at Link’s Hall Studio

November 1 and 2

It’s possible to see modern dance as a women’s ghetto–and modern dancers as the starving little sisters in a community that’s undernourished anyway–in a country that ghettoizes all art, not just dance. That’s why it’s so heartening when modern dancers, and especially women, get some recognition. At the annual Ruth Page awards for Chicago dance last September, two women–modern dancers–walked away with the two most coveted awards: Jan Erkert for best choreography and Mary Johnston-Coursey for best dancer.

Neither one makes easy dances (Johnston-Coursey also choreographs). Both are smart, committed artists. There the resemblance ends–each has her own vision and movement aesthetic, though the two have worked together on occasion. Now Johnston-Coursey has formed her own group, Kinetic White Girls (based in Salt Lake City, where she recently moved), and she and Erkert teamed up last weekend for a joint concert at the newly renovated Link’s Hall Studio.

It’s tempting to say that for this concert the two choreographers divvied up female and male. Johnston-Coursey’s work is intuitive and organic, inchoate, about as far from words as you can get. Erkert’s here is cerebral, ordered, with a purpose that can be formulated.

Johnston-Coursey specializes in off-balance movement–or more accurately, in the constant fluctuations of balance and imbalance. The source for that may be her own body. She never stands flat-footed–her feet are always curling under her like furtive little animals planning their next move. She rarely even stands still; characteristically she sways, even if it’s almost imperceptibly, as if her body were turning over kinetic possibilities and coming to some corporeal decision. Somehow Johnston-Coursey has passed on to her dancers (Rebecca Keene Forde, Eva Miller, and Cara Schwindt) that same itchy, unpredictable vitality; I’ve never seen Forde, for example, dance with such a quiver and flutter before.

A new work–Between Love and Madness, with music by the Kronos Quartet–is self-reflexive: it’s based, as Johnston-Coursey told us beforehand, on its own evolution, from solo to duet to trio and finally to quartet, with cast changes along the way. Perhaps the psychological nuances are available only to the Kinetic White Girls themselves, but outsiders can easily see how the choreographic focus shifts from one person to another and how the dancers depend on each other: often one catches another in midair, intercepting her between one balance point and the next, or briefly touches another’s head. (Johnston-Coursey is a master at creating a swift, diffident intimacy between dancers–never heavy-handed, never sentimental.)

The Dreaming Time is also new, a trio that seems to belie what I’ve said about Johnston-Coursey’s preoccupation with quick, off-balance movement: it’s defined by long-held poses and the look the dancers have, particularly at the beginning, of pushing through some viscous stuff. But the suspensions that dominate this dance are just moments of balance sustained; the choreographer has merely changed the emphasis, not her point of view. And Johnston-Coursey is savvy enough to provide contrasts, both from one moment to the next and among the three dancers at any given moment. One woman may focus up, another down; one seem to look inward, another out; a dancer may quickly rotate a wrist then flick it back, like a grace note to the slow, somber stepping.

Kinetic White Girls also performed the trio from Johnston-Coursey’s 1990 In Full Sun. I now see, with the help of the choreographer’s spoken introduction, how much of it evokes defeat: the dancers pattering their feet in place, as if forced to expend all their energy tied to that spot; the continual running and walking backward, as if in fear or retreat; the tumbling falls backward, as if knocked to the ground by some great but invisible force. All of which makes the dance’s final image especially moving: the three dancers spring to their feet facing us, eyes wide, legs wide, arms held like a gunslinger’s, ready for whatever’s next.

Johnston-Coursey’s choreography has a uniform look in part because any differences between her dancers are subtle: all are young women capable of quick, precise motion of a consistent quality. When Erkert’s performers filed out for Portraits of 5 Men–four excerpts from a work in progress for her concert next March at the Dance Center–it was as if the space had been invaded by a small, motley army: two young men in leotards (Anthony Gongora and Mark Schulze), a youngish man in a suit (Michael McStraw), three young women in leotards with elbow-length, jewel-tone gloves (Christine Bornarth, Abby Kantor, and Shannon Raglin), a youngish woman in a man’s suit and tie (Erkert herself), and two older men in sweats (Bernt Lewy and Scott Oury).

Erkert’s award-winning concert last year was dedicated to the female spirit; in Portraits of 5 Men she’s obviously taking on the half of humanity she neglected. And she does so with particular delicacy and restraint. She may have chosen to explore the dark continent of maleness, but she sees herself as an outsider, not an expert. Dressing in men’s clothes and adopting what we think of as macho poses are for her methods of exploring male identity, not assuming it. (In the postshow discussion Erkert talked about the difficulties of writing the text: she couldn’t define men or their experience but had to recall the impressions they’d made on her.)

The length and complexity of the text (last year’s concert had little) and its humor distance us from what’s going on. Perhaps Erkert feels distanced herself: at one point she moves her hand like a mouth jabbering away, as if to make fun of her own volubility. Certainly these four excerpts, with the possible exception of “Between Men,” do not have the urgent, lived-in quality of last year’s Forgotten Sensations and Sensual Spaces.

Of course distinguishing the sexes absolutely would be dangerous; Erkert wisely chooses to play with sexual stereotypes without genuinely owning or inhabiting them. She begins by talking about how she felt as a 13-year-old girl walking past a crowd of 16-year-old boys working on a car (cars are a motif): she felt inadequate. Her breasts were too small, her legs too short, her hair too limp–and her feelings reinforce the stereotype of men’s power, their ability to define women. But then she tells stories that expose men’s ignorance and vulnerability–not putting them down but revealing their humanity. Meanwhile the women play a game of musical chairs, moving from one man’s lap to another, arching back seductively to peer at us nearly upside down, cleavage exposed. But by the time Erkert is saying of men “They had no idea,” she’s reached McStraw’s lap–so what you see is a man in a suit holding a woman in a suit.

This meeting of the minds, this merging of male and female identities, sets up the first number, a solo for McStraw called “Ways of My Fathers.” First performed in 1987, it shows how men are victimized by the expectations of their culture. But in the second piece, “Glass Ceilings,” the three young women are manipulated by men, though often gently and with apparent consideration–placed on ladders and removed from them, hoisted up and carted from here to there, their feet pedaling pathetically as if they think they’re moving under their own power.

“Two Guys” shows a close relationship between men. Lewy and Oury start out against the stark white back wall, leaning against it to support their handstands–it seems a solid presence to them, almost like another person. (Earlier, when three women moved against the wall, it had no presence: they seemed suspended in air, friezelike, as flat and delicate as elaborate Chinese pictures cut from paper.) These two men, who are not trained dancers, go on to some fairly strenuous movement–leaps and catches, quick floor work–which they punctuate with muttered remarks to each other about how well they’re doing and who’s beaten whom at what. I’ve never seen older dancers so relaxed, natural, and engaging, not even in the choreography of Liz Lerman, who’s made a specialty of the older dancer. Lewy and Oury establish themselves onstage with an easy authority younger performers would do well to study.

The final piece on this program, “Between Men,” features a very masculine, highly charged, possibly homoerotic wrestling match between Gongora and Schulze (I thought of Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich struggling together in Lawrence’s Women in Love). Their work is counterpointed by the more delicate and laconic motions of two women, Bornarth and Raglin. This section is lovely, a work I suspect will offer up more at each viewing; by contrast the earlier pieces, though interesting and coherent, seem a little schematic. But they’re in the early stages of development. And the work as a whole is quite a project. You have to hand it to Erkert–not every modern dancer is generous, evenhanded, and intrepid enough to accept her kudos, then turn around and explore the dark night of men’s souls.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bernt Lewy.