Jan Erkert & Dancers

at the Dance Center of Columbia College

March 5-7

Jan Erkert makes dances for mind and eye alike. Strong, appealing dancers perform expressive movement with absolute authority and without affectation; shifting spatial patterns and dynamic configurations of dancers occupy every inch of performance space; unexpected moments of stillness jolt the viewer. Her dances probe both present and past, provocative rather than pedantic: they work on the viewer in the choreographic mode equivalent to well-wrought fiction–they show, they never tell. These are dances that tackle significant issues, court ambiguity, and resist resolution.

Such dances are never easy, but some of Erkert’s dances are more accessible than others. Portrait of Five Men and Glass Ceilings, the two dances made especially for the evening-length “About Men . . . About Women,” are surprisingly entertaining: Erkert’s comic timing and the arch double meanings of her text mark a new direction for her.

In Portrait of Five Men, the automobile serves as metaphor for sex, for mastery, for autonomy. The dancers alternately straddle, sit, and lean on black folding chairs: they slump to the edge of the seat, arms and ankles crossed; they lean forward, legs spread, elbows on knees; they stand, foot on chair, chin on hand, elbow on knee. The movement that accompanies the text’s portrayal of the first, most youthful figure–especially the chest pounding–recalls our most stereotypic images of the masculine.

Each successive portrait acquires greater detail and specificity. For the young sex-ed teacher, the movement suggests common games. At a spoken signal, the dancers burst out of their stasis–grunting, muttering, and calling plays, boys against the girls in a free-for-all mixing football, boxing, and contact improvisation. For the father, a Ford engineer forced into early retirement, a peculiar, powerful solo suggests withdrawal and alienation even as the performer walks downstage toward the audience. For the 90-year-old grandfather, two simultaneous duets evoke both an old and resilient friendship and the contrast between youth and maturity.

Scott Oury and Bernt Lewy, wearing sweats and baggy T-shirts, cover the space with great, loping walks, their arms draped loosely across each other’s shoulders. They sit, roll, posture, and tussle–alluding to earlier movement motifs. They talk, laugh, and goad each other as they spin, crawl, and dance on the walls. Oury and Lewy move with genuine ease and confidence, though not with the speed and range of the rest of the ensemble: they are, after all, not professional dancers, and they are considerably older. When Anthony Gongora and Mark Schulze, wearing bright revealing unitards, echo the other men’s movement, they seem callow and showy by comparison. Oury and Lewy make their age and their relationship powerfully attractive.

Lewy was injured during Friday’s performance. On Saturday, Erkert chose not to cancel Portrait of Five Men but to stage the dance with Lewy in an office chair with wheels. He poked fun at himself and his injury; Oury, mostly silent, danced around his partner; and Gongora and Schulze drifted on and off, materializing just in time to execute a lift or balance in Lewy’s place. Saturday’s performance suggested that even the oldest, most tried friends must constantly negotiate to accommodate changes in their relationship–and aren’t necessarily happy or comfortable with the result. In just the same way, Erkert and the performers had to negotiate to accommodate Lewy’s injury.

Glass Ceilings operates on two tracks simultaneously: the text is a witty, affirmative refusal to accept gender stereotypes as reality; the dance is full of dark, potentially antifeminist imagery. Sections of text and movement alternate as Erkert performs from a prop-laden platform upstage and the others dance in the space between her and the audience.

Erkert wears outlandish, exaggerated everyday clothes: yellow rubber gloves, a green tie, and an oversize suit, purple with orange polka dots. She shares the platform with immense salt and pepper shakers and four chickens–chickens cleaned, plucked, and ready for the oven. The scale and the palette (Ann Boyd designed the props and Erkert’s costumes) dispel any lingering suspicion that this is meant to be serious–real, certainly; serious, not at all. Erkert’s hands flutter, then one swoops to impale the first chicken. The text details dreams: a dream of chickens (“representing sex, freedom, ignoring reality, and the imagination”), a dream of jumping off the moon, a dream of jet-speed chickens and a rain of glass.

The women–Christine Bornarth, Abby Kantor, and Shannon Raglin–wear bright yellow halter tops and capri leggings with evening-length gloves in blue, orange, or purple; their costumes (Erkert’s design) are both coquettish and functional. Michael McStraw wears a white shirt and an unremarkable blue gray suit. He details the contents of the dress-for-success wardrobe; like the professional options facing everyone today, it offers “Too many choices. Not enough choices.”

Raglin and Bornarth scoop Kantor up. They swing her, carry her across the stage like a battering ram, and set her on the ladder. They bounce and jitter as she climbs. She falls, they catch her, she climbs again. She falls, they catch her, she climbs again–and they walk away. The dance steadfastly refuses to answer the questions it provokes: Is she climbing because she wants to? Or because they want her to? Are they supporting her or setting her up to fail? What stake do they have in her success or failure anyway? In all the trio’s movement, Kantor alternately plays with and against the other two: even in unison choreography, her gaze wanders away from whatever is the object of their focus.

McStraw manipulates Kantor: he sets her in front of his rocking pelvis, swings her in great arcs; she hangs limp as he lifts her by the waist, the shoulders. He takes her off the ladder; Raglin and Bornarth put her back again. McStraw hurls himself at the ladder and hangs and swings, limp and spent, swaying like a pendulum: he climbs to the top and looks caged, weighted. McStraw alternately taunts Kantor and encourages her to climb–she is ambivalent, and he is even more ambivalent about her climb than his own. She falls into his arms and he lies baldly: “Don’t worry, Abby. It’ll always be there.”

Erkert continues to revise and restage Sensual Spaces. The music, Tomas Luis de Victoria’s Missa Ave Maria Stella, is rich and full of wonder; the movement, however altered and rearranged, is always performed with utter conviction. Erkert draws images from her other dances–images of birth, cradling, embracing, of walking up the walls, walking on air, of fingers grabbing flying chickens–and fills the stage with rapidly shifting duets, trios, quartets, and unison movement.

This version of Sensual Spaces contrasts vigorous ensemble choreography with a restrained, extended duet for Erkert and McStraw: their movements can animate the other dancers–initiating a phrase of reaching and falling, repeating and altering an embrace, lighting the candles together–or suggest the quiet at the eye of the storm. Erkert and McStraw share the roles of ritual celebrant and prime mover: Sensual Spaces evokes an image of the divine that is both male and female.

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