at the Dance Center of Columbia College

April 18-20

It’s either feast or famine for dance fans in Chicago. Last weekend was a case in point, offering performances by such diverse troupes as the Joffrey Ballet, Jan Erkert & Dancers, and the Sock Monkeys. The Joffrey was the obvious choice for classicists, while the Sock Monkeys attract a hip, postmodern crowd (one is reminded of oil and water). More cerebral than overtly technical, yet too formally structured for the postmodern genre, the work of Chicago choreographer Jan Erkert long ago shed the last vestiges of her classical roots. Erkert presented a stimulating program of contemporary dance, including three premieres, at the Dance Center.

In what appeared to be the evening’s “people’s choice,” Erkert paid tribute to three of Chicago’s best-known choreographers: Maggie Kast, Shirley Mordine, and Nana Shineflug. Erkert directed Minutes, Hours, Days, Decades but asked the three dancers to choreograph according to the evolution of their own personal styles. What makes this piece so engaging is its personal quality. Erkert immediately establishes a rapport with the audience in a danced introduction, describing her own evolution as an artist. Ceaselessly stretching arms and extending legs as she speaks, Erkert states with unself-conscious humor that she “loved the costumes more than the dancing” in her ballerina days. Striking just the right note of self-mockery, she offers a synopsis of the youth culture of the 60s, saying: “I began climbing mountains and smoking dope. I became a modern dancer,” her arms circling to provide an emphatic flourish. When she began studying modern dance, she tells the audience, “it was suffering extinction. It drew me in.” She recounts her first encounter with Shineflug in Utah, whose “ways of moving” inspired her own growth as a dancer. Ultimately, Erkert says, she “learned to love the dancing more than the costumes.”

Through anecdotes Erkert introduces Mordine, Kast, and Shineflug, describing her initial meetings with them and her reactions to their work. She declares of Kast: “I loved her spirit . . . and her white hair.” The three celebrated choreographers also speak, sharing their own reminiscences as artists, all the while moving fluidly. Their voices never betrayed strain as they swept across the stage, arms slicing the air. Though each dancer wrote and choreographed her part separately, Erkert weaves these somewhat disparate elements together seamlessly.

Erkert’s written introduction to the program at first glance suggests overt emotional indulgence as a unifying theme: “In a world that limits a woman’s rights over her own body, values analytical thought over intuitive knowledge . . . we are becoming increasingly alienated from the female spirit. I am dedicating this concert to the richness of the female spirit that lies within all of us, women and men.” Thankfully, the earthy energy and directness of Erkert’s choreography–particularly in the second half of the program–manage to celebrate womanhood without crossing into “I am woman, hear me roar” rhetoric.

In contrast to the lighthearted humor of the collaboration, Erkert’s Forgotten Sensations features vivid but portentous imagery that nearly overpowers the choreography. The dancers’ breathing adds rhythmic texture in an opening duet pairing Mary Johnston-Coursey and Sandra Sucsy. In the next segment, Erkert wanders alone among grass-covered graves, conveying grief as much through her sudden facial expressions of shock and horror as through body movement. Medieval music heightens the drama, but the collective impact falls short of the mark. Erkert more effectively creates drama in her use of the dancers’ breathing to build tension and originate the movement. At one point Erkert supports herself on hands and feet to create a cradle of her outstretched lap, on which the other two dancers rest their heads. She offers them fruit gathered from the tops of the graves. Her entire body vibrates in a fever of supplication as she shrugs the dancers off, one at a time; they roll to the floor, kicking, like fish out of water. The two nurture Erkert in turn, physically supporting her between them as she droops, emotionally beaten. Inevitably, each crawls to lie alone upon a mossy grave.

The cynical humor of Untitled in White With TV, which was first shown last summer, is perfectly suited to the Dance Center’s raw, black stage. Props are limited to a tall stoool and a television perched on a white pedestal. A dancer straddles the stool, intent on the glowing screen, mesmerized by the images. Five dancers join her, sharing her obsession with the plot of the western relic Bonanza. Christine Bornarth and Shannon Raglin deliver a sharp attack to the ensemble work, which includes some wonderful partnering. But the juxtaposition of diva Kathleen Battle’s rendition of Schubert with the twang of the Bonanza theme and dialogue only cheapens the former. No matter, the ensemble’s energetic twirling, jumping, and rhythmic stamping of feet keep the audience as riveted as the Bonanza fans Erkert mocks.

The closing work of the evening was Erkert’s strongest and most visceral. Sensual Spaces is a highly evocative, lyrical piece in which all of the parts contribute to the whole. The Baroque musical accompaniment, provided by the University of Chicago Motet Choir in a live performance, enhances the dark mood. Pulsing across an open, candle-lit stage, the dancers execute some of the most engaging choreography of the concert. In a move reminiscent of Fred Astaire (or perhaps of miracles), a trio rushes to support a single dancer, who takes several steps up the side of a stage wall. Dressed in simple but sensual black slip dresses, the dancers glow in the candlelight as they alternate between frenetic and graceful movement. Laurie Goux establishes a strong presence, beautifully combining fierce determination and charged sensuality. Images of women lifting each other affirm women’s strength in the conflict between physical and spiritual planes.

In this age of artistic repression and tight funding, dance companies face tremendous pressure to appeal to audiences. When Joseph Mazo recently interviewed dancer Senta Driver for the Village Voice, Driver eloquently addressed universal concerns for dancers and audiences alike: “What we as artists and audiences want is a variety of voices. You can’t have good taste in furniture if there’s no furniture to choose among.” Chicago audiences are lucky to have a good deal of “furniture” in their showroom. Of course, sheer bulk is not necessarily synonymous with quality. But the distinctiveness and variety of Erkert’s work firmly places her in the vanguard of innovators in contemporary dance. Hers is one showroom that buzzes with creative energy. Judging by the enthusiastic response to Jan Erkert & Dancers, there will be no shortage of unique furniture as long as she’s around.

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