Jan Erkert & Dancers and James Kelly Choreography Project

at the Athenaeum Theatre, October 28; repeats November 9 and 17

Chicago Choreographers’ Showcase

at the Athenaeum Theatre, October 26; repeats November 18 and 25

Watching two of the opening programs in the six-week Dance Chicago ’95 fest, I felt like crowing about how Chicago choreographers balance so well on the fine line between entertainment and instruction. But then that formulation began to crumble. What’s entertaining and what’s instructive? Is entertainment fun and instruction boring by definition? Or do we actually prefer instruction when it comes to dance, because meaning is easier to grasp than pleasure? And isn’t discovering meaning a pleasure in itself?

The fact is dance, like other performing arts, can please in lots of ways: one identifies bodily with the performers, which in dance (unlike sports) means musical as well as kinetic pleasure; one feels emotion; and one shares with the choreographer intellectual points of view (which we might be tempted to call “instruction”). But the bottom line in dance is bodily identification–if that’s not there, intellectual and emotional “content” won’t come through. Of course watching dance is a lot messier than this schematic approach implies, but this formulation helped me see that what’s most satisfying is work that both entertains and instructs, not in a didactic or obvious way but silently and mysteriously.

On one of the four programs last weekend Jan Erkert & Dancers showed they can do it all, perhaps partly because Erkert’s impulse is to return to first principles. In the 1994 Without Sense, a duet in which the dancers are alternately blindfolded, she doesn’t just go for laughs or thrills–though she gets those too–she opens up fundamental issues of trust and communication, even the hows and whys of moving in space. Having the “sighted” dancer describe or prescribe what the “blind” dancer does makes us wonder how any of us moves: By our own volition? As we’re directed by others? Do we “tell” ourselves what to do verbally? Or take orders from some speechless, instinctive creature inside us? In A Silent Place, a work in progress, Erkert evokes the laboratory of dreams: with Sara Livingston’s video of Mexican sites as a backdrop, projected on a piece of fabric like a huge bedsheet, Erkert improvises a solo that somehow suggests the soul wrestling with the images and occurrences of everyday life–which, the way the soul sees them, aren’t at all everyday.

An excerpt from Erkert’s Whole Fragments, premiered last spring, reveals clearly the choreographer’s openness: the program credits the “movement development” here, as in her other two pieces, to the dancers. By encouraging them to do what feels best, she elicits some fabulously quick, sure leaps and lifts and carries; images of embracing and cradling combine with John Adams’s music, “Shaker Loops,” to create a piece that’s at once full of anxiety and reassurance. Perhaps because Erkert has been teaching dance for so many years, perhaps because she was incapacitated by a back injury a few years ago (the experience that gave rise to Whole Fragments), she really understands how the body can move freely and powerfully. And because the link between kinetically and emotionally satisfying dance is so strong, Erkert’s dancers produce emotion on the basis of their committed performances alone.

Mark Schulze, Erkert’s assistant artistic director, also relies on the dancers for developing the movement. I’ve always thought of him as someone with a flair for the humorous, but his new I.S.T.B.E. #9, based on Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” is completely serious. Performed to a sound collage of almost unintelligible talk, bits of a Bach symphony, and folk songs performed a cappella, this quintet is obscurely moving. That the dancers had a hand in the choreography is evident in its simultaneous ease and virtuosity–in Carrie Hanson’s whipped barrel turn into a secure standing position, looking over her shoulder at something or someone in a downstage corner, and in Ginger Farley and Suet May Ho’s evocative kneeling, their backs to us, their bare feet shifted from side to side in time with the music as they pivot on the fulcrum of their knees. At times this piece approaches sensory overload, with its layers of sound and movement; but though it’s occasionally alienating, it’s never boring. This too is a piece that pleases kinetically and emotionally and teases us intellectually: I have no idea what it “means” but feel sure that it means something.

The James Kelly Choreography Project, which shared the bill with Erkert & Dancers, didn’t attain the same level of performance. Part of the problem is that, where Erkert has had a pretty stable core of dancers for a number of years, Kelly has had to pick up dancers for each new performance, which means they might change every few months. And judging by the program credits, he’s the kind of choreographer who comes up with the movement material himself, which means imposing his style and ideas on the dancers.

