Jan Erkert & Dancers

at the Harold Washington Library Auditorium, April 19 and 20

Jan Erkert is a mature artist whose success came the old-fashioned way: she earned it. Whereas aging wunderkind Mark Morris, who’s just a few years younger, may have shown more talent ten years ago, being catapulted to the A list in the late 80s and early 90s could well have retarded his development. Meanwhile Erkert has had to cultivate her talent, in the process bringing it to a remarkable level. Something changed in her work three or four years ago. For one thing, she turned outward: it’s part of her maturity to respect the artistry and experience of others. Often in the last few years and for this concert at the Harold Washington Library she’s drawn on the talents of videographers, writers, lighting designers, and her own dancers (liberally thanked in the program) and on the experiences of survivors of torture, young people transplanted to a new culture, women of all nationalities and ages who’ve taken all kinds of paths. And doing so hasn’t fragmented her vision but augmented it: another sign of maturity.

In her new solo Puerto del Alma (“Doorway to the Soul”), Erkert has orchestrated poetry, song, dance, pedestrian movement, costume and set pieces, lighting, and videography to produce what she wants: the impression of an eerie birth or death suffused in images of nakedness and of bodily coverings, of glowing dark and glowing light, of tortured breathing and fragile kisses. Erkert, who dances the piece, is aided in her passage by 58-year-old Guatemalan-American Julietta Torres, a nondancer who moves with great, slow force and solidity and whose singing is soft but true. The closing image brings together Sara Livingston’s videography, Ken Bowen’s lighting, and Kris Cahill’s huge shawls and hanging curtain to make it seem that Erkert and Torres are receding into a maelstrom of swirling fabric under tropical skies: a bonfire of bright orange and rose. But though I admired Erkert’s artistry, I can’t say I liked the work–probably because the overt representation of spiritual things makes me nervous. Yet it was a colleague’s favorite. Whatever: Erkert’s work is now so accomplished that one can choose among delicacies.

Erkert’s new ensemble piece, Gaps, is far funnier in performance than in rehearsal (I watched it a few weeks ago for a Critic’s Choice). Though it too purportedly investigates spiritual things (“the gaps and spaces in human consciousness that lead to other realms of magic, dreams and inspiration,” according to a press release), it often comes across as a dance about quirky social interactions. Inspired by Erkert’s workshops with a group of Guatemalan-American teenagers, Gaps replicates young people’s fidgety affection and diffident loves, their quick physical intersections and deep, sudden falls into chasms of feeling. Here two dancers might nuzzle each other’s faces, or one might touch or tickle another until he shakes her off. Or one might gather another into his lap in some awkward and profound way, as if cradling a rough colt. Eventually two couples form–Ginger Farley and Mark Schulze, Suet May Ho and Paul Cipponeri–further isolating Carrie Hanson, who’s been a lonely figure from the start. Full of arrested movements and almost involuntary spasms (Schulze’s are particularly funny), Gaps also contains more serious sections–the opening, with its swift evolutions of energy and rhythm, and a section set to Carlos Castaneda’s description of a dream flight. Cameron Pfiffner’s bursts of saxophone music and blasts on a whistle as he wanders the auditorium and stage underscore the sense that transformation is possible at any moment.

Erkert’s most affecting work, to me, was Whole Fragments, which combines the wonderful ensemble dancing of Gaps with the visual beauty of Puerto del Alma. First shown a year ago, it was inspired by Erkert’s recovery from a serious injury to her back and is dedicated to “gifted healer” Dr. Larry Felts (who died before the piece was finished). The oxymoronic title reminds me of Yeats’s lines: “For nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.”

For this piece Anthony Gongora constructed a rice-paper house as elegant as a child’s drawing; Scott Silberstein and Matt Hoffman shot video and transferred it to film (projected on the rice paper); Bowen came up with a complicated lighting scheme that makes it all gorgeously clear; and Cahill provided filmy maroon costumes. John Adams’s Shaker Loops, with its various moods and repetitions, is perfect for the piece, which seems taken from a universe of perpetual striving, perpetual small victories and defeats. The music begins exciting and anxious and urgent, full of crisis; becomes lower and slower and deeper, then quieter and tentative, moving into a kind of peace; and finally turns urgent again, dramatic, but with more yearning and less anxiety. It tells a kind of story, and so does the dancing; but it’s a story full of loops, the characters always trading places.

Though Whole Fragments is filled with images of one person manipulating and caring for another (presumably derived from Erkert’s experiences in physical therapy), the dancers never settle into one or another role. No one here is always the victim or the healer. This evenhandedness, plus the odd sense that though people here are helped no one is ever “cured,” contributes to the work’s pervasive humility–its sense that everyone is subject to the body’s failures–and concomitant faith in a supportive community. Dancers are continually falling and being caught, lifted and dropped. The work’s prime movement motif–walking with the arms out and crooked up like a cowboy ordered to reach for the sky–signifies surrender, a willed release of will.

What’s most astounding about Whole Fragments is that while it examines the way the body can be broken, it celebrates dancing. Erkert takes the small, humble motions of physical therapy and transforms them into dance: a dancer on her back carefully touches an elbow to the opposite knee once, twice, then makes a switch so sudden it’s like a film jump. Or dancers on their stomachs, arms at their sides, raise their heads off the floor and look to one side–with a truly beautiful motion of the neck, displaying the profile. Holding someone aloft becomes an aerial feat as one dancer tosses another, whirling, to a third. Meanwhile the projected film captures therapy and dance alike in poetic, grainy slow motion. I don’t know why, but I found these fuzzy, distorted black-and-white figures moving in silence as deeply stirring as any dancers I’ve seen, and more stirring than many.

The company also performed a reworked version of associate artistic director Mark Schulze’s I.S.T.B.E. #9, renamed Inward and Outward-Round. Once again the dancing is technically accomplished, humane, and inventive; but most inventive is the way it works against Christopher Fabie’s sound design, which begins with a welter of everyday noise: the soft clattering in a restaurant, at least two overlapping “intellectual” conversations, perhaps the sound of a distant train. Instant ennui. But then we hear Bach, and later a poetic text about overhearing others make love, and still later a folk song sung off-key. These aural strands, woven into the fabric of everyday life, suit the dancing in a way that mundane conversation does not. When the overlapping talk returns at the end, augmented by an alienating voice over a PA system, the aural spell is broken but not the spell of the dancing bodies, whose solidity and integrity seem to have increased throughout the work.

Respect for the performers must have contributed to the company’s marvelous dancing: perhaps because the dancers helped develop the movement, they take amazing risks with it. Complete confidence in one another also helps. Outwardly unlike, they have an indefinable common energy. The lanky Farley, the compact and jaunty Schulze, the merry Ho, the transparent Cipponeri, and the quicksilver Hanson somehow move together with elegant precision, like a machine of mismatched parts that delights us by actually working. Maturity and respect for others: it sounds like a Girl Scout motto. But it works.

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