at the Dance Center of Columbia College

March 21-23

It can be strange when two mature artists who’ve grown up in entirely different fields collaborate. Do their visions remain separate, existing side by side, or somehow merge? Do their visions affect each other? These questions become more troubling when the artists themselves are as entirely self-sufficient as Margaret Jenkins and Rinde Eckert, who recently appeared together at the Dance Center.

Jenkins is a dancer and choreographer, Eckert a writer, singer, composer, and actor. Judging from the works on this program, Eckert is the more flamboyant talent, Jenkins a restraining force. The opening work, And So They (1988), has an almost British reserve–the voice-over, written by Eckert, is read by a woman with an English accent, and text and choreography both stress disjunction, disaffection, the expression of feeling through locutions so oblique that the feeling almost gets lost. The text traces, through single-sentence snippets of talk between a man and a woman, the formation and dissolution of a marriage. Jenkins’s minimalist choreography (which she and Eckert perform) is repetitive, small, almost machinelike–rocking back and forth from foot to foot, for instance–punctuated by significant looks at each other or at the floor or off to the side. And So They is a chilly work, uncomfortable to watch–as undoubtedly it was meant to be.

Still, I found Shorebirds Atlantic (1988) a more successful, more passionate collaboration: performed once again by Jenkins and Eckert, with her choreography and his text and score, it’s a piece about a man and woman who meet in a bar in Atlantic City. He confides that he has a degenerative disease; he wants her to collaborate in his suicide by going with him to the beach and watching him wade out and sink. Several lines of the text seem to offer clues to the actual collaboration between Eckert and Jenkins: “I see her as a flock of swifts or sparrows, myself a great rudeness at its edge.” The text calls the Atlantic City couple “associated and aloof.” They accuse each other–one makes a law of his pain, the other a virtue of her fear.

Jenkins and Eckert look quite different: she’s distinguished, about 50, with a smooth, composed face; he’s perhaps ten years younger, with thick lips, a sloping chin, and a shaved head that rises into an impossible dome. But the costumes for Shorebirds Atlantic nearly erase their differences: both wear swimming goggles, white bathing caps, and long white skirts and robes that make them resemble birds, hospital patients, people ready for a cold ocean dip. By the end of the piece, however, Eckert has stripped to a black T-shirt and shorts; Jenkins remains in her skirt and plain white shirt with a small Victorian-style bow at the neck. So text, movement, and costumes in Shorebirds Atlantic eventually differentiate two people who merely seemed alike.

I think there are immense difficulties to be overcome in any dance performance accompanied by a text. To me words are objects; a poem is a stone that can be held in the hand and turned over and examined at your leisure, until you’ve practically memorized its pores, protuberances, and ravines. But music and dance run by the observer in a swift stream; they don’t stop for you to examine them, so you’d better be willing to immerse yourself. The danger in a performance to text is that the observer will concentrate on one experience and lose the other. Of course there are ways of dealing with this problem, and Jenkins and Eckert make expert use of them. Shorebirds Atlantic opens with a voice-over; Jenkins and Eckert merely sit on their separate benches looking at the floor, not offering even the distraction of a full view of their faces. They also isolate movement and text at other points in the piece, and they repeat texts so that the sense of them can be amplified or applied to the movement without a great deal of thought.

The movement itself is typical of Jenkins: rather small, with lots of motions for the hands and arms. In one phrase the upper torso is twisted from side to side; I thought of the repetitive action of an agitator in a washing machine. In my favorite dance sequence, Jenkins and Eckert say the words of a text out loud in syncopated rhythms–a sort of rap recitative–while they bounce in a rocking step forward and back. Eckert, who’s not a trained dancer, is exceptionally bouncy–his head rebounded on his neck at every step–but that very lack of control, combined with his musicality, made him great fun to watch.

