at the Dance Center of Columbia College

April 7-8

Margaret Jenkins makes arresting, eloquent dances. Her choreography incorporates gestures so abstract they lack recognizable meaning–a freewheeling, fluid, idiosyncratic vocabulary of tensionless jumps, balances, aerial turns, and even codified, recognizable elements of ballet and modern-dance technique. Jenkins choreographs at the very threshold of perception: it’s simply impossible to see everything that’s going on onstage at once. The characteristic complex relationship that exists between the movement and the text-laced scores in Shelf Life (1987) and Pedal Steal (1985) is never easy to grasp; her dances flirt rather than cohabit with their stories. The delicious irony of these intellectually demanding and kinesthetically provocative dances is that they’re so very entertaining.

Shelf Life is a literary rather than a literal dance. It begins with six still dancers–Bryan Chalfant, Janice Dulak, Wayne Hazzard, Ellie Klopp, Anne Krauss, and Jesse Traschen–splayed across the stage in a long diagonal, illuminated by a rectangle of harsh white light. Sandra Woodall’s costumes are slashed and jagged layers of off-white–leggings, skirts, trousers, tunics–printed with streaks of color and bands of print reminiscent of newspapers, flour sacks, and grocery-store bar codes. Clearly they refer to one possible meaning of “shelf life.”

When we’ve had just a minute to ponder that possibility, the narrator, Rinde Eckert, appears wearing a shrunken tuxedo and ruminates upon the contents of his bookshelf: Why are these six paperbacks arranged this way? By accident? By design? Will their stories run together like the colors of new clothes in the washer? References to these six novels pepper the text of Shelf Life: the six novels sitting in newsstands in truck stops across the country, sitting on the front seat of the narrator’s car, sitting on the narrator’s bookshelf, the novels’ characters, their dialogue. The novels relate to one another as images do in certain poems: simple juxtaposition allows readers and audiences to make as many–or as few–connections as they wish.

The slow solo that opens Shelf Life, a series of slow crouched poses accompanied by nonspecific gestures–touching the floor as if waiting to receive and punt, holding elbows in like a baseball catcher, cradling chin in hand as if lost in thought–is soon replaced by a kaleidoscopic fury of entrances and exits. A trio becomes a duet: two dancers cross on a diagonal, flicking their wrists and seeming to walk on thin air with every leap; the third labors in the background, bent double, arms around her knees. One standing behind another, two women walk as one. The dancers come and go like lightning–running, leaping, and turning. Arms reach and sweep, describing huge arcs in the air. The dancers’ effortless, natural grace makes every movement seem easy, inevitable, even ordinary; only when narrator Eckert is drawn in–when his ungainly arms echo one of the dance phrases and a carelessly placed center of gravity nearly topples him–does the choreography seem keen-edged and consciously crafted.

Certain gestures appear almost at random–now on one dancer, now on another, subtly altered in a trio later. A fist flicks, thumb extended. A straight leg and flexed foot form a study in right angles. A finger points, flutters; the hand salaams. One dancer cups his hand and covers another’s eyes; the roles reverse, and her cupped hand supports his head. Yet another hand extends, thumb and two fingers raised in a traditional Christian benediction. We notice, then recognize, these gestures long before the text provides us with a meaningful context for them. Some movements are more interesting in the abstract–the trio that looks like a classical pas de trois gone batty, for example–some in context, however ambiguous. Does this thumb belong to Tom Robbins’s cowgirl? No, now the narrator is hitchhiking: every performer suits the text’s description equally well and equally badly.

The six novels (which the program credits as Ferol Egan’s A Taste of Time, Ray Bradbury’s Death Is a Lonely Business, Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Janet Kauffman’s Places in the World a Woman Could Walk, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, and Jean Auel’s Valley of the Horses) may have determined the characters, action, and even the structure of Shelf Life, but they do not necessarily determine the audience’s experience of the dance. Surely everyone in the audience experienced at least one moment of the “I don’t get it” feeling that puts people off modern dance. So what? There’s nothing wrong with ambiguity. Dances that are relentlessly specific–in emotional coloration, in narrative content–tend to date (Martha Graham’s dances drawn from Greek mythology, for example); dances that encourage a multiplicity of meaning (like Merce Cunningham’s) have a longer shelf life.

In a very real sense, these six stories are simply beside the point. Everything that matters is right there onstage: the crisp beauty of the movement, the exhilarating quality of the dancing, the intriguing drama of this curious narrator. Jenkins’s movement style is clean, unfussy, asymmetrical. Her dancers routinely perform the impossible–walking on air, plummeting from astonishing heights, creating unfathomable shapes in their lifts and leaps–as if it were as simple as walking to the bus stop. Because all the company’s men and women are equally strong and grounded and graceful and ethereal, their partnering transcends cliched gender roles. Beautiful dancing, pure and simple.

Shelf Life succeeds theatrically on the strength and unlikely charm of Eckert’s performance as the narrator. Speaking and singing over and around the taped portion of the score (composed by Paul Dresher and played by Dresher and Gene Reffkin), Eckert’s voice ranges from the casually conversational to wordless vocalization; his ability to draw a believable character from this literary babble is astonishing, quite probably unique.

Pedal Steal is a far more accessible dance, less ambiguous but still evocative. In Pedal Steal, the taped stories are more than images; as one anecdote succeeds another, a biography of the dance’s central offstage character emerges: a guitar player from “back east” caught up in all the expansiveness, exhilaration, and excess of life in the American west in the 60s and 70s. Terry Allen created the music, sound, stories, and sets; Jenkins directed the choreography: the two are inextricably linked. Allen’s score weaves western swing and sentimental oldies around the text, a series of vivid reminiscences told without regard to chronology or context, stories told like reminiscences at a wake.

Pedal Steal feels utterly inevitable: this story could only be told this way. Allen’s set–heaps of tires and the graffiti-covered, derelict screen of a drive-in called the Beauty–conspires with Sara Linnie Slocum’s lighting and Michael Tilden’s projected photographs to create a vivid sense of place: the wide open spaces, front porches, seedy bars, and tourist courts of the western plains. The costumes are equally specific: satin hot pants, a butterfly-sleeved polyester dress, white bucks, a string tie, platform shoes, enormous bell-bottoms, a tatty housedress.

The Beauty is central to many of the stories, the site of everybody’s first everything–“first sex, first bad drunk, first dope.” The movement images of Pedal Steal are surprisingly specific–we see lonely old women huddling in rockers and couples wrapped around each other slow dancing, groping, quarreling–but they never precisely coincide with the images of the text. The tantalizing ambiguity of Pedal Steal lies in the subtle, shifting resonance between words and movement. The narration describes being “blasted on acid, drinking whiskey” only when the slow-motion duet of surreal, distorted movement is well under way. One of the dance’s very first images–a procession that could only be a funeral–doesn’t take its place in the narrative until the very end. The text and the movement unspool at different rates, amplifying but never duplicating one another: what can be said is never danced and what can be danced is never said. The narrative never exists in its entirety on the stage, only in our minds. Even at its most accessible, Jenkins’s work remains cerebral.

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