at the Dance Center of Columbia College, through March 27

There are theatrical ideas so good and so fresh that when you see them onstage they practically stand up, look you in the eye, and say, “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” Such an idea drives Jan Erkert’s new piece, Three Short Solos in White With Audience: the audience and dancers literally change places, which opens up huge new territories.

Of course even a good idea isn’t necessarily easy to pull off. Make bad choices and you can screw up the whole deal–but Erkert makes good ones. She doesn’t put the audience on the spot in any way: we’re supposed to do just what we always do, watch. She doesn’t even hold herself to her original idea: only one of the three dancers performs in the seats, and then only at first. Later they move in and out of the crowd onstage like cowpokes cutting steers. She provides playful, joyous music–Vivaldi’s Concerto for Trumpets in C–that somehow complements the audience’s sheepish looks and exultant feelings: what will happen next, and will I get run over or stepped on? (The evening I was there the music was played live onstage by the Symphony of the Shores Chamber Ensemble, which added to the feeling of spontaneity.) And she keeps it short, so that we wish it weren’t over instead of wishing we could go back to our seats.

Erkert also keeps it light. Cognizant of the crowd-control aspect of getting the audience onstage, she dresses like a gym teacher and wears a whistle on a string, blasting it on occasion. She tells funny, pertinent stories, then stands aside to let the dancers do their stuff. Juli Hallihan-Campbell cavorts among the audience’s folding chairs, sitting primly or vaulting from row to row; sometimes she drops to the floor and we see only her waving arms and legs, as if she were a swimmer lost in the surf. Christine Bornarth flails against the rear wall of the stage, occasionally pinned there by a harsh light. And Julie Worden runs back and forth behind a wall of elaborate scrollwork at one upstage corner, as crazed as a fly trapped in a bottle. Humor makes Three Short Solos work, and the idea behind Three Short Solos makes the humor work: knocked off balance by the switch in places, by our unaccustomed mobility and dangerous proximity to the dancers, we feel giddy and ready for anything.

At the other end of the spectrum is Erkert’s 1991 Forgotten Sensations–though like Three Short Solos the dance feels open-ended, as if its purpose is unspecified but somehow far-reaching. Forgotten Sensations layers movement, music, props, and emotion to produce a complex result in the viewer, an astonishing mix of intensely personal physical sensations and vaguely political ideas about the earth: at the end I found myself thinking, “Remember your mother.” Odors of dirt and crushed grass come from the five wide strips of sod placed about the stage, while scattered apples and oranges are as bright and juicy as hope itself.

The original three dancers in Forgotten Sensations have all been replaced. The solo motherly role–originally performed by Erkert, who’s tall and slender–is here danced by Suet May Ho, who’s at least a head shorter than her two strapping “daughters,” Amy Alt and Worden. These two embody the quick, convulsive motions of survival with particular force, even brutality, yet Ho proves herself more than a match for them, transforming her compact, sturdy frame into the picture of strength and quick responsiveness. When she made herself into a cradle and rocked the other women’s heads in her lap, I wanted to put my head there too. Yet Ho doesn’t remain within the cliche of selfless motherhood: at times she’s peremptory, querulous, greedy, and lost in her own sensations. As the dance evolves it creates a parity between mother and daughters; the advantage of this cast is that it increases the apparent initial distance between parent and children so that their coming together is more unexpected and more moving.

In the other premiere on this program, Two Lives of Women, Erkert tackles what it means to be a woman. Once again she uses gestural and abstract movement to explore the issues: a dancer wipes her own palms together, or strokes someone else’s palms, or folds both hands in prayer. The six dancers (Alt, Bornarth, Hallihan-Campbell, Ho, Abby Kantor, and Worden) are divided into two camps indicated by costume color: the reds are wild tomboys whose spastic motion is flung and awkward, while the blues are more serene but often inhibited and unsure. Once again there’s a rapprochement between different feminine parties. Once again Erkert uses humor to seduce us.

But this time it doesn’t really work. Compared to the other two dances, Two Lives of Women feels flat and closed. Ironically it may be that it’s just too big. Dozens of nondancers (28 on the night I was there) file onstage but mostly just sit off to the side or shout out remarks that tend to contradict each other; Glenda Baker sings; Erkert and Baker recite texts they’ve written themselves, but the revelations they contain are too telegraphic and scattered to have an effect (except for the jokes, which are genuinely funny). Because there are so many pieces to this work and because they’re all intercut, Two Lives of Women feels choppy and unfinished, and the dancing doesn’t have a cumulative effect. Nothing if not ambitious, this work goes off in several directions but reaches none of its destinations.

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