Jan Erkert & Dancers

at Link’s Hall, October 22-24

Why does an artist who has been growing more politically engaged suddenly show a loss of faith? For three years Jan Erkert’s dances have seemed increasingly inspired by a feminist vision of nurturing, supportive communities. But in her latest program she retreats to the relative isolation of a set of solos. The subtitle for this concert loudly signals despair, but Erkert’s dance reveals political engagement in a different, perhaps more potent form.

Erkert is one of Chicago’s best choreographers, nominated three times for the city’s Ruth Page award for choreography and winning once. She began a remarkable cycle of dances in 1991, in an all-woman concert whose unifying theme was mothers and daughters. Erkert’s 1992 concert dove into gender issues, with dances about her father, about regular guys (including Erkert’s husband), about growing up female, as well as a reworking of her Sensual Spaces that added a father figure to Erkert’s own mother figure. By 1993 Erkert was deeply involved politically, organizing community workshops for women, many of whom performed in the 1993 concert. But her political dances were wooden, more slogan than art. And the community of women the dances attracted was not supportive but rigid–women who had fixed ideas of gender roles and knew who to blame. In 1992’s Glass Ceilings Erkert was still wittily refusing to accept gender stereotypes; but in 1993’s Two Lives of Women she divided the dancers into tomboys and hesitant girls.

Erkert’s approach in this concert is so different that it seems a deliberate abandonment of her previous methods. Instead of large groups, here Erkert deals in solos; instead of comforting community, there’s a hint of the madness that comes from confronting ugly things in oneself. But Erkert’s political commitment reappears in a much more supple form.

For this Link’s Hall showcase, Erkert asked five of her dancers to go into a room and create a solo; Erkert herself created one as well, collaborating with a group of Cambodian women who survived torture by the Khmer Rouge. A postperformance discussion revealed that the Cambodian women have been working with the Kovler Center for Survivors of Torture, where Erkert has been a dance therapist for the last year. According to one of the Kovler therapists, the emotions that result from being tortured are not remembered directly but are imprisoned in a survivor’s senses–in the way she sees, moves, hears, and tastes. Art therapy is a good way to unlock these emotions. Erkert and a video crew went to several therapy sessions and taped the women’s interactions with a dancer, Suet May Ho, originally from Malaysia. Erkert told Ho to act as the women’s ghosts and also to do everything the Cambodian women said, in hopes that they would gain a sense of control over their past. In one remarkable session the women decided to bury Ho in stones, to cover her black leotard with white stones–the color of mourning in Cambodia. From the videotapes and from suggestions from the women, Erkert has started to create movement sequences.

Erkert’s solo for Ho, Turn Her White With Stones, as presented at Link’s Hall is admittedly a work in progress, but it promises to be powerful. Ho is imprisoned in a ring of white stones–a dual image of the women imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge as well as by their memories of torture. Ho creates a hole in the wall but does not immediately escape through it. Immobilized by depression, she waits inside the circle, curling into herself, inching along the floor with her hands caught behind her back. Ho captures beautifully the many layers of feeling that accompany her imprisonment–helplessness, longing for escape, anger at the moment of escape, grave and careful destruction of the walls of the prison. The dance is universal enough so that one can see many prisons in it–Khmer Rouge soldiers; memories of torture; memories of childhood sexual abuse; prejudice; an oppressive society. This is effective political art, making us feel the victims’ suffering so well that denial becomes impossible.

The five solos created by Erkert’s dancers unfortunately cannot approach the standard she sets. Christine Bornarth’s Do I Do I Do focuses on a bride’s anxiety on her wedding day; she attaches props to the wall and dresses in amusing varieties of white. But the dance is too much theater and not enough movement–more mime than dance. Juli Hallihan-Campbell in her One Moment I Was Awake, the Next . . . KAPLOOEY! is a clown doing wild slapstick, but she stops twice to finger the red sequined circus performer’s costume under her clown outfit; the dance tries to amuse us, but I was more interested in the clown’s ambivalent feelings. Mark Schulze’s video Having a Wonderful Time . . . Wish I Was Here starts with some interesting shots but then just records Schulze exploring an abandoned building in Australia. Amy Alt’s untitled improvisation, based on conflicting upper and lower bodies, has interesting movement material and could make a good dance. Her costume–a mix of tutu, garish makeup, tie, vest, and pink knee pads–suggests the same combination of masculine and feminine as her movement.

Aside from Erkert’s, the most successful solo was Anthony Gongora’s Listening Without Ears. He sets the stage with an eye-height candle and a scroll painted with a mosaic of colorful scenes. Circling the candlelit room, he talks about a choice between remaining in darkness or coming into the light. Then the lights rise, and Gongora dances variations on two themes to four French Baroque chamber music pieces, using both the quick, precise, virtuoso movement only he can do and slower movement with almost a narcotic quality. The dance ends with Gongora facing the candle and very slowly letting his right hand grasp his throat.

The completed version of Erkert’s Turn Her White With Stones will be shown along with other works for the company at the Dance Center of Columbia College in March.

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