“It was almost like a puberty rite–there was something very important happening between me and those junior-high girls,” says choreographer Jan Erkert. “I was a 40-year-old woman coming in to them and saying, ‘Here’s my body, it’s OK. I know what sex is, I know what my body is, I know what life is about–come on along.’ I felt these girls gravitated toward me, because I knew something that they needed to know.”
As part of a three-week residency at the University of Kansas in Lawrence a few months ago, Erkert had been asked to teach modern dance in the public schools–a prospect that made her groan because the project targeted kids who were 13 and 14 years old, a very difficult age. She was able to persuade the organizers to make the sessions voluntary and after school. “I hate going into classes and enforcing this dance thing,” she says. “Well, only girls showed up, and a lot of the organizers felt, ‘It’s not really working because we didn’t get boys.’
“I thought it was working great–I had 35 girls who were absolutely in love with this. I didn’t want any boys there, because at that age the minute a boy walks in girls are different. It occurs to me that there’s a female perspective in modern dance. It’s a woman’s way of finding out about her body, to go inside and discover.”
Erkert talks often about yin and yang. “I see almost everything in pairs of opposites. When I teach dance, for example–you can reach to here, but you have to have some equal force pulling backwards. We need to know and respect opposites to be balanced, to be healthy. If I get too yin, I disappear. I need the yang to hold me together, to go out in the world.
“But society is overbalanced to the yang, to the aggressive. In school you learn reading, writing, arithmetic–there’s no report card for being playful. That’s overlooked as a value. Modern dance has to do with those things, and it’s not valued.”
Erkert has dedicated her upcoming concert at the Dance Center to the “female spirit in all of us.” Long interested in feminist issues, and more recently in environmental problems, she feels a responsibility to make some kind of statement in her art–not by arguing for a political agenda, but by expressing the unsaid, the primal, in a fresh way.
“I feel Forgotten Sensations is the richest piece I’ve done,” she says. The set for this piece, one of three new works to be shown on this program, consists of several strips of sod 18 inches by six feet long lying on the floor of the Dance Center’s cavernous black space. “In this piece I’m dealing with how we’ve forgotten how to smell, we’ve forgotten how to roll on the grass and play. We don’t have any grass left, just these little strips in the city. And what will our earth be like if we don’t have grass? I eat fruit in Forgotten Sensations–we don’t know how to taste, because we eat all this garbage food that numbs us to real sensations.”
A lot of the images for this work came from a workshop Erkert took last summer on babies’ reflexes, the earliest impetus for movement. “We lay on the floor and let our tongues move around. It’s fascinating to a choreographer–there are all these reflexes in the body which are quieted out once we learn the behavior. The reflex goes deep in ourselves. It’s still there, but we don’t have to react a certain way every time our cheek is stroked.” One of the exercises involved the rooting reflex, the instinctive motion that allows a baby to find the breast. “I could smell baby powder while I was doing it,” says Erkert. “It brought it all back.”
Another of the new works, Minutes, Hours, Days, Decades, is made up of three solos danced by three pioneers in Chicago dance: Maggie Kast, Shirley Mordine, and Nana Shineflug. Each woman is in her 50s; each, says Erkert, has “given her lifetime to her art.” She asked them to compose solos made up of fragments from their dances, from the earliest to the latest. Erkert thinks that these choreographers, like many women in dance, have not gotten the recognition they deserve. She estimates that 90 percent of the people in dance classes and the dance community overall are women, yet 50 to 60 percent of successful choreographers are men.
Erkert’s concert starts at 8 PM on April 18, 19, and 20 at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 4730 N. Sheridan. Tickets are $8-$12; call 271- 7928 for information.
The Sock Monkeys are warming up for a rehearsal in the Link’s Hall studio, plopped here and there on the floor in loose-fitting sweat clothes and heavy hiking boots, looking more like a wannabe hard-core band than a dance company nearing the end of seven months of intense rehearsals.
Instead of talking about the pieces they will work on during the three-hour session or discussing the logistics of mounting the first evening-length concert in the group’s nearly two-year existence, they make up new lyrics to an old rock and roll song.
“Mild thing,” one of them begins.
“You make everything . . . normal,” a second continues.
“Mild thing, I . . . I think I like you,” concludes a third. Then she rolls a peanut M&M across the floor directly into the open mouth of another dancer. “We’ve been practicing that for weeks,” she says.
This apparent waste of time is in fact the perfect warm-up for the Sock Monkeys, who invariably exhibit a casual kind of spontaneity and playfulness. The five performers–Lydia Charaf, Winston Damon, Kay Wendt LaSota, Bryan Saner, and Jeanette Welp–are feeling out each other’s moods, connecting. Without this connection, their dances wouldn’t make sense.
Instead of working under the direction of a choreographer, the dancers build their pieces collaboratively as they go along, with one dancer stepping out now and again to watch a particular section.
“We share an interest in nontechnical movement,” explains LaSota. “For instance, there is a ballet technique–pointing your toes, extending yourself in a certain way. We’re not so much interested in that because it’s not, well, natural. To me it’s not true movement. We want to explore a movement language that is true and common to all of us. It’s pedestrian, gestural, athletic, everyday.”
As the dancers walk back and forth across the room, mostly hugging the walls but sometimes walking diagonally from corner to corner, it’s clear why LaSota calls this work pedestrian. But gradually the patterns the dancers create as they travel in pairs or alone, never walking the same pattern twice, turn the room into a giant kaleidoscope. The heavy boots produce their own nonmusical accompaniment.
“We reach a point where the piece finally reveals itself to us,” Charaf explains.
“The pieces are basically about us,” Saner sums up. “I don’t think they’re going to be any more profound than what is in our own minds. And they can’t be understood any more profoundly than what is in the minds of the viewers.”
The Sock Monkeys will perform at Link’s Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield, on April 12, 13, 19, and 20 at 8 PM. Admission is $6, $4 for students and senior citizens; 281-0824.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry, John Sundlif.