Jan Erkert & Dancers

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, March 11-13

Dances From the Heart

Hedwig Dances

at the Athenaeum Theatre, through March 21

By Terry Brennan

Dance–which is only a set of moving bodies–is naturally abstract. Traditional dance forms like ballet often try to tell a comprehensible story by using mime, gestures, and the tools of stagecraft–music, lighting, costumes. Modern dance also sometimes uses stories; for example, H.T. Chen’s Transparent Hinges, recently performed at the Dance Center of Columbia College, tells the story of Chinese immigrants in a San Francisco detention center. But more often modern dance uses collage, showing evocative images drawn from a story rather than the story itself; it abstracts the narrative.

Jan Erkert’s work is often nonrepresentational–she doesn’t use stories, even abstracted stories. This gives her a reputation for being cerebral when in fact her dances are drenched in sensation, her dancers always exquisite, her costuming, lighting, and music always vivid and often lush.

Erkert uses her freedom from narrative to burrow deeply into how things feel. Her 1995 Whole Fragments conveyed what recovery from a physical disability felt like. Yet there were no obvious roles, such as patient, doctor, or nurse; the set and costumes gave no hint of hospitals. That dance was dreamlike, set in a morphine haze. Shadowy people arrived on the scene, then disappeared; sometimes people were nurtured, and sometimes they were alone and terrified. The first time I saw Whole Fragments I didn’t understand or like it. I came to appreciate it only when a friend who’d been hospitalized as a girl told me that Erkert had captured her feelings perfectly. Yet Erkert tends to avoid depicting emotions–for example, the sickening fear of those who are helpless–trusting that these will emerge as subtext. In many ways it’s a novelistic method. But Erkert can get lost inside her voluptuous textures. Her Unweavings got off to a very slow start as her dancers dodged between the set’s layers of handwoven cloth.

The two dances Erkert presented recently at the Dance Center of Columbia College–Love Poems and 4:14 a.m.–are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Love Poems, which premiered a year ago, is accessible and relatively representational; based on poems from the Heian period in Japan, it’s about love between men and women. 4:14 a.m., on the other hand, is nonrepresentational with a vengeance; Erkert even chose its title from ideas submitted by audience members at a preview.

The first image of Love Poems conveys the density of sensation. At the front of the stage a man dressed in white sits at a desk with an overhead projector, which projects a poem on the back scrim. On the floor next to him is a woman wearing a gauzy white tube dress that covers her hips, torso, and head. The man pulls the tube off her face, and she rises to a sitting position and sits next to him for a few moments. Almost sleepily she begins to rock from side to side. The dancer’s wild red hair, pale skin, and exposed body make for a powerful erotic image, to which the man seems immune.

Men are often oblivious in Love Poems. In one poignant section, a man dances wildly, as if battling an unseen foe. During his occasional quiet moments, a woman dresses him in white pants, shirt, and vest, as gently as if she were dressing an infant. The man never notices her, and she walks away without turning back.

The image that arises most vividly from Love Poems is of women throwing themselves with mad joy at passive men. The best physical expression of this is a lift performed simultaneously by the three male-female couples: the woman jumps into the air and leans back as she falls; when she comes within a few feet of the ground, the man pulls her by the hands back to her feet. It’s a movement that requires complete trust and perfect timing.

The physical setting of 4:14 a.m. is evocative. In the corner are two cellists and a flutist playing Marcela Rodriguez’s commissioned score. The perimeter of the stage is marked by a dark cloth covered with white footprints. The six performers wear garish makeup that makes them look sick, even corpselike; lighting designer Margaret Nelson uses colors that make the dancers look even more ghastly. If 4:14 a.m. is dreamlike, it’s a dark, confused, and vaguely frightening dream.

The movement is often small and constrained, its quality slow and sticky as if the dancers were half asleep. Few relationships develop between them; they seem to slide by one another without connecting. The clearest image is of a woman half lifted by the rest of the dancers, who crowd around her; it made me think of a woman in hell surrounded by flames.

The cloth running around the perimeter of the stage seems to represent prison walls. At various moments, the dancers sleepwalk and reach across it. At the climax the light becomes creamy, and the dancers step together across the back border. They sink to the ground, then seem to pass something down the line of dancers. But nothing changes; they reiterate the first section, a woman is caught in flames again. The last, summarizing movement is maddeningly obscure: the dancers simply drop their right elbows, holding their palms up.

Where Love Poems is light and transparent, 4:14 a.m. is dark and opaque, as if it were that dance’s evil twin. Far from likable, 4:14 a.m. is disturbing, even a little threatening. But both dances are chewy, filled with rich sensations.

By coincidence, Jan Bartoszek, artistic director of Hedwig Dances, presented a new piece about dreams the same weekend Erkert did; but unfortunately her piece showed all too well the problems with a traditional representational approach.

To Sleep, to Dream, also featuring six dancers and a commissioned score, is squarely about its stated subject. It starts with a voice-over narrative, written by Dan Howell, about the strange realm of sleep and dreams. And the dance is a collage of dream images–two women fight, a woman reels in a man as if he were a fish, the man charges at the woman but is blocked by two other dancers, the woman throws the man to the ground. But rather than tell us anything new, these images only illustrate the topic. There’s no conflict in the piece and no sense of moving forward. Finally To Sleep, to Dream collapses into complete silliness, with pillow fights and senseless costume changes. Bartoszek doesn’t seem to have anything to say about dreams; they’re just an excuse to make a dance.

Bartoszek’s other work suffers from similar problems. Sweet Baby, Baby Suite has some inspired moments of silliness, especially when babies tumble from the sky into women’s arms, but it ends up repeating the same movements endlessly. Shattered Ground, about two Civil War soldiers, has some interesting partnering between the men but is predictable and similarly bogged down in movement. Good efforts by new choreographers, both company members, round out the program: a solo by Michelle Blakely and a duet by Joan Pangilinan-Taylor.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Hedwig Dances photo by Eileen Ryan; Jan Erkert & Dancers photo by Erika Dufour.