at the Dance Center of Columbia College, through March 26

Dance can be dangerously imprisoning, almost narcissistic, requiring an intense focus on one’s own body and, it sometimes seems by extension, oneself. Jan Erkert has never been a self-absorbed choreographer, but her Dance Center concert, “Tales of Intimacy,” reveals that while she’s grounded in her own feelings, she’s reaching increasingly outward. And her grasp is fully commensurate with her reach.

Erkert’s new solo for Suet May Ho, Turn Her White With Stones, was made in collaboration with Ho and with Cambodian women who were tortured by the Khmer Rouge and received therapy at the Kovler Center on North Sheridan. Erkert also uses a film of the women directed by Sara Livingston and produced by Judd Chester; Lauren Weinger collaborated with Erkert and Ho to produce the sound score. And Erkert includes a poem by one of the Cambodian women, Ya Chhan. So a lot of people were involved in this project, yet the dance that emerges is as solid and real and discrete as the white stones on the stage.

It’s hard to write about this dance. I don’t know when I’ve seen another work so tightly and perfectly controlled and yet seeming to exist beyond the choreographer’s artistry, beyond the reach of language. Exactly as long as it has to be and no longer, it unfolds with an imperceptible but seemingly inevitable logic.

The film is grainy and distorted, projected not on a flat, hard screen but on a piece of cloth with soft folds; we see primarily the hands and faces of the women in the film, and they’re beautiful. Ya Chhan’s poem reads, in part, “Three children died under the communists because they didn’t have enough to eat, or medicines to cure them. Before they died, they wanted some food to eat. They talked to me about food and what they wanted to eat. So how am I supposed to feel? . . . Now my feelings almost kill me. It hurts all the time.” The sound score, or what I remember of it, is high squeaks and watery sounds, as if the listener were eavesdropping on a dolphin.

Ho begins by lying face up in the middle of a circle of stones. She raises one hand slowly to remove a stone from one eye, then removes one from the other eye. When she takes a stone from her mouth her body jackknifes, and her legs, bent slightly, wave slowly and evenly in the air, as if she had no more sense than a sea anemone that these appendages were hers. Throughout the dance she alternates between taut, helpless pain and collapse. She breaks the circle of stones in one little place, later scrabbles them apart and rolls on them, throws them at the film screen. She stands and cradles her own leg, bundling it toward her with one hand like her lost child; the other hand travels slowly from her belly to her mouth, and she produces a high-pitched tiny scream. Ho’s body, all small, hard curves, can assume the most painful, distorted shapes and remain graceful. Her face is vacant and full. One of the last images we see, on film, is of women’s hands manipulating stones, feeling the hard contours of their grief.

It’s a great feat for a choreographer to make a dance so completely outside her own experience that communicates such strong feeling. And it’s inevitable that the other dances on the program are going to suffer by comparison. Solos choreographed and performed by company members Anthony Gongora and Juli Hallihan-Campbell are clever, well made, very well danced, and very obviously about the performers. Gongora in his Listening Without Ears talks explicitly about his two choices: staying in the dark or coming, presumably into the light, since he lights a candle onstage–though he plays on the meaning of the word “come.” Gongora is a wickedly swift and precise dancer, so exact and quick in his movements he can almost seem mechanical–a fact he plays up early in this dance. But I think his intent was to draw out of himself something more languid and feeling, almost mystical, and he succeeds up to a point, especially when he stands for several seconds bowed at the waist, head and arms hanging, or traces the outlines of his own face with his fingertips.

In One Moment I Was Awake, The Next . . . Kaplooey! Hallihan-Campbell exploits her character as a clown, performing such silly tricks as trying to unglue her own “stuck” hand from the floor or popping her elbow in and out like a doll whose joints are going, grinning at us all the while. Hallihan-Campbell is a genuine comic whiz, but because she frames the dance as if it were a dream and she the confused dreamer, the dance inhabits an uncomfortable place between all-out clowning and some kind of metaphorical meaning–never really one or the other or both in any satisfying way.

Erkert’s 1992 quartet Between Men is another instance, though not so extreme, of her seeing beyond herself. She’s been interested for several years in gender roles, but unlike many other feminists she’s as curious about men as she is about the second sex. Between Men is danced by two men and two women to flamenco guitar and singing, and though much of it is very athletic–the dancers slicing the air with their bodies in great leaps or tumbling like bowling pins across the stage–it also manages to communicate the delicate balance between dominating and giving comfort that’s so crucial to both the relations between men and between men and women. Though it never ignores differences between the sexes, this compassionate work makes us see a continuity of feeling between the two that’s comforting in these warlike times.

Erkert made two new duets for this concert, but because Christine Bornarth was injured, Scene 1, Take 3 was not shown the first weekend (it should be the second, however). Erkert explicitly describes both pieces as love duets, but Without Sense is not at all stuffy, or even romantic in the ordinary sense–it’s dry and funny. Hallihan-Campbell and Mark Schulze, whose blond hair and similar bodies make them seem doppelgangers, dance to drum music played onstage by Gary DeMichele (his “polka” is especially stimulating). The two dancers alternate being blindfolded, and finally are both blindfolded at once; Erkert, aided by lighting designer Tom Fleming, plays with the idea of blindness by sometimes plunging the audience into darkness and sometimes bathing us in light so bright we can’t see the stage.

Love has never been so literally blind before. But there’s nothing self-deluded about it here: the humor doesn’t come from us snickering at the characters’ illusions about love or the loved one, but from their brave fumbling to maintain communication. They don’t always succeed. At one point Hallihan-Campbell, who does most of the talking, is blindfolded and describes in detail her own rather involved movement as she asks Schulze whether he’s doing the same thing. He’s not–he’s walking, then running in a circle around her, a fact that should be obvious from the sound of his footsteps. Apparently it’s not, so he tells her what he’s doing. Yet she asks again whether they’re dancing in unison. I’m not quite sure what all Erkert’s metaphors might be, and the piece goes on a little too long, but Without Sense is unquestionably a curious and affecting mix of feeling and hilarity, once again revealing Erkert’s gift for both remaining within and stepping outside herself.

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