I’m over at the new library watching Shorebirds Atlantic, a free lunch-hour dance concert by Margaret Jenkins and Rinde Eckert. They’re known as intense postmodern performers from San Francisco, very cool, so I’m all serious. The lights come up on a man and a woman dressed in identical white bathing caps, black swim goggles, white shirts, long white coats, longer white cotton skirts, and black gym shoes. “Death,” the man says, “has become regrettably commonplace. Not the grand affair it was . . . ”

Then he starts dancing–bouncing from one foot to the other, waving his arms back and forth. Suddenly, all around me, these little kids start laughing. Cracking up. They love it. And I’m thinking, “Something’s terribly wrong here.”

In my mind this is a serious piece. A man, knowing he’s going to die of cancer, creates a strange ritual around his own suicide in order to give it meaning.

Nothing funny there, but I tried to laugh because on one level these kids were dead-on. It’s funny to see a big man in a skirt and a bathing cap jumping around. It’s also weird, and a little sad.

After the show Jenkins and Eckert held a Q-and-A session. Everybody had questions about what things were supposed to mean, whether they were meant to be funny. Jenkins and Eckert wouldn’t say directly. Instead they asked the audience the same questions. As Jenkins pointed out, Shorebirds Atlantic (like most of her work) is designed to be ambiguous. “Explanations,” she said, “annihilate the whole piece.”

The next day I went to another free Jenkins show at the library, an amazing dance-text piece called Shelf Life. This time I thought the piece was really funny–but other people didn’t. Later, in an interview with Eckert and Jenkins, I mentioned that I was confused by the variety of reactions to their work. I was hoping for some clarification. Eckert responded, “Often with works of art that provoke me I’m not necessarily clear what it is that they provoke. I can’t give a nice set of theories that suddenly say “Oh, well Hamlet can be reduced to this.’ All I can say is that art does provoke.”

Jenkins and Eckert carry this idea to the extreme. In their work so many layers of meaning fight for attention that it’s impossible to catch them all, let alone interpret them.

For example, Shelf Life shows us what happens when you have six independent characters from six novels, a seventh novel that’s supposed to be written, and a slew of vibrant memories all competing in one man’s head. But it’s also about a man dealing with lost love, “the accidental community of people and facts,” and probably a lot of other things I didn’t notice.

Jenkins said that every time she sees her work performed she sees something different. She said her work is about a multiplicity of things, not a single notion or ideal. She and Eckert are also pretty adamant about not having a Message or a single goal. As Eckert put it, “I’d say if there’s anything that we’re after, it’s that little tingle that one gets when something begins to speak in a way that we couldn’t have anticipated.”

The two of them seem to believe you can’t create art any other way. When we were discussing Shorebirds Atlantic, Jenkins said, “Yesterday, when that one woman was talking about how the white represents hospitals and crazy people, and then someone else said it meant surrender–that was fantastic, absolutely fantastic. If Rinde and I said, “Let’s make a piece End, about surrender . . .” She shook her head. “End. End. End of art.”

The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company will perform three premieres tonight and tomorrow night, March 27 and 28, at 8 PM at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 4730 N. Sheridan. Tickets are $14, $10 for students and seniors; call 271-7804.

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