Jan Erkert & Dancers

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, March 23-25

Jan Erkert says that her Whole Fragments is about healing, and that it’s drawn from her experience of being hospitalized for two months with a spinal infection. The dance is filled with images of helpless bodies and nurturing caretakers, but its bedrock is fear–the boundless fear of one whose body has failed, and the invalid’s boundless hope for recovery. This ambitious dance tries to map out the spiritual territory of healing. But though it has some of the best dancing in Chicago this season, Erkert’s reach exceeds her grasp, and the piece seems repetitive and self-conscious.

Whole Fragments begins with the onset of illness–the dancers walk backward with their arms raised as if they were being robbed, disappearing into a translucent tent. We see their shadows moving on the tent wall as well as videos of them performing the same movements projected onto other tent panels. They seem to have been taken away, sequestered in a half-world. A male dancer (Mark Schulze) keeps pulling a female dancer (Carrie Hanson) to her feet, but she always falls, spinning on her hip until she comes to rest. Schulze and Hanson leave the tent; he pulls her up again, lifting her to his shoulders in one fluid motion, then setting her on her feet, but she falls again. These images and others–rolling on the floor, convulsing–repeat as if in a morphine dream. Halfway through the dance the tent starts to come apart as recovery begins. Toward the end, images of caretaking dominate–one person lying on the floor convulses; another runs his or her hands over the ill person, smoothing contorted limbs back into place. These images repeat in waves, the performers switching roles with every repetition.

Schulze, Hanson, Suet May Ho, and Chia Yu Chang dance fluidly and articulately throughout. Each moment of every movement is given its weight; the dancers don’t muscle through or shortchange the choreography. (The fifth dancer is a newcomer who hasn’t mastered Erkert’s style yet.) Erkert celebrates the brain and nerves rather than the muscles; we don’t watch how high a dancer jumps but the interplay of brain and nerves as a hurtling body hits the ground, absorbs the shock, and miraculously redirects its momentum so that the dancer slides unhurt to the floor and spins or rolls, discharging excess energy in an unexpected way.

Whole Fragments is hard to watch. I quickly became disoriented by the dreamlike way Erkert’s images repeat, so I refocused on the details of the dancing and movements. The music, Shaker Loops by John Adams, is quietly urgent but never propels the dance beyond its dreamy repetitions. And eventually I became weary of the relatively few movement images Erkert uses, and just gave up. When I finally tried to listen with my heart instead of looking with my eyes, I felt rolling waves of fear.

Erkert does not try to soften the edges of illness–she approaches it unblinkingly. She has little of the sentimentality that makes Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here, a dance about people with fatal illnesses, often distasteful. Erkert tries to emphasize the healing and hope, tries to look beyond the abyss of illness. But the trick doesn’t work; the last notes I took were “Fear. Fear. Fear.”

Two dances by members of Erkert’s company are less ambitious but more successful. Anthony Gongora’s Nature Stalling starts with a man, a woman, and a bed: the man (Gongora) and the woman (Hanson) ignore each other and dance in their separate sections of the stage, in the classroom movement that Gongora does well. As they slowly come closer, the movement gets much richer and more inventive. Hanson stands on Gongora’s thigh and shoulder, their gripped hands providing the necessary counterbalance. At about the middle of the dance Hanson hides behind the upended bed; Gongora moves it but she’s not behind it anymore. As he turns it in a circle we see Hanson, in her blue evening dress, perched on the underside of the bed, holding onto its legs for support. The dance ends, as it should, with the man and woman almost in bed, but at the last moment Gongora rolls away.

Schulze’s Third Step In, Dip has the same name and same idea as his dance in the Jump Giant Project a few weeks ago, but it’s a different work. To make the piece Schulze read to his dancers from a book on how to do the tango without telling them it was the tango, then asked them to create movement phrases from what they heard. The result is clearly a modern dance, with only oblique but funny references to the tango. Since Erkert’s dancers invented different phrases than the dancers of the Jump Giant Project, this version is much different in tone, much cooler and more virtuosic than the warm and funny Jump Giant dance, yet still funny in places. The stage is set with a mirrored disco ball, but the ball isn’t turning; instead it throws tiny patches of light over the whole space to create an empty, clear, ghostly feeling. Schulze and Hanson assume a strange ballroom dance position, each person’s head under the other’s arm. Their duet develops into a series of lifts that are spectacular but not pushed to bravura levels. Later Ho twirls in circles alone, with her shoulders hunched up to her ears. It’s an enjoyable dance with limited goals, a dance about dancing.

An older dance by Erkert, Antigamente, reveals the result when high ambitions are met. A woman (Chang) is seen in her world–a bed of leaves. Blown by offstage winds, she rolls in the leaves in wild loops, nests in them, and spins like a dervish. Chang seems as simple as an animal–a ground squirrel perhaps–living its completely material life. Chang is full of desires but without passion, that uniquely human thing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/William Frederking.