Jenkins likes to show two dancers whose movements echo without mirroring each other: in Shorebirds Atlantic, for instance, Eckert holds a finger up just before Jenkins shoots her whole arm up. You can see the same pattern in her Miss Jacobi Weeps (1989), danced by Ellie Klopp and Jesse Traschen: facing us, Klopp bends her arms at the elbow and sends them away from her, palms up; Traschen does the same, but he stands with his back to us and holds his arms behind him. So it’s not surprising that in Jenkins’s Steps Midway (1988), which I take to be a very personal dance of self-assessment, she uses five fun-house mirrors that distort the movements she performs.

Jenkins makes herself very vulnerable in this solo. She performs the first part of Steps Midway nude; the last part in a pale blue jumpsuit that technically covers her, though we’re very aware of her nudity beneath it. When she’s nude, she sometimes places a forearm across her breasts, then lifts it and places the other across her abdomen; those gestures seem to display her breasts and pubic hair and frame the most striking feature of her body, a tiny waist that flares into great rounded hips. For the most part Jenkins ignores the mirrors, but occasionally she does look into them–and when she does, she doesn’t seem to like what she sees. The dance ends in her silent scream.

Do we see the “truth” in that initial nude section? Or is a dancer’s aging body a distortion, a degradation, of what she really is? Perhaps what she sees in the fun-house mirror–in any mirror–has nothing to do with her self. Certainly what’s striking in Steps Midway is Jenkins’s mature performance, her incredible control and connection to the floor, as when she stands on one leg and hovers over it, rotates around it; it’s an object for her use. That takes a stability that comes only with complete knowledge of one’s own body, the kind of compensatory self-knowledge you sometimes see in older dancers.

Eckert’s solo, Dryland Divine (1988), seems a much bigger work than the more personal Steps Midway. In the manner of Robert Browning, Eckert tackles a story and persona that must be far removed from his own experience. We hear a voice-over text first–Eckert merely sits in the dark–that’s as prosaic, almost clinical, as a newspaper item. A man killed his brother in 1952; the family was involved in a fundamentalist religion. The murderer was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sent to prison, where he became an expert water dowser and accordionist; he was paroled in ’62 and never heard from again.

The rest of Dryland Divine explores the mystery outlined by the initial text by breaking down the boundaries between musical instruments and the human voice, between words and music, between music and physical action. When the lights come up on Eckert, he’s holding an accordion, which he begins to pump to produce a prolonged wheezing like deep breathing–no notes. Then he starts to play, and sing in a wordless, minor-key falsetto. The playing evolves into more typical accordion music, the instrument providing rhythm and melody for what sounds like a country-western tune, while Eckert shouts out, almost yodels, a still wordless song. A microphone hung over the space begins to produce a delayed effect that doubles Eckert’s voice almost operatically. Eckert’s singing becomes more and more frenzied until he collapses, panting; the panting is itself a kind of music. Kneeling, he fumbles some dusty objects out of his pocket and finally produces a harmonica in a Baggie. His preparations for playing it are a kind of dance: he shrugs his shoulders and stretches his neck spasmodically.

Dryland Divine has plenty of verbal and visual wit. When Eckert’s persona describes how he hit his brother with a Bible, he reports that he, the murderer, screamed: “You already know how it ends!” He switches wires through the air to produce a kind of singing or holds them in a cross or massages them into a hard-on; they “turn into” a length of metal pipe that Eckert plays like a flute or babbles into as if it were a preacher’s microphone. The rich, interwoven textures of this piece, which inhabit so many levels, allow a glimpse into this everyman’s search for his own salvation, his own grace, represented here, as it is traditionally, by water. Eckert says at one point, “The art of dowsing is the art of surrender. . . . You’re standing in the goddamn river!”

The grace, the benediction, of Dryland Divine comes from Eckert’s amazing voice, which in the final section he frees into loops and flights and a descant on itself I wouldn’t have believed possible if I hadn’t heard it. This man immerses himself in the river of his own singing at the end of Dryland Divine, and witnessing that plunge is an experience as joyful and scary as religious conversion must be.