By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
It was the biggest performance in the short life of the Easy Credit Theater, and choreographer Richie Hubscher knew it. On a hot evening in July 1998, thousands of invitation-only arts patrons and new downtowners milled about the Rice Hotel's recently renovated Crystal Ballroom, sipping Absolut martinis and celebrating the launch of the Art Guys' corporate-sponsorship spoof and national-media darling, The Suits Project. The Art Guys posed for pictures in their logo-ridden suits, partygoers in pink bubble-wrap dresses flirted loudly, men in neckties shouted down to Texas Avenue from the second-floor veranda, Cool Films screened a video that traced the history of the project, bone-thin Page Parkes models strutted down the runway, and everyone was beautifully drunk, on the scene if not the alcohol. Then Hubscher stole the show.
The music started early, and quietly. When the performers finally heard it, Hubscher slid out onto the slippery makeshift stage and tried to catch up. The dozen other dancers, many of whom had never performed in front of an audience before, followed him. They watched his feet and tried to imitate him, they bumped into each other, they fell down. It wasn't pretty, but that wasn't the point.
Wearing a blue polyester Western suit and holding his one-year-old baby, Martha, on his hip, No tsu oH owner Jim Pirtle sang an emotional rendition of the Sinatra classic "My Way," while the Easy Credit Theater prepared for the ultimate fashion statement. Hubscher and his troupe stripped off their ghostly thrift-store garb and took to the catwalk themselves, naked but for some white body makeup and small triangles of white tape to cover their genitals. Two women took their positions, standing eye to eye at the end of the runway, wielding razor blades. Slowly they sliced the lines of a wedding gown and a groom's lapel into the soft flesh of each other's chests. The blood made bright red rivers through the cakey white makeup and eventually cloaked their bare breasts. The martini sippers stopped chattering about "what art is" in mid-sentence, craning their necks in morbid curiosity, as if they had glimpsed a broken body in a car accident.
The sense of emergency wasn't entirely unwarranted. It seems that in the world of scarification, a razor blade is not a razor blade is not a razor blade. The proper blades leave thin, weltlike patterns that go away in a couple of weeks. The improper blades can leave you with serious blood loss. For this particular performance, the woman sent to the convenience store to buy the blades was not well versed in the art. Combine heavy-duty razor blades meant for taking the scruff off a man's neck with sweat, nerves, adrenaline and a sensitive, blood-vessel-ridden part of a woman's body, and you've got a recipe for disaster. Once the performance high wore off and the pain set in, the dancer with the wedding-gown cuts had to go to the emergency room to have her chest and neck sewn back up. The groom didn't go to the hospital, and she's got the thick scar to prove it.
Hubscher knows that they were lucky there were no more serious consequences, but he doesn't regret the performance. "What can you do?" he asks. "Things like that are bound to happen. You can't stop life from happening. And you don't want to." If art is a reflection of life, and life is what's happening while you're making other plans, then accidents are art.
In nearly every dance performed in his little studio space carved out of the rubble and refuse above No tsu oH, a dog parks itself center stage and barks at length at either the audience or the dancers, an oblivious baby dressed only in diapers barely dodges a dancer's step, the electricity goes out, a mirror breaks or a "dancer," who has never seen the inside of a ballet class before, forgets the difference between his left and his right foot. To Hubscher, the distractions are all part of the show.
But they weren't always part of his show. No tsu oH may be an easy walk from the Wortham Center, but the coffee shop is worlds away from the grand theater where Hubscher performed until just a few years ago in the perfect predictability of the corps de Houston Ballet. For 15 years, he was well rehearsed and impeccably trained in bright, white, state-of-the-art studios with high ceilings and springy floors. For 15 years, he performed in elaborate costumes on hermetically sealed sets where not even a stray fake snowflake is allowed to fall before its time. For 15 years, he looked for his time, the time when it would be his turn, the time when he would be a star in this picture-perfect world of classical ballet.
"Boys, you better start building your muscles," Hubscher's mother used to tell Richie and his twin brother, Taylor, "because all you're going to be able to do for a living is dig ditches."
She wasn't being mean, just realistic. She worked the 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift as a cocktail waitress; Richie's father sat motionless in front of the television after a long day on his feet at the post office. They were more concerned with making the rent each month than with the potential of the two youngest of their eight children. Not that Hubscher would have shown much potential anyway.