Credit: Dan Marlo

Not every dance artist finds his calling at age five, though sometimes it seems that way. Jonathan Meyer says he was “not a particularly physical kid.” He wanted to be a writer—right up until he started at Oberlin College and danced for the first time. “I felt an immediacy,” recalls the 38-year-old founder and artistic director of Khecari Dance Theatre. “And everything else felt like a translation.”

Today Meyer describes his choreography as “crazy and kinetic and flipping around.” Under the influence of contact improv, he gravitates toward “being upside down and using all parts of the body.” He took not only physical but emotional risks in last fall’s haunting trio, The Waking Room. Originating in his “curiosity about the workings of the mind in psychosis,” that piece created a terrifying yet recognizable world defined by the dancers’ apparently involuntary, compulsive motions.

A native of west suburban Lombard, Meyer has lived in the urban cultural meccas of New York, Montreal, San Francisco, and Amsterdam. But he started Khecari—a Sanskrit word meaning “dancing in the abyss”—in Taos, which he’d visited often and considered a “sort of sanctuary.” He spent five years in New Mexico, moving to Chicago in spring 2006 because, he says, he felt the city offered “a sense of challenge and possibility and growth for contemporary dance.” In June 2007 he made his mark here with The Opal Door, an ambitious, confident piece for nine that revealed his sensitivity to a wide spectrum of emotion as well as his feeling for drama.

A somatic therapist by day—treating physical and emotional ills through movement—the soft-spoken Meyer talks easily about phenomena like mirror neurons and somatic sympathy and teaches classes that revisit the learning stages of infancy to retrain the adult nervous system. “We tend to get very quotidian in our movement,” he says. “We know how to drive, sit. Some of the body’s intelligence gets lost.” Ever the enemy of habit, he says that, in rehearsal, “it’s easier to feel what I’m intending rather than what I’m doing. I want to develop recognition—to see what something is, how it’s happening.” He credits frequent collaborator and duet partner Julia Rae Antonick with helping him find that awareness.

Meyer will be performing in Antonick’s new piece focused on duets this fall. If he had the resources, he says, he’d expand the “action/reaction thing” of duets into a piece for 30 or 40 dancers. “It would be a kaleidoscope with that many bodies! Of course, it could be like a bad Busby Berkeley rip-off.”

But Meyer’s untitled new work goes in precisely the opposite direction. It’s a solo he’s performing at the Other Dance Festival this week, in which he aims for “the potency of distillation.” That hasn’t come easy, in part because it’s “difficult to edit oneself,” he says. “And simplifying is harder, like a haiku is harder to write than a novel.” He’s also tackling improvisation during the performance.

The piece draws on an eight-year period of depression Meyer suffered. “It was a challenge to stay in dance, putting myself out there,” he says. “But before I went to Taos, I did some writing about my history with dance. In the solo, I’ve taken different aspects of that and made characters out of hopes, fears, ego needs. It won’t necessarily read as autobiographical.” Christopher Preissing, who created the live score for The Waking Room, is “sculpting” the sound.

“What most deeply engages in dance has to do with being enigmatic,” Meyer notes. “But there has to be consistency within the enigma. A dream will have that sense, or sometimes traveling abroad will do that. You won’t understand the language, but you can feel the operations of logic.” v

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