Sure, comparisons are odious, but they’re also inevitable when a single program juxtaposes choreographers who wouldn’t ordinarily be seen together. Compared with the large, free motions of Erkert’s dancers, Kelly’s choreography for the eight dancers in his premiere, Dia de los Muertos, seemed small and stiff. Sometimes dancers can look like workhorses out plowing the back 40, and that’s the feeling I got here: these folks appeared to be underrehearsed and nervous, which made the difficult partnering Kelly had devised very difficult indeed. Add to these handicaps tutus for the male and female performers alike and an onstage Latin band that almost blasted the performers into our laps, and the result was pretty strange and joyless. The much more surely performed 4 on a Clarinet (1993) gave much more pleasure, though it’s too long. Set to Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and Piano, it illuminates Kelly’s approach to music: high points in his choreography punctuate the musical high points. But the phrases themselves are not always natural or musical, so it’s best not to focus on them too hard.

No amount of focusing or unfocusing my eyes could bring out the reason behind Love, Elvis, however. Set to several songs by the King, it’s meant to be funny yet also to pay homage, I think, to a singer Kelly genuinely admires. The painted backdrop is a lovingly detailed portrait of the young and tender Elvis, an icon undercut by a single kitschy touch–a teardrop at the corner of one eye. Similarly the choreography is sometimes amusingly parodic (especially during “Viva Las Vegas”) and sometimes straight–we’re never sure when to laugh and when to admire. And there’s something too planned and careful about this piece. Humor in dance should be an almost accidental outgrowth of the movement itself–the product partly of an ironic kinetic approach, partly of physical recklessness. There’s not much of that in Love, Elvis, but it permeates Erkert’s blindfolded Without Sense.

If there’s one thing Dance Chicago ’95 provides it’s the opportunity to see a lot of Chicago groups on a range of nights. In a week or two Kelly’s pieces may well have the polish and push they lack now. And if you go to a lot of programs, count on some overlap, since 38 local companies and individuals are involved: two other pieces by Mark Schulze also appear in the Chicago Choreographers’ Showcase, a collection by six independent choreographers assembled for Dance Chicago ’95.

Like I.S.T.B.E. #9, Schulze’s showcase premiere To My Whomever is obscurely meaningful and mysteriously tender. It also resembles his earlier Third Step In, Dip: both rely on the conventions of ballroom dance for their humor. To My Whomever, danced by Schulze and Felicia Ballos in old-fashioned formal clothes to old-fashioned ballads like “You Leave Me Breathless,” creates a distance between the man and woman that’s somehow never violated, even when one of them sits on the other’s rump. This isn’t a sad distance–it’s a respectful distance between two reserved people unafraid of undignified acts, or perhaps unaware that they’re undignified.

Sabine Fabie, who has on occasion collaborated with Schulze, conveys a similar mystery. Her Together Among Many, set to original music by Christopher Fabie and Ron Anstee, is hypnotically repetitive, with a key phrase in which one arm is raised and the other, hand pointed like a serpent’s head, swims through the air to reach it; then the torso swings down and up, and the dancer bends from the waist to the floor, one arm to the ceiling, the other straight down. Oddly, the dancers’ focus is often downward–uncommon in dance because it makes the work seem so inward and withdrawn. Together Among Many is perhaps a little too mysterious, but it’s expertly done and certainly invites further viewing.

Other works wear their hearts and minds on their sleeves. Randy Duncan’s 1992 solo Unarmed is clearly an antiwar piece, especially given its score, a Sinead O’Connor ballad; its length isn’t justified by the inventiveness of the movement, but Scott Putman’s performance is thought provoking–much softer and more vulnerable than the one by Patrick Mullaney, who premiered the piece. Ginger Farley’s very brief solo Rough Night is as bluesy and grieving as the short Bonnie Raitt song it’s set to. And Melissa Thodos’s 1986 Reaching There, which she performs with a giant spool, and her humorous 1995 duet How the Planets Were Placed, which involves tossing a cheery red ball, make clever use of props and music: these dances are the closest to pure entertainment of the bunch.

Anthony Gongora’s quintet Uno Beso is brave and quirky but a bit too straightforward to be successful. To put it briefly, it’s a coming-out dance–though it isn’t a narrative. It doesn’t need to be: there’s no contest between the coy kisses set to polka music between men and women early on and the passionate, meaningful kiss between two men near the end of the dance. Gongora’s choreography is often inventive and interesting; but the three women in the quintet get short shrift, seeming to be full participants at the beginning of the piece but devolving into mere foils for the men and their drama. Emotions run high here, partly because of the passionate music; but Gongora’s concept threatens to overwhelm the subtle, less didactic feelings possible when movement alone carries the intellectual cargo.

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