Jan Erkert & Dancers

at the Athenaeum Theatre, April 3-6

By Terry Brennan

In the last few years Jan Erkert & Dancers has emerged as the city’s leading modern dance company, a position solidified by the company’s selection to tour as part of the DanceLink project. In a competition in Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Florida, Erkert won for the best modern company in the state and the Trinity Irish Dance Company for the best folk troupe.

Erkert’s rise to the top is a feat of perseverance as much as talent. She’s never lacked ambition, though she did briefly stop choreographing when she turned 30 and realized that modern dance was a ghetto and that success in Chicago didn’t mean much in the larger scale of things. To memorialize the occasion she created a dance, performed at MoMing, in which she laughed rather bitterly at her fantasies of going to Hollywood or making dances for Broadway. Even within the last five years she’s talked drolly about how her dance teacher in Detroit had two famous pupils: Madonna and her. Erkert has no illusions about living in a ghetto, but I suspect that she longs to escape it.

This concert showed signs that she’s trying to cross over. For one thing, instead of creating several dances she focused on one, Unweavings. The program was filled out with a repertory dance, Turn Her White With Stones; two dances by company members; and an off-the-cuff three-minute jazz dance performed by Erkert herself. She’s tried to make Unweavings more accessible in the same way that mainstream companies do with their dances–through striking costumes, set design, and music. Not that Erkert is any stranger to the importance of theatrical elements; her Sensual Spaces included a chorus of more than 50 people performing sacred music, she stripped the performing space back to its brick walls, and her six female dancers wore black negligees.

The word for Unweavings’s visual and aural environment is lush. Laurie Wohl’s dusty red and orange strips of cloth hang from the ceiling like shredded curtains. Kris Cahill’s costumes are richly colored purple and red textured leotards that make the dance seem as if it were taking place deep in a velvet armchair or in the Edwardian sitting rooms of Henry James novels. The aural environment is simpler but not austere: Louise Cloutier sings wordless songs as Liz Cifani and Kari Gardner play harps in a live performance of Gustavo Leone’s original score. Together they create a soft, transparent environment that recalls a fairy woodland.

Erkert plays with these images. In much of the first half of Unweavings we half-see the dancers through one, two, or three layers of hanging cloth. It’s like seeing through a mist, suggesting to me ordinary sight clouded by ordinary ego. As the dance progresses, the dancers move the walls of cloth like curtains, creating different playing spaces.

The texture of Erkert’s movement fits the images: it’s simultaneously delicate, polished, soft, and winding, and like the best of modern dance, it precisely evokes complex emotional states. While both ballet and jazz dance tend to produce strong or overwhelming emotion, modern dance evokes subtler shades of feeling; this makes it difficult for modern dance to appeal to fans of other dance forms as well as reward its own fans. In the first half of Unweavings the feelings evoked are so delicate that they’re often ephemeral, leaving an impression of either mist-filled fairy woods or perhaps singles bars clouded with hormones and cigarette smoke. Erkert has also borrowed some jazz movements, particularly spectacular lifts, from members of her troupe who were jazz dancers. But generally she doesn’t use these movements to create a showy dance, as many jazz companies do, instead creating a mood or telling a story.

Here Erkert allows the story to arise from the choreography rather than illustrating a narrative with movement. As she explains in a press release, she was inspired by Wohl’s “serenely meditative sculptures” in which “canvas [is] meticulously unwoven, rewoven and decorated with Wohl’s own iconography.” Erkert takes this as a metaphor for “the fabric of relationships–how people stay together and how they detach.”

These ideas start to emerge in the second half, when dancers pull aside the hanging cloth to reveal a pair of tall dancers (Ginger Farley and Jason Ohlberg) who had been embracing in the background. Their pas de deux is slow and almost somber, not filled with passion or excitement but with long, meaningful gazes into each other’s eyes. After a long look, Farley suddenly takes a turning jump into Ohlberg’s arms; they look in the same direction for several moments before he releases her. Ohlberg gradually becomes the partner that Farley depends on–or rather a servant who keeps kneeling before her. As Ohlberg crawls across the stage on his hands and knees, Farley stands on his back like the captain of a ship. He stops crawling, and she does a headstand on his shoulder; when she falls off the headstand onto her feet, she looks away. He runs to her and leaps onto her shoulder, perching for a few moments upside down, his feet pointing to the ceiling. He falls off her and disappears as the other dancers clear the stage of the curtains. Because both Farley and Ohlberg are big dancers, their lifts seem riskier than others, communicating a life-and-death desperation.

The torturous evolution of their relationship continues throughout the dance: when another woman (Regina Klenjowski) appears, she and Ohlberg are immediately attracted, but their attraction has the feeling of cold sexual acrobatics. It gradually becomes clear that Klenjowski does warmly care about Ohlberg, but that he is still caught in the role of Farley’s servant. Ohlberg finds Farley again, and again she rides his back as he crawls across the stage. But Klenjowski comes up to take Farley off Ohlberg’s back. Afterward Ohlberg is like a wild man, but he submits meekly and follows Klenjowski. The dance’s picture of Ohlberg slowly succumbing to Farley’s will and the consequences of his surrender have an almost novelistic depth. Penetrating to the heart of the matter like this is the hallmark of Erkert’s intelligent choreography.

But it isn’t easy following Erkert on her journey. My companion–a creative, intelligent painter–didn’t see any of the narrative I saw; she perceived only fairies in the woods and thought that the dance was just empty flash. Other people have complained that Erkert’s dances are too intellectual, too abstract and cold. I think that the problem is that her dances are couched in the language of modern dance movement. Mastering the language is very hard–for me it’s been harder than learning to do calculus on a differentiable manifold–but perseverance opens up a new world. Asking Erkert to abandon her language would be like asking a physicist not to use so many equations.

As might be expected, the dances by other company members aren’t as strong. Inward and Outward Round by Mark Schulze (actually a former company member) seems to be organized around a formal device–a circle of dancers looking either inward or outward. It has an accomplished style, combining formal movement with vignettes suggesting strong emotion, such as a man holding a woman in a dip for a long time. It has a seamless construction and great lighting by Ken Bowen. But it doesn’t engage an audience emotionally because nothing is at stake. Ginger Farley in Blue Moon, which she danced in place of the injured Carrie Hanson, uses three or four movement qualities to suggest three or four different moods. The moods suggest a story but remain too sketchy to have an impact.

Unweavings is certainly an artistic success, but it won’t be a crossover hit. Perhaps the reason lies in Erkert’s inability to make her dances accessible: they require intelligence and the training to really see modern dance. Yet surely there is a middle ground, with spectacle and luscious dancing for the uninitiated, emotional biographies for the initiated, and a ladder between the two worlds.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of “Unweavings” (Jan Erkert & Dancers) by William Frederking.