had to think fast when lawyers advised that the non-profit performing group needed a name that was different from the for-profit studio’s. “I just looked out the window and saw the street sign that said ‘Hubbard,’ and that was it!” Conte, along with Hubbard Street’s first executive director, Barbara Cohen, and the newly formed board made a commitment to try the process of employing dancers for one year and see how it went. "I think that's important to not have a grand plan. We just did it." Conte said.
How Conte fostered relationships with other choreographers: The company found early successes with Conte’s choreography and their jazzy style was popular. Eventually, though, they needed some fresh ideas and the dancers were ready for new challenges. “Fundamentally, I was burning out,” Conte said. Branching out to include works by outside choreographers was a huge step for the company. One of Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s early duets was a major success for Hubbard Street and they went on to present five of her pieces in all. “What she contributed to the company was really important,” Conte said. In 1989, Twyla Tharp was looking for a company to do her early works and chose Hubbard Street. “She gave us a lot of credibility,” he continued. With the acquisition of Tharp works, Hubbard Street’s finances ramped up, as did its reputation. Conte also mentioned works by Margo Sappington and Daniel Ezralow as important milestones for the company.
Conte’s connection to “A League of Their Own”: Conte is credited as choreographer for the 1992 hit “A League of Their Own,” starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell.
“Madonna wanted Twyla Tharp to choreograph the movie,” Conte explained, “but when Twyla wasn’t available, she recommended me.” While viewers may not recall a major “dance number” in the film, Conte worked with the actors to create a jitterbug scene as the female baseball players get ready to go out on the town for a night. “It was a great experience for me,” Conte said. “Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell … they added so much of it for me.” He particularly remembers Madonna as “Very serious, very focused.”
Why Conte left the company in 2000: Through the 1990s, touring across the United States, Europe and South America was a large part of the company’s success, but Conte said that touring changed drastically at the end of the decade. “I was really tired of being away from home all the time,” he said. “I wanted to take some time off, and once I did, I just never went back. I think I left at the right time, when the company was in good shape.” He heaps praise on Gail Kalver, his executive director during those years, for “Keeping it all together.”
What Conte thinks of the current Hubbard Street Dance Chicago company and the pieces they are bringing to Northrop Jan 27: First and foremost, he adores this current company of dancers. “They’re so talented and so good and they get along so well! This particular group right now seems the strongest.” The 40th anniversary performance at Northrop opens with William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, which Conte admits he “didn’t quite get” at first, but now he says he’s grown to love. He’s excited about Crystal Pite’s work, and calls her, “…another innovative, creative person who works well with the company.” Pite’s A Picture of You Falling completes the first half of the program.
Act two opens with Nacho Duato’s Violoncello and Jardi Tancat and Duacho’s work always has a beautiful sensuality to it. Conte’s own Georgia and The 40s round out the night and give it a rousing finale. “Georgia was the last piece I choreographed for Hubbard Street,” Conte reminisced, while The 40’s was an earlier hit. “I can’t believe how audiences still respond to that piece…how it’s still going strong,” Conte said. Just like the company he created, I thought. And thank heaven for that!