Jan Erkert is a dancemaker, teacher, and head of the Department of Dance at University of Illinois, Urbana/ Champaign. As artistic director of Jan Erkert & Dancers from 1979 to 2000, she began exploring the concepts of yield/push and reach/pull to differentiate qualities of effort and the focus of energy. This exploration of directing energy became the basis of her teaching philosophy. While a professor of dance at Columbia College Chicago from 1990 to 2006, she received the 1999 Excellence in Teaching Award. Author of
Harnessing the Wind: The Art of Teaching Modern Dance, Erkert is a popular teacher in the American College Dance Festival Association of both students and faculty. Her naturalistic movement style evokes the primitive, with a seemingly effortless ballet underpinning. Lynn Colburn Shapiro observed Erkert’s classes and spoke with her during a June guest residency at The Dance Center, Columbia College Chicago.
Why did you have the students roll across the floor? It’s based on movements of infants. Yielding to gravity––not flopping, but finding the yield and push––the students begin to discover that yielding isn’t always about the places in your body you’re thinking about. I’m asking them to wake up their nerve cells and touch sensations.
If I yield in a grand plié, I also have to reach. I ask the students to imagine the same yield and push related to a jump, to see it in their mind’s eye. I want them to feel the oppositional pulls of earth and sky resonate in the bones, and let weight and momentum carry the impulse.
How does your use of everyday gesture figure in teaching technique? I start pedestrian and lead them into more skilled, stylistic actions. They know how to walk, and they know how to swing their arms in opposition. They’ve all practiced that. Then I can begin to guide it. The more advanced the class, the less the pedestrian actions––although when I teach professionals I go back to pedestrian. I see it as a full circle, and they have to work like hell to do it.
How can students apply your concepts to other aspects of their training?
For example, the concept of yield: In improvisation, I have them first write in a notebook about their lives. Where do you yield in your life, and where don’t you? Then we practice yielding with each other. Yield is an idea full of life and psychology as much as an actual physical force. By flipping back and forth from everyday life to physicality, students can take the concepts beyond my classroom.
You have such strong ballet technique. What do you tell students without that background?
My whole learning trajectory after ballet was for connectivity, flow, and understanding. I had to give up ballet temporarily to find that. I remember teaching when I got out of college, saying to students, “Throw it away! Throw it away!” And one of them asked, “How do you throw it away if you don’t have it?” I had to build students up while unleashing them, get the spine and core working first, the legs later. If I get the spine connected, the rest comes from that––like a starfish. I’ve learned to do that through Body-Mind Centering, anatomy, kinesiology, yoga, and Alexander Technique.
If you do one form too much for too long, you get frozen into that style. That’s why we do ballet day after day. You get better at doing ballet, but it can stifle creativity.
How does your choreographic process carry over into your teaching? Idea-based exploration is no different in technique than in choreography. I did a piece about love. Where does it reside in the body? Is it in the heart? In the stomach? What comes if I move from the heart or the stomach? When you do a spiral, think of actually twisting your heart. The image of moving your heart first is really different from moving in a muscular-skeletal way.
How does your class prepare a student for the stage?
I make them stand still for a God-awful three minutes! You have to be able to be still. You can’t be present if you’re fixing your hair, scratching your nose, or pulling up your tights. All dance training is about focus and concentration. You need to have presence in the body to be that absolute, charismatic thing onstage.
I see very accomplished dancers who aren’t grounded in themselves. They somehow manage the steps and have the outward form, the adoption of style without the principles behind it. Or I see peripheral showmanship. They’ll do a modern split leap but there’s nothing inside. The everyday gestures get dancers back inside themselves. The great ones, like Baryshnikov, embody a sense of technique from the inside out. That’s where I’m going. I want that to be dancing.
Photo by Bill Starr, Courtesy Colorado College Summer Dance Festival