Daniel Kirk

Men, bottled up and burning

Skinner/Kirk's "Burn It Backwards" dances in and around the way men try, and sometimes fail, to make relationships

Over the past twenty years, give or take, Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk, founders of skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE, have developed what you might call an autobiographical movement vocabulary: a braiding-together of ballet lifts, modern floor falls, spins and jumps and tumbles that reflect their performing careers in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and the Gregg Bielemeier Dance Project. At OBT they danced in work by Portland choreographer Josie Moseley, and there is a lot of her particular branch of modernism in their choreography.

I saw all that and more in Burn It Backwards, their new evening-length work, which opened Thursday night at BodyVox Dance Center, performed to music by Elliott Smith, played live—extremely live!—by Bill Athens, Galen Clark, Catherine Feeny and Chris Johnedis. Smith, who died in 2003 at a very young 34, lived most of his short life in Portland, and according to Wikipedia (yes, I had to look him up) was strongly influenced by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Of his own songwriting, Smith said, “I don’t really think of it in terms of language, I think about it in terms of shapes.”

Brent Luebbert and James Healey, facing off. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Skinner and Kirk took the title of their piece from a line in Smith’s Sweet Adeline, one of the thirteen songs arranged by Clark specifically for these performances. They chose it, they say in a program note, “because it speaks of forming a new history, both erasing and creating.” That’s a pretty good description of the choreographic process, or the creative process generally, but what Skinner and Kirk actually put on stage was a finished, polished series of dances for themselves and three other men, Chase Hamilton, James Healey and Brent Luebbert, all of them accomplished, well-schooled dancers.

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ChamberVox shakes things up

Chamber Music Northwest and BodyVox dance to the music of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

At heart, dancing is moving to rhythm, and that means it’s almost inseparable from music. There are exceptions and variations: experimental cases when dances are created without sound; the Merce Cunningham/John Cage partnership, in which movement and music were created deliberately in isolation from each other so one would not influence the other, but were performed together; contemporary pieces with more or less arbitrary music that might better be described as “specimens of sound” (which, of course, can make their own sort of music); dances in which extended periods of silence are part of the score. But on the whole dance and music are pretty much happy bedfellows, cohabiting almost by instinct.

A fairy queen cavorting with a donkey: Anna Mara as Titania and Brent Luebbert as Bottom in "Midsummer." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

A fairy queen cavorting with a donkey: Anna Mara as Titania and Brent Luebbert as Bottom in “Midsummer.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

So the relationship between Chamber Music Northwest, Portland’s premiere summer music festival, and BodyVox, one of the city’s leading contemporary dance troupes, seems like a natural, and it’s beginning to be a tradition. This year’s collaboration, which opened Thursday night at the BodyVox studio in Northwest Portland and continues through July 23, brings a third player into the mix, too: that musically savvy playwright, William Shakespeare. Titled Death and Delight, the program pairs a version of Romeo and Juliet set on Sergei Prokofiev’s R&J Suite with a new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream danced to Felix Mendelssohn’s ravishing score.

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Skinner/Kirk goes to church

The dance company's new show at BodyVox dives deep into the mysteries in its sparkling blend of old and new

Eric Skinner climbs atop a box on the stage, which is soon joined by another box, and another, and another. With each box he lifts a foot, slips the cube underneath, brings the other foot upward, and climbs higher. Five other dancers circle around him from below, handing him more boxes, which make the stack higher, the stepping-up trickier, the balance shakier.

At last, towering precariously above the safety of the stage, he squats on the highest box, legs crossed like a yogi in meditation. The room fills with a sound like echoes in a medieval cathedral. Suddenly Skinner grabs the scaffolding inches above his head. The boxes tumble to the ground; he’s dangling in midair. He sways, then drops in a deadweight, risking all. The other dancers catch him and ease him to safety. It’s a leap of faith.

