Suet May Ho wasn’t frightened at first when the women began to lay stones on her body. But then they carefully put stones over her mouth and her eyes. Ho couldn’t breathe easily or see, and she could feel and hear something being burned next to her. Then she did feel frightened, breathing rapidly from her sense of helplessness. But she knew that she was the willing container for the women’s own overwhelming sense of helplessness, and that to become too frightened would betray their trust. So she held on.

These women–who had been tortured by the Khmer Rouge in their homeland, Cambodia–were performing this ritual of mourning as part of the dance therapy devised by choreographer Jan Erkert. And of all the suffering inflicted on them, helplessness was one of the simplest but longest remembered. One woman had been used as a pack animal to carry sacks that were too heavy for her; she still suffered from sore shoulders, as if the memory of the sacks were as heavy as the sacks themselves.

Another of the women’s griefs was that they were not able to bury their children and other loved ones who died in Cambodia. In the mourning ritual, dancer Ho–who in other therapy sessions had taken the role of their memories–was lain on the ground and the Christian women covered her arms, legs, torso, and face with lines of flat white stones, resembling the bones of a skeleton. Meanwhile the Buddhist women drew pictures of their loved ones. After burying Ho in stones, the Christian women made intricate patterns on the floor with the stones, and the Buddhist women stepped inside them and set their pictures on fire.

Erkert was part of a team led by psychotherapist Patricia Robin, all of whom were volunteering their time at the Marjorie Kovlar Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture, in Uptown. Five years ago Robin, one of the cofounders of the Kovlar Center, read that Cambodians have a higher level of posttraumatic stress disorder than the Vietnamese, so she went to the Cambodian community in Chicago to form a therapy group. But Cambodians don’t usually discuss their feelings–there isn’t even a word for “psychology” in their language. Besides, Robin’s questions reminded the Cambodians too much of the Khmer Rouge’s interrogations. She felt she’d run up against a wall.

Robin, who treats mainly victims of incest in her full-time work, knew that repressed memories are often “stored” in the body as headaches or painful shoulders. The most extreme bodily symptom for victims of torture is hysterical blindness, when a person can’t see though nothing is wrong with the eyes. Art therapy, Robin found, was often a good alternative to talking therapies, a good way to release memories for survivors of both incest and torture. She began using various kinds of art therapy with the Cambodians in the first year, in weekly group sessions that usually attracted four to ten women.

Erkert volunteered because, after receiving an NEA fellowship and other government money, she felt she had to repay the community more directly than by making dances and teaching. She thought her teaching skills–finding students’ physical blocks and drawing out their personal stories–might be useful. She volunteered at the center in the fall of 1992, and found herself continually amazed by the Cambodian women. “They always had a creative response,” she says. “One session, when Rita Nathanson, an art therapist, brought clay, all of us therapists spent a long time talking about what to do with it. But while we were talking the women had already built an entire village out of clay, like the villages they had left behind.”

When Erkert learned that the women believed in ghosts, she began to bring one of the dancers from her company, Suet May Ho, to the sessions. Ho, a Chinese woman born in Malaysia, learned Cambodian words quickly, and the women rapidly accepted her, treating her almost as a daughter, constantly touching her. In various sessions, she took the role of a ghost the women could control. After some of them, Erkert created a dance for Ho using the movement and ideas the women had given her, then showed the dance to the women. “If they became frightened,” Erkert says, “I knew I’d gotten it right.” Sometimes the women became so frightened that they would no longer touch Ho.

Erkert then created a solo for Ho, Turn Her White With Stones, based on the dances from several sessions. The piece also incorporates many other elements: a poem by one of the women, Ya Chhan; films of Ho’s ritual burial; films of Ho dancing by the lakefront; Ho talking in Chinese and Malay about being buried; and original music by Lauren Weinger. This deeply affecting work, which captures many of the women’s terrible feelings of violation, will be shown this weekend and next in concerts at the Dance Center of Columbia College.

Erkert will also show two love duets–the first she’s ever created. But Erkert never takes the straight line to a place, and her love duets don’t take straight lines either. In Without Senses, Christine Bornarth and Mark Schulze dance blindfolded, leaping into arms that cannot be seen. Love notes projected onto the back wall in ten-foot-high letters are the taking-off point for Scene 1 Take 3. The concert will also include Erkert’s Between Men and two solos by dancers in the company, Juli Hallihan- Campbell and Anthony Gongora.

Although the therapy group broke up about a month ago, Erkert hopes that the members will attend the concert as a group. Robin notes that attending may be therapeutic for them–even watching dance can release the memories stored in their bodies–but Erkert seems to want the women to come as friends. “They always did profoundly beautiful things in our sessions,” she says. “This seems strange to say, but our sessions were filled with more laughter than I’ve ever had. There were many dark moments, but there was also a tremendous amount of humanity.”

Jan Erkert & Dancers will present “Tales of Intimacy” Friday and Saturday and next Friday and Saturday, March 25 and 26, at 8 at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 4730 N. Sheridan. Tickets are $14-$15, with a $4 discount for students and seniors. Call 271-7928 for reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Photo.