Jan Erkert & Dancers

February 24, 2000

Jan Erkert & Dancers in 1998 Love Poems, with dancers Paul Cipponeri and Kim Nelsonin.
Photo by Erika Dufour Photography, courtesy of Jan Erkert & Dancers

Transformation in Chicago

Jan Erkert & Dancers

The Dance Center of Columbia College

Chicago, IllinoisFebruary 24?26, 2000

Reviewed by Nancy G. Moore

Celebrating its twentieth anniversary season, Jan Erkert & Dancers premiered Streaming?an elaborately conceived study of “the transformation of energy from one form to another.” Erkert’s collaborators included environmental designer B.J. Krivanek, lighting designer Margaret Nelson and composer Ushio Torikai, who contributed a powerful arrangement of Tendai and Shingon Buddhist monks chanting the sutras. So compelling was this music in tone and rhythm that at times it made watching the choreography seem superfluous. The relation among chanting, dancing and transformation was not clear.

Erkert structured Streaming in four parts, drawing on a loose analogy between geographical and bodily transformation. Their titles referred to psychological states as well as to the ebb and flow of water: “Parched Dreams,” “Saturated Wings,” “Stagnant Wanting” and “Streaming, Dreaming.” Between sections, Erkert recited her own poetry, alluding in word and gesture to emotional qualities that came up in the dances. These haiku-like solos were among the few choreographic moments in Streaming where Erkert seemed to respond choreographically to the minimalist aesthetics of Japanese Buddhism, which played such a predominant role in the musical aspect of this production. “Saturated Wings,” in which Krenly Guzman performed a softly lit, slow-motion ritual with a shallow bowl of water, required that he have the stage presence of a Noh actor to avoid looking like a postmodern version of orientalism.

“Parched Dreams,” first performed as a solo in 1987 but now developed as a group piece, could function as a complete work in itself. The dancers, dressed in loose-fitting beige garments, whirl with their hair undone through dry, autumn “leaves” that have been strewn across the stage. They take on the weightless, eddying character of objects blown about by unseen forces. Soloist Kim Nelson danced like a reincarnation of Sybil Shearer, in which technique functioned merely as a means to enchant the audience with a glimpse of the supernatural. Unlike the other sections of Streaming, this one foregoes Buddhist chanting for excerpts from Kevin Volans’s White Man Sleeps and music performed by the Tallis Scholars.

As a collaborative effort, the most effective section of Streaming was “Stagnant Wanting,” in which Erkert portrays stagnation as a seething stillness from which life emerges. Here, the composer Torikai added a live percussion section to the recorded arrangement of chanting. With the additional help of costume designer Atalee Judy, Erkert created the impression of explosive, pent-up energy. The dancers, dressed in orange jumpsuits with black kneepads and aviator goggles, interrupted themselves in the middle of balances as if struck by invisible bullets. They screeched across the stage without sliding safely into first base. One dancer, propelled by his partner, swung up onto a back wall and ran across it for a few seconds before gravity got him. This is dancing that stopped just short of losing control. When presented in the midst of Buddhist chanting, where transformation comes with breath control, such dance vividly revealed the ability of the human body to surpass its own limitations.