at the Dance Center of Columbia College

March 26-28

Margaret Jenkins’s dances have always seemed to me to have a veil over them–a veil penetrated by her beautiful dancers and production values, but a veil of reticence and indirection nonetheless, which kept me from understanding what she was saying. In her concert last weekend at the Dance Center, the veil became physical: in two dances Jenkins put a see-through barrier between her dancers and the audience. When I looked through this barrier, the naked emotionality of Jenkins’s dances became clear to me. And the nature of the veil became evident: Jenkins creates complex, beguiling surfaces that often mask emotion. But when she drops the veil–the surface–the emotional impact is pure and powerful.

The first dance, Strange Attractors (commissioned by Columbia College), takes place behind a literal veil, within a square formed by a curtain made of shiny metallic balls, like ball bearings, dangling at the end of long strings. Alex Nichols’s lighting makes the curtain appear like the walls of a warm living room, or like insubstantial moonlight, or like prison bars.

Strange Attractors has a simple concept. Two women and a man (Ellie Klopp, Stephanie Maher, and James Aarons) are in a perpetually shifting triangle, as each follows the pull of attraction toward the others. Sometimes two dancers dance together while the third dances alone, or all three do the same sequence separated from each other; occasionally all three dance together. The triangular relationships develop from the sudden, gawky shifts of attraction between strangers into ensemble movement that shows the strange compromises at the heart of intimacy.

Overall Jenkins’s choreographic design communicates the message clearly, but individual movements signal their own different messages. The dancers created their own movements and Jenkins assembled them, a process that yields continually inventive movement but creates a diversity that threatens to overwhelm our capacity to understand it. And the movements are inventive only within limits: the movement is often gestural, or based on natural movements, and rooted in one spot. As a consequence the hundreds of tiny messages in the various movements do not add up to the same message the overall choreographic design communicates–in fact they don’t add up to any clear message. It’s as if each dancer were in his or her own dance.

Other elements in Strange Attractors are also at cross-purposes. The movement dynamics seem to be inspired by the dynamics of the music, “White Man Sleeps,” composed by Kevin Volans and performed by the Kronos Quartet. Nichols’s lighting responds most directly to the music, not the dance. His set design, the curtain of ball bearings, is beautiful but seems unconnected to the dance. A mesh of collaborations often gives a voluptuous texture to Jenkins’s dances, but in Strange Attractors the dance’s emotional heart–the perversity of attraction–is not explored fully enough to fuse the disparate elements into a whole.

The emotional heart of Woman Window Square is the image of a woman looking out of a window onto a public square, watching all of the dramas played out there–an image that contrasts hectic life with emotional distance and insularity. The double image, of watcher and watched, gives the dance a split focus that Jenkins’s collaborators in turn split again and again.

Rinde Eckert supplies text that shatters the central image by showing it from multiple perspectives: the watching woman writes elegiac postcards to a friend; a bored voice describes how a stakeout in the square is set up; voices in Italian and German seem to be asking about a woman in a photograph. Eckert sets up a spy- novel situation that contrasts nicely with the central image of watching–he’s immensely skilled at creating contrasting narratives that give the dance a sense of depth. My companion liked the feeling Eckert communicates of being dislocated in a foreign country. Eckert also provides an emotional musical score (a good contrast to the rather dry classicism of Volans’s music for Strange Attractors). Unfortunately John Sanborn’s slides and films had to be eliminated for technical reasons from the Dance Center presentation. Nevertheless the surface of Woman Window Square is dazzling.

The movement in Woman Window Square is also striking, from an opening image of a woman walking on the curled-up bodies of the other dancers to the closing image of a man in a dress hanging upside down by his ankles from a cubist window frame. The dancers (Jenkins, Aarons, Klopp, Maher, Tony Coray, Martin Gould, and Joan Norvelle) move continually in simultaneous dances. A woman slapping a man suddenly freezes, and he picks up her frozen body. Meanwhile a woman jogs across the stage in slow motion, and another couple seem to be conversing with movement. The multiple voices of the dancers’ various movements, which did not work well in Strange Attractors, work here because they communicate the feeling of multitudes.

The hectic activity of the public square slowly focuses on a duet between Klopp and Norvelle: Klopp is hidden behind Norvelle but uses her hands to guide Norvelle’s hands or to hold her forehead. Their duet slowly becomes passionate: they roll to the side of the stage in an embrace, then later Norvelle embraces Klopp through the window frame.

The dance ends with the window frame, the second veil of the program, between the dancers and the audience: the audience takes on the passive role of the woman looking into the square. With this reversal the dance assumes an urgent shape: Norvelle and Klopp are in a painful, passionate embracing dance, while Coray and Gould shadow them; Aarons and Maher suspend themselves from the bars of the window frame like corpses on a gibbet. The dance shifts from a portrait of passivity to a question about it: isn’t the audience as passive and voyeuristic as the woman we pity? Unfortunately, this question is pretty hard to grasp: we experience the density of the surface, not the dance’s rather scattered emotional force.

But in Age of Unrest Jenkins finds and holds the emotional center of the dance, which is nothing less than the corruption of a generation. Age of Unrest begins with rather general images of alienation: a woman drumming her feet in the darkness, mouthing “What do they say?” and screaming silently; couples arguing. Sandra Woodall’s costumes, black see-through things, seem ominously sexual. Then the images start becoming both bizarre and specific: a woman (Klopp) puts her hand inside a man’s lipsticked mouth (Aarons’s) as if to have him eat it. Aarons, sitting in a lotus position, hops across the stage, propelling himself with his hands. Klopp crosses the stage in small hops, using her hands to alternately cover her breasts and buttocks. As Paul Dresher’s band kicks into high gear with an amplified guitar-bass-drums- synthesizer ensemble, we suddenly locate ourselves in the MTV era, looking at its sexuality.

Jenkins’s word for describing sexuality in this age of unrest might be “appetite.” The duet between Aarons and Klopp develops into a frank depiction of consumption: when Klopp puts her fingers in Aarons’s mouth, he licks them sensuously, then she licks his bare back. He puts fingers in her mouth as she writhes on the floor. He lifts her by putting a fist between her thighs. The final image is Aarons pouring a stream of water from his mouth into her mouth; as he walks away from her writhing, prone figure, he wipes his mouth. Never has today’s sexuality seemed more perverse.

Age of Unrest gets much of its power from its unabashed dance movement, particularly Annie Rosenthal’s repeated crossings of the stage; we finally get to see these lovely dancers dance. Dresher’s score is far more intelligent than the MTV music it parodies, and his ensemble performs live, which adds immeasurably to the immediacy of the experience. But Age of Unrest is primarily a dance piece, with the force that only pure dance can give. Jenkins uses these instruments, these dancers, to create an insightful, damning critique of appetitive sexuality.