Jan Erkert & Dancers

at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall of Northwestern University, June 6


Bryant Ballet

at Lincoln Park High School, June 4 and 5

Multiculturalism is a sort of gift giving between cultures, and multicultural work tries to combine different cultural forms as a way of explaining or reconciling different values. But multiculturalism often fails because one culture cannot understand the meaning of the gift it’s been given. And sometimes multicultural artists simply place the forms side by side, just as the Art Institute has placed medieval armor and African masks a short distance from each other. To actually fuse forms requires entering another culture’s world and making one culture’s values understandable to the other.

Darius Milhaud’s The Creation of the World was one of the first successful multicultural works of the modern era, mixing classical music and swing-era jazz. Milhaud approached this fusion on strictly formal terms–he used the complex chords of jazz as a springboard to using several keys simultaneously in a technique (radical at the time) called polytonality. Milhaud uses polytonality to create some beautiful effects: a shimmering depth in the music that’s like Debussy in an opium dream. The work captures a moment when the African encounter with Western music that jazz embodies coincided with Western avant-garde experiments. But for the most part Milhaud did not integrate the jazz and the classical sections; a blues section and a swing jazz section are easily recognizable. Milhaud tried to respond to the gift of jazz, but in the end he seems more interested in his own experiments in polytonality.

Since The Creation of the World was originally written as ballet music, it must have seemed natural to the Symphony of the Shores to commission a dance from Jan Erkert for it. But Erkert leans toward creating sumptuous visual images–with which her dance is packed–rather than toward bringing music alive. She responds to the details of Milhaud’s score–in the soft sections the choreography is always still or slow, and in the driving sections it’s always bravura–but she often misses its overall character, its irreverence and wit.

The beginning and end of the dance are the most striking, because Erkert uses the depth of the Pick-Staiger hall to reflect the depth that, as she explained afterward, she heard in the music. As the musicians came onstage, five dancers in rust-colored costumes also appeared there, in the aisles, and on the balcony surrounding the stage. The dancers eventually all made their way onto the stage, where two (Krenly Guzman and Eric Salisbury) sat on cubes with their heads resting on their closed fists. Two dancers (Suet Mai Ho and Christine Bornarth) stood behind the orchestra, while a fifth (Julie Worden) led the conductor to his place. At the end, four of the dancers leapt from the stage into the auditorium, reappeared on the balcony, and eventually sank out of sight beneath its rail.

The wit and sense of space here are not apparent in the body of the dance, however, which takes place on the stage in front of a small orchestra. Erkert develops no story line or other devices to maintain our interest but instead simply reflects the dynamics of the music. She throws in jazz-dance movements for the jazz sections and ballet movements for the classical sections, but the bulk of the dancing is modern. All of the choreography has Erkert’s customary clarity and strength, and her dancers show their customary excellence. But modern dance is not a useful response to the issues of multiculturalism raised by the music, and Erkert’s naive use of jazz and ballet just places the two forms side by side.

Homer Bryant doesn’t so much try to fuse two cultural forms as embrace them both. His Rap Ballet uses rap to explain ballet, and in the course of the work he explains a lot about why European American culture values ballet and African American culture values rap.

The Rap Ballet is a lecture-demonstration piece Bryant takes to Chicago-area schools. To get his message across, Bryant raps about ballet while students from his school demonstrate. At a recent performance Bryant used hordes of school-age performers who danced, held up placards that emphasized his ideas, and clustered onstage watching the other dancers. It was a lot of fun, with high-flying male dancers and twirling ballerinas. At first Bryant is dressed in a Vegas-style tuxedo with long tails, but later he comes out in homeboy clothes, complete with a backward baseball cap. Rapping into a microphone he goes quickly through a ballet barre, introducing all the basic moves, “in French, you know.” A section of men leaping and twirling is followed by a section of women on pointe, danced to a Harry Connick Jr. version of Sinatra’s “Girl Talk.”

Bryant’s rap always cuts to the core of why he loves ballet. He says, “The music is breath, the movement is love.” He emphasizes that ballet takes discipline, balance, and a fusion of mind and body. He reassures us that no one has the perfect ballet body and insists that ballet takes work, both physical and mental. In the last section, chants of “Use your mind, improve your brain” and “Study! Study! Study! Study!” drive his point home.

Bryant’s rap tells it like it is, without pretension or evasion; rap has always tried to tell it like it is. When Bryant, a former principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, says that ballet is about love and that it requires immense dedication, he touches on one of the secrets of European dominance: the combination of the Protestant work ethic and Christian humility. For young people, black or white, to be successful in America they must absorb this set of values. With the directness that is an African American cultural value, Bryant tells Chicago students how to excel in a European American world.