What's a Woman? | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Sidebar

What's a Woman?


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe



at MoMing

December 3 through 6 and 11 through 13


at the Dance Center of Columbia College

December 4 and 5

We look for dance to carry some emotional weight. And when that's missing, the dance can seem empty, no matter how attractive and intelligent. Ze'eva Cohen's potpourri of dances on view recently in her Chicago premiere at the Dance Center of Columbia College were complete and polished smooth, but they seldom moved us--to tears or laughter. On the other hand the performance of Jan Erkert & Dancers at MoMing, though sometimes gimmicky, superficial, or downright confused, showed the mark of a single sensibility at work on questions with some emotional heft.

To judge from these six dances, Erkert is preoccupied partly with the question of what it means to be a woman. How to Be an Other Woman is a satirical, not terribly profound look at the proverbial other woman from her point of view (with a nice modern twist at the end). Right Now features three women making lots of rapid-fire costume changes behind a screen. Although its meaning was not wholly evident, one thing seemed clear--these were women frantically adopting one persona after another. And Circuit (made in response to Erkert's recent trip to Nicaragua) shows us women (and one man) in army green T-shirts and pants--women who have become warriors--dancing to music by Bulgarian women whose high-pitched keening sounds like women left at home, grieving but resigned.

But perhaps the dance most evocative of Erkert's sisterly disposition is the one she did not choreograph herself, White Lily. Choreographed by Ming-shen Ku for Erkert and Carol Bobrow, it has a nice clarity and affection and lots of beautifully articulate movements for the hands and feet. Of course the lily can connote many, sometimes contradictory, things: purity and fragility (and by traditional associations, femininity)--but it also evokes death and a depressing monotony (associations made plain by the lyrics of the Laurie Anderson song, "White Lily," that opens the piece). The dance ends, however, to a lilting Renaissance love ballad. Erkert and Bobrow, wearing long, full dresses with high waists that recall old-fashioned dresses of little girls, move together and gesture toward one another in ways that seem childishly affectionate. In one trancelike moment, the two perform in unison a high, suspended leap, and we see their bare calves and feet draw up into their ballooning, billowing skirts, then--as in a dream a leap might approach flight--float down to the floor.

Of course you can't question femininity without beginning to wonder about masculinity, too. Ways of My Fathers, one of Erkert's premieres, was a solo choreographed for her single male dancer, Michael McStraw. Because this piece consisted of four sections interspersed throughout the program, it could have fallen completely flat, its scattered bits robbed of any impact. But I think the piece actually gained from its dispersion; certainly it helped to unify the concert. The dance opens with McStraw at the rear of the stage caught in a spotlight, looking a little like a deer in your headlights. His suit and tie would be an unusual costume in any dance concert, but they are more shocking in contrast to the music--percussive chanting and drum playing by the Ba-Benzele Pygmies. He moves jerkily, as if possessed. In the second section he's shed his coat but his tie is like a noose; he looks frantically at his watch. He ends literally up against the wall.

The third section showcases one of the most inventive uses of the MoMing space I've seen. At the rear of the performing area is an actual stage, and McStraw lies on its edge, one arm and leg dangling down. (Dressed now only in a Cicero T and pants, he resembles a man asleep.) The lighting flattens out the distinctions between floor, stage, and background, so that the dancer seems suspended in air, writhing and revolving like someone waking up from a bad dream. In the final section McStraw is down to his jockey shorts, and the frantic, possessed movements of the first section have now come under his control. The primitive music somehow no longer jars but is integrated with his actions.

The expression "ways of my fathers" implies the continuity of "primitive" traditions, passed down orally and by example, with which McStraw is initially out of joint but which he ultimately embraces. The phrase also implies the ways of our fathers, modern "civilized" traditions for men: wear a suit, make money, don't be late. Without being conceptually very complex, the piece nevertheless succinctly suggests that men need to embrace more elemental notions of manliness. It also illustrates another of Erkert's running preoccupations: the contrast between more primitive and innocent cultures (Nicaraguan women, Renaissance England) and our own corrupt, superficially civilized world.

The silliest piece on the program was also its most memorable. I laughed out loud at Erkert's solo, Fame & Fortune, in which she plays a "punk ballerina who is trying to figure out the crazy world she lives in through a serious talk with God." I knew I'd hate it. I didn't.

