Jan Erkert & Dancers

at the Athenaeum Theatre, through March 22

Los Mu–equitos de Matanzas

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, March 13 and 14

You could see it as a New Age thing, but modern dancers since Martha Graham have considered their task to be the creation of new rituals. Graham even borrowed classical myths–the story of Medea or the Minotaur–to bolster the sanctity of her works. And plenty of choreographers before and since, driven by a consuming need for meaning, have generated do-it-yourself rituals, without benefit of earlier cultures’ religious stories and ideas.

Of course the stage magnifies whatever an artist chooses to put on it, but many choreographers also dress their rituals elaborately. These pseudoreligious trappings–special music, costumes, and props–are meant to set the performance outside the realm of ordinary experience, to create an atmosphere of mystery and higher meaning. The more serious a modern-dance choreographer is about her work, the more likely she is to aim for such an environment. Unfortunately, the effort to create meaning sometimes backfires, ultimately alienating the audience more than it pulls them in.

Jan Erkert is a serious artist. As she puts it in her mission statement, “We live in a world in need of awareness and wisdom of the body, in need of connections to the human spirit, in need of communication. Jan Erkert & Dancers is committed to meeting these needs.” Sounds like a religious impulse to me, and you can see that seriousness of purpose in her dances, which are carefully constructed to address significant issues: grief in Turn Her White With Stones, physical injury and healing in Whole Fragments. In the 1997 UnWeavings–which forms the first half of Erkert’s program this year at the Athenaeum–she explores the end of relationships, inspired by her mother’s illness and a passage from The Crossing in which Cormac McCarthy describes God as a divine weaver, impassively creating and destroying the world, weaving and unweaving the threads of human lives.

Erkert also has the humility of a true priestly mind: she has never pretended or wanted to do it all herself. She always credits her dancers in the program for movement development, and she collaborates with other artists to create sacred settings. UnWeavings relies heavily on a set design by textile artist Laurie Wohl. Long strips of canvas carefully unwoven and rewoven are mounted in layers that can be shuttled back and forth across the stage, creating a gauzy forest in fleshlike pinks and reds that alternately conceals and reveals the work’s five dancers. There’s something balletic about the set, recalling the human curtains of the huge corps in the “Kingdom of the Shades” act of La bayadere; also reminiscent of ballet is the opening phrase of UnWeavings–a single dancer traveling on half toe from one side of the stage to the other.

Overall, however, little about Erkert’s choreography is balletic. One dancer holds his ear to the face of another, lying supine, only to have her roll out from under him. A seated dancer holds an upside-down woman between his outstretched legs, her hips at the level of his face, her legs towering over him. A dancer reaches to touch a man with his back to her without ever looking at him. In all cases the performance style is impassive, as if these people were coming into and moving out of conjunction without volition, without even much emotion. In the final image, all five dancers stand separate from one another, reach with one arm and withdraw it, reach again and withdraw, then pull their hands up their bodies and above their heads, their arms quietly, slowly bursting open at the top. It’s a moving image that encapsulates isolation–the need for and denial of connection–and resignation, even quiet celebration of the self.

Yet something about UnWeavings put me off. Part of the problem is the set. Though moving it about does change the landscape of the dance with only a touch–just as human situations can shift in a moment’s time–the dancers’ rearranging of the strips comes to seem arbitrary and gimmicky. The movements necessary to adjust the strips are intrusive; not intrinsic to the dancing, they break its spell. And Gustavo Leone’s original score, performed live by harpists Alison Attar and Kari Gardner and vocalist Louise Cloutier, isn’t striking or propulsive enough for Erkert’s high purpose.

Fortunately Claudia Howard Queen’s original score for Erkert’s premiere, Love Poems, fully meets the needs of the dance, which explores the messy origins of human relationship in sexual passion and abject emotional need. Erkert has given this piece an elaborate structure that reiterates the all-consuming flurry of early love, far exceeding the boundaries of the stage. Audience members walk down a hallway lined with folded love notes that quote from the thousand-year-old Japanese poetry that was Erkert’s inspiration. Dancers seated in the balcony alternately write and crumple notes, tossing them into the audience. And a desk downstage allows for the use of an overhead projector, so that audiences can read and dancers can write the cryptic messages of early love: “Who are you?” and the reply, “I’m not real.”

The dance’s six sections explore different sides of the early stages of love, but as a whole the piece has more organic integrity than UnWeavings. The first section, “The Heart Feeds Itself First,” features Robbie Cook and Kim Nelson: at first he merely sits and writes while she writhes her way across the floor in Kris Cahill’s revealing dress, a mere swath of gauzy fabric from the tops of her breasts to the tops of her thighs. Is this the man’s superheated fantasy, or is this his lover caught in the throes of longing? We’re not sure, but the woman’s blank eyes–she’s like a sleepwalker–suggest that she’s not real. Krenly Guzman is featured in the second section, “Butterflies in My Stomach,” which takes this bodily metaphor for love to its logical extreme, regurgitation–even magnifying that action in Guzman’s fantastic dives into the floor, as if he were ridding himself of himself.

Love Poems really takes off with the third section, “Breathing Fast.” This trio for three women–Erika Gilfether, Suet May Ho, and Nelson–explores the fine line between rage and passion, between offended dignity and blatant need. The music, whose lines are primarily percussive and vocal, takes on almost a rock beat. The energy drops abruptly, however, in the fourth section, “My Mind Is Alone,” featuring Paul Cipponeri. Though Gilfether attends him, dressing him and touching him affectionately, he seems entirely unaware of her presence. Who is she? If she’s so patently there, why is he alone? But the energy picks up again in the fifth and sixth sections: in “Slipping Away” and “I Want You, I Need You,” Erkert recapitulates many of the violently propulsive movements of earlier sections, their excess mirroring the headlong impetus of early love.

Of course the bedrock of any dance is the dancing, and in Love Poems Erkert’s dancers are supremely quick when quickness is called for, supremely luscious when slow sensuousness is needed, supremely violent and daring when only physical risk will do. Though many of these dancers are relatively new to her, Erkert has the ability to evoke personality and commitment from her performers. There’s no substitute for that talent. But where the trappings of UnWeavings tend to obscure the dancers’ labor, the trappings of Love Poems enhance it: here their efforts and the audience’s involvement create a celebratory ritual, giving a heightened communal meaning to what often seems a mere personal state.

The Cuban group Los Mu–equitos de Matanzas, a 46-year-old Afro-Cuban music-and-dance ensemble, is an entirely different case. Its rituals do not spring full-blown from any individual’s mind, the way modern dances so often do; instead they’ve been established over hundreds of years, part of the African diaspora. In fact, the first half of the group’s program at the Museum of Contemporary Art was devoted to traditional sacred and cultural dances, while the second featured a variety of more contemporary rumbas.

But even though these rituals might be sanctified by the passage of time and the fact that they’re an accepted part of a community, putting them onstage before a paying audience that may or may not be part of that community gives them more in common with Erkert’s pieces than we might think at first. The program makes the statement that “this is no show,” but in fact it is a show–the context makes this a performance, gives it a certain artificiality. At the same time the group’s dancing and music provide the same kind of exhilaration as Erkert’s self-devised rituals. Whether shimmying their shoulders and torsos in a centuries-old enactment of divine possession or playfully challenging each other in traditional dances of courtship, Los Mu–equitos celebrate the body’s ability to register and express profound emotion.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jan Erkert & Dancers photo by William Frederking; Los Mu–equitos de Matanzas photo by Cynthia Caris.