at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

May 11-13 and 19-21

It’s been nearly two years since Jan Erkert or Amy Osgood, two of Chicago’s established independent choreographers, last produced concerts here. They returned to the stage at MoMing last weekend, presenting a satisfying concert of two recent and three newly commissioned works. These dances highlight Erkert’s and Osgood’s characteristic strengths and suggest interesting new directions for each.

Erkert and Osgood both make dances with a distinctly postmodernist slant. They very often choose movement that makes their dancers look just like the rest of us–walking, running, rolling, reaching, falling. No movement is automatically disqualified just because it’s ugly, ordinary, or strange. The choreographic structures that shape their dances–the repetitions, the canons, the reversals–stay close enough to the surface for us to feet we know what’s going on. Their dances aren’t occult but open and inviting.

Seeing the two choreographers take their joint bow, one can’t help but notice how different they are: Erkert looks small and dark, Osgood long and blond. Their dances are different, too. Erkert’s 1988 Antigamente nudges postmodernism toward the theatrical, Osgood’s Allegro, Allegro, Allegro, Allegro toward the musical.

In Antigamente, Erkert renders the familiar altogether strange. Set on Juli Hallihan, an uncompromisingly straightforward dancer, the movement is at once simple and artful. Hallihan crosses the stage several times, leaping, sliding, pausing, rolling, and pausing again; but with every cross the movement is heightened–more extreme, more dramatic. Pauses become balances, balances become turns. The score veers from the contemporary–a quiet, ominous composition by Kevin Volans–to the Renaissance–“Missa Pastores Quidnam Vidistis,” sung by the Tallis Scholars. The set–leaflike piles of crumpled paper washed in eerie, changing light (designed by Tom Fleming)–and the fluttering, ragged umber costume (designed by Winston Damon) intensify the dance’s otherworldly air.

In one section, Hallihan crouches and scrabbles through the paper to create a nest. In another, her arms arc and frame her face. The images of Antigamente alternate between the primal and archaic and the angelic and ritual. The dancer is more a presence than a person, caught and overturned by the same wind that eddies through the paper. Antigamente is an archetypal, not a human dance. Antigamente is also strange, strong theater.

What I’ve seen of Erkert’s work is–like Antigamente–highly theatricalized. Her dances strike me as finely crafted, painstakingly finished, and carefully staged–no lumps, bumps, or glitches. So Journal Entry #1: Chicago, 1989 caught me by surprise.

Set on Mary Johnston-Coursey, Judith Mikita, and Jane Siarny, Journal starts, stops, and starts over again. The dance pulls the audience into the choreographic process–we see a phrase, see it lengthen, see it again in a duet–instead of offering a polished, finished product. Journal is an entirely self-aware dance, a gentle poke at the conventions surrounding performers, theaters, and audiences. Journal is joyous, sensuous dancing, too.

Journal works with kinetic and visual imagery, the dancers whipping about the performance space, John Boesche’s projections on a screen behind them. Boesche’s images give the dance a specificity that pure movement cannot: no other city has this particular bridge or that particular expanse of blue and silver glass, but everybody everywhere walks.

And walk is just what these dancers do. They stalk in from the wings, turn sharply, and stare straight at the audience, practically daring us to watch. Their arms rise slowly to shoulder height, they breathe audibly, and they’re off: an arm sweeps through space, pulling the body off its axis and around; a hand rises slowly to cover a mouth, a gesture sketched and thrown away; two dancers huddle, rolling over and around each other. The sounds of dancing–breathing, sighing, stamping, landing–are all the accompaniment Journal has or needs. The dance inhabits a wide dynamic range: just when the sounds reach their greatest rhythmic complexity and the movement its greatest intricacy, it suddenly subsides into silence and stillness.

Erkert’s choreography toys with the audience. One of the trio gasps, looking so surprised the audience laughs. The dancers tromp all the way to the front of the performance space and stand there staring; no sooner do we think the dance is finished than they stamp, swing their arms, and fly off again: they get us every time. They glance to the side, at each other, at us. They can appear curious, as if considering a movement or phrase in a studio mirror, full of unself-conscious enjoyment–even arch or flirtatious.

Movement phrases that are simple when they first appear on just one dancer–a head dipping and swaying from side to side, the flick of a hand–grow larger and longer with repetition. A duet looks entirely different when it’s performed by a different pair. The way the three dancers carom into one another–adjust their weight and balance, then part–suggests the spontaneity and inventiveness of a particularly attentive session of contact improvisation.

Osgood’s The Other Comes to Be Light, also a commissioned work, creates the same impression of immediacy and rapport. The first three sections of this duet are danced to poems (“Oranges” by Ronald Wallace, “Lines on a Tenth Anniversary” by Arthur Smith, and “In the End We Are All Light” by Liz Rosenberg), and the dancers’ highly gestural movement is as artfully edited, pointed, and telling as poetry. Images in the movement and the text unspool in tandem, but neither is subservient to the other; they resonate rather than illustrate. As the taped narration describes the sensuous pleasure of savoring each bit of an orange, Bill Dietz revels in slow leg stretches. When the text describes an old man carrying his wife’s handbag, onstage Dietz carries Susan Richter-O’Connell balled up against his chest. (Her feet flex and point as the narrator describes the small gold clasp snapping open and shut–a moment characteristic of Osgood’s wit.) The three scenes, which embody different stages in human relationships, suggest that there’s a great deal of meaning in the way ordinary people wash windows and visit their doctors as well as in the way they make love, over and over again, in the course of an ordinary life.

In the fourth section, set to a score by Fred Simon, The Other sheds its narrative skin and its ordinariness, blurring the distinctions between different characters and collapsing youth and age in a single present. Two hands cupped around a face in the second section return here as four. Richter-O’Connell supports Dietz as he supported her in the third scene; the linked, bent shuffle reappears as a run. The dancers face each other, holding first one part of their own bodies, then another–their heads, their sides, their shoulders–simultaneously suggesting aches and pleasures. Our recollection of the texts creates an affective context for what is now essentially abstract movement–a vintage Osgood effect. Gestural or abstract, The Other is poignant, humorous, and real.

Many of Osgood’s dances are kinesthetic knockouts, so clearly focused on the joy and sensuality of dancing that we feel them in our bodies even as we’re glued to our seats. Her other commissioned work, Allegro, Allegro, Allegro, Allegro (set on Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble members Tara Mitton, Tina Morocco, Laura Schwenk, and Melissa Thodos), is also the most purely musical of her works I’ve seen. The movement is splashy and swift, wisely exploiting the dancers’ strengths but thoroughly entrenched in Osgood’s own peculiar vocabulary of tilted torsos, extended limbs, and unexpected angularity.

The score, a montage of allegro movements by Telemann and Vivaldi, is every bit as bright, shiny, and complex as the multicolored, multipatterned, multilayered costumes. The movement is allegrissimo and quirky–arms doubled up like chicken wings, splayed fingers, off-axis turns. The choreography emphasizes unexpected secondary musical accents, suggesting that a riotous barn dance lurks just below the surface of this familiar baroque music. The score’s harmonic complexity and contrast accentuate the formal nature of the dance–its moments of counterpoint, frequent canons, and shifting spatial patterns. Made with a deft, light touch, Allegro is a bright and winsome dance.

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