Erkert makes herself into a complete geek. Wearing a ragtag ballet costume (complete with tutu) and huge sneakers, she splays her legs, flexes her feet, and sticks her butt out. She speaks with an exaggerated hillbilly accent. She wants to know why she can't have fame and fortune--well, OK, she'll settle for fortune. No dice, says God (who is of course a woman). It's gimmicky, but Erkert consistently deflates certain myths, until eventually we (and the punk ballerina) see that being a bad dancer, striking certain attitudes ("peace, love, and humility"), and achieving fame and fortune are all irrelevant to dance.

Despite Erkert's evident emotional investment in her work, she manages a sense of humor. The same cannot be said of Ze'eva Cohen. If she has any personal obsessions, they were not apparent in this concert. Instead, it was as if this New York choreographer had said, "Let me show you what I can do"--and proceeded to offer us an Israeli piece (Sephardic Songs), a New York piece (Walkman Variations), a Western civilization piece (Ariadne), a classical piece (Preludes), and a piece derived from no culture (Rainwood). Virtuosic, yes--but in which do we see Ze'eva Cohen?

Rainwood does offer a choreographic challenge. Performed to natural sounds only--bullfrogs belching, birds twittering, thunder, rain pattering on leaves and ground--it has a built-in abstraction that Cohen indulges rather than subverts. In this piece at least, she adopts a scientist's analytical observation: her dancers imitate with an eerie precision the instinctive reflex gestures of animals, poking their heads out, giving an arm or a foot a shake, wriggling and diving with that compulsion we like to think is characteristic only of the lower kingdoms. Add the dappled lighting and the dancers' dappled greenish costumes, and it's a little like watching a nature program on WTTW.

But we're a self-centered species: I kept wondering when I would begin to see a metaphor for human experience emerge from Rainwood. I never did. Although the piece raised some interesting questions--the inherent musicality of unorchestrated natural sounds, for instance--it seemed to require not a scientific but a religious sensibility to illuminate them. Still, Cohen showed a sure instinct here for the striking image: in one instance, all ten dancers press themselves together center stage to coalesce into a gnarled mass of arms, legs, torsos, and heads. Then they slowly, by shuffling their feet, begin to turn en masse. Somehow together they evoke the density and vitality of an ancient tree trunk, its individual fibers living, twisted, but knit.

Rainwood's sense of the choreographer as a detached observer of lower life forms also turned up in Walkman Variations. And perhaps that condescension accounts for the feeling I had throughout this piece that the dancers, here tuned in to the Pointer Sisters, were more like primates than humans. Although this was the most humorous dance on the program, I was never sure whether it was meant to be satirical or not. And certainly nowhere, in this dance or any other, did Cohen poke any fun at herself.

I found the most successful, and only emotional, portion of the program to be the three-part Sephardic Songs, performed to 15th-century Sephardic music. (Cohen was born in Israel.) It opens with a duet for Caryn Heilman and Robert Todd. Todd has the kind of huge, remarkable male body you think never appears anywhere but behind Superman's big red "S"; Heilman is small and delicate, almost birdlike.

Cohen exploits this contrast with another of the concert's most striking images: As the piece opens, Todd is spotlighted, his back to the audience, in a standing crouch. Suddenly a female hand appears on either side of his back. He then turns to face the audience, bringing the woman with him, and in some magical way she seems to float, supine, in the air before him: he doesn't hold her, nor does she appear to hold him. The rest of the duet continues the theme of invisible but powerful ties; it seems to evoke the kind of marital relationship, intense but outward-looking, in which the woman's interests are subordinated to the man's.

In the later sections Cohen explores the basis for this relationship. The third features Todd, and through his boastful, swinging, self-involved movements Cohen suggests the essential masculine nature--he's a warrior, a social being, someone whose self-involvement is the starting point for his creativity and his involvement with others.

I found the second section the most successful, however. Three women (Blanca Alonso, Aviva Geismar, and Christine Zaepfel) stoop as if working in a field; their movements throughout the piece connect with the ground, whether the dancers are sitting gracefully with their backs to the audience or miming the daily round: get up, work, go to bed; get up, work, go to bed. At other times, the women seem not the harvesters but the harvested: they mimic growing plants, twisting up from the floor, their arms and hands also twisting, until their hands burst open in a kind of budding motion. Woman's life is natural, selfless, cyclical; her identity is to have no firm identity. Cohen breathes life into that stock figure the nature goddess, and adds a retrospective poignancy to the final image of the first section: the woman--again supine, this time on the ground--grasped the man's pant leg with her toes as he walked away from her, but he was not detained.

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

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →