Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, July 8-10

Let me say it in simple words first: Margaret Jenkins’s The Gates (Far Away Near) is a masterpiece, both in the contemporary sense of the word, as a panoramic view of human nature, and in its original sense, as a work that proves a journeyman’s mastery. Its mystical enumeration of modes of feeling and its craft–the work is a seamless combination of dance, poetry, and music–are exemplary.

The introductory section lays out the work’s program. Paul Dresher’s score opens with a crashing chord like a hammer blow, and six dancers dash around the stage, sailing into the air in sudden leaps or rolling quickly to the floor and up again, like a city gone mad. A single dancer (Ellie Klopp) in an upstage spotlit corner moves slowly in place, her head bent meekly as if meditating deeply. When the rest of the dancers slow and gather around her, she breaks out of her trance with a lightning-fast dance that still seems to express her foreboding thoughts.

When she finishes, a voice-over recites in the cadences of biblical prophecy a verse about “a great wobbling,” whose signs are “the fire beneath the ground,” “the burning of the palace,” “the unaccountable failures of memory,” and the “disruption of migratory patterns.” The verse sets forth the work’s program: “We are called from our scattered provinces to look in at the city / Through its seven gates / To . . . ask the questions, What are / The stories, What is to be done?” The purpose of the dance is nothing less than to examine the state of the commonwealth. It is a mystical work, using a mystic’s method of enumeration–to look at the commonwealth from seven points of view, the seven gates of the city.

The remaining seven sections are each named for a gate into the city: the gates of Desire, of Breath, of Public Words, of Measures, of Ruins, of Passages, and of Birds. Each section reexamines the city–how people join together in couples, crowds, and companies–and each section ends with a dancer left alone. Mystic works, ones that attempt to include everything known, must be works of radical balance; in its structure, The Gates keeps reminding us of the balance between the city and the individual.

Some sections are expressed mainly in dance, such as the section on the Gate of Breath, which examines the human body and its implications for the city. Three women walk slowly toward the back as two couples dance among them. The heterosexual couple exchange sex roles–the woman becomes strong and the man receptive–then change back again, while in the male couple one man holds and carries the other, who seems to be dying. When he does finally die, his lover places the dead man’s hand into the hand of one of the three women and all of the dancers pause; even the heterosexual couple look up from their absorbing game of role reversal. Then the three women form a triangle on the other side of the stage and repeatedly cup the seven places of the body that hold chakras–places where kundalini yoga teaches that different emotions gather. Taken together, the section seems to say that the commonwealth must take into account the needs that arise from the bodies of its citizens–to care for the men dying from AIDS, to re-create the sex roles that form the basis of families, and to find again the currents of religious meaning flowing through the body.

Other sections are carried mainly by the words, such as Rinde Eckert’s story in the Gate of Measures section: A man living on an island wanders to the seashore every morning, where he catalogs the ocean’s debris–the shells of conches, scallops, and horseshoe crabs–and one day stumbles onto children gathered around the body of a beached pilot whale. Later, when the local people are burning the whale’s carcass, the narrator admits to “an unexpected, undoubtedly perverse sadness” that the moment is ending. The story captures perfectly the power and frailty of pure Mind, which seems to see and catalog everything but cannot put anything in its proper order; in a later section the Gate of Measures is called “the hall of images and lists.”

Images of redemption woven throughout the work are birds, the only creatures that can find the hidden gates into the city. The last section, the Gate of Birds, is ecstatic; dancers jump lightly into the air in a way that emphasizes flight rather than gravity’s pull. Such a happy ending at first seems strange after the despair of the introduction, but Jenkins explained in a question-and-answer session after the opening-night per- formance that it was the generosity of the dancers–their unusually strong bond–that pulled the work toward its hopeful ending.

The dancers–Tony Coray, Martin Gould, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Klopp, Stephanie Maher, Sue Roginski, and Jon Weaver–are one of the central wonders of this work. They are onstage during the entire dance and dancing most of the time. The dancers created all of their movement, a seemingly endless stream of invention. All of the dancers have perfected Jenkins’s nuanced movement style, which places great emotional weight on the precise way an arm or hand is held. For all these reasons, every moment of the dance is alive.

Another reason the dance is so alive is the close collaboration between its writers and composer. Michael Palmer and Eckert, among the best writers for dance today, juggle what seems like a wagonload of heavily weighted symbols without dropping them. Sometimes the poetry is overly stuffed, but the symbols recur often enough that an attentive listener won’t get lost. Composer Dresher, who has sometimes seemed a boy genius with a synthesizer, here creates a sensitive and elastic score that supports the dance. Alexander V. Nichols’s set and lighting designs and Sandra Woodall’s costumes place the work in a mythic setting of mountains, sky, and clouds.

It still remains to be seen, once all of Jenkins’s and her collaborators’ symbols have been decoded, whether this reexamination of the commonwealth reveals more than a newspaper opinion page. But it was clear, after two viewings, that their approach restores the mystery that a newspaper opinion page can never touch. The mystery is about the living city, which is at peace only when all seven of its gates are open.

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