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Skinner/Kirk: town & country

"Nat's Farm" and "Urban Sprawled" bridge the great dance divide in the company's sterling annual show at BodyVox

Vanessa Thiessen embraces life by jumping: high and rhythmically and joyously.  You can see it in her eyes, in her smile, in the stretch of her arms and legs, as she breathes in the sea air, smelling the salt, feeling the summer sun.

That solo takes place about midway through Nat’s Farm, Daniel Kirk’s and Eric Skinner’s new piece, which premiered on Thursday night at BodyVox as the second half of Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble’s annual concert.

From left: Thiessen, Kirk, Skinner in "Nat's Farm." jingziphotography.com

From left: Thiessen, Kirk, Skinner in “Nat’s Farm.” jingziphotography.com

Nat’s Farm was made last summer on Martha’s Vineyard, during a three-week Bessie Schonberg Choreographic Mentorship Residency at The Yard, an artist’s colony for which Schonberg, one of the founding mothers of American modern and contemporary dance, served as artistic advisor for some years before her death in 1997.  It is a wonderful breeding ground for dance. Thiessen, who like Kirk and Skinner is a former Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer, participated in the residency, as did composer Tim Ribner, who is responsible for the terrific score.

The piece begins with Ribner walking toward the musicians, beating a large shell solemnly and steadily against a small rock, while Native American storyteller Kristina Hook-Leslie chants a recorded “thank you for the gift, thank you for my life, thank you for the ocean, thank you for the wind, thank you for it all.” The dancers – Skinner, Kirk, Thiessen, Brennan Boyer and Holly Shaw – arrive on stage, dancing with ritualistic gravitas as the band starts to play, their steps a little  too on the beat.

Skinner and Kirk, at angles. jingziphotography.com

Skinner and Kirk, at angles. jingziphotography.com

The music, performed by Ribner, Max Ribner and Michael Dougherty, builds, sounding  like  waves hitting the beach, and the dancers shift to high-energy fluidity, executing pirouettes and lifts in a melding of modern and classical technique,  in response to the music and each other. I think of  Isadora Duncan, standing on the beach in Northern California early in the last century, inspired by the curve and curl and energy of the Pacific to develop a form of dance that is rooted in nature.  Skinner and Kirk have been going to Martha’s Vineyard for more than thirty years, and the impetus for Nat’s Farm comes from the Atlantic, as well as various occupants of the island: Hook-Leslie is a member of the Wampanoag tribe; Thiessen’s solo, Skinner says, was “inspired by two-week-old baby goats that we met the first day we were on the island.”

While it’s not a classic like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Ribner’s score meets Kierkegaard’s requirement “that the music not appear as an accompaniment but reveal the idea.” That’s particularly true  for Thiessen’s solo, a kind of scat-song, and the trio for her, Skinner and Kirk that precedes it. In the latter case, the Latin-flavored music changed the ritualistic tone of what came earlier, and it was danced with such ebullience and effervescence that I stopped taking notes, the better to enjoy it.  What followed Thiessen’s frolicking dance was a ragtime tune for Skinner and Kirk, the lead-in for a duet that is all about their history with each other, the time they’ve spent dancing, and loving, and living and working together, those signature lifts of theirs saying it all about tenderness and support.

Nat’s Farm ends as it began, with the rest of the cast joining them onstage, then walking off quietly as Hook-Leslie finishes her story: “It’s a good thing, it is, we’re all a part of the ocean, I try to have these kind of talks with the little ones because if I don’t say it it will get lost, I don’t want it to get lost, I don’t want us to get lost and forgotten.”

Kirk and Skinner founded their company twenty-seven years ago, in 1998; they’ve been making work for a long time, and in Nat’s Farm that experience shows.  It is beautifully crafted and structured, visually interesting, and its dance, music, and text are very well-integrated indeed. If some of the lyrical moments are a bit too smoothly so, making them look mechanical rather than heartfelt, that is easily changed. My only real quibble is with the costuming: street wear combined with practice clothes, the woven, tailored shirts interfering with the line of the movement.

The company in "Urban Sprawled." jingziphotography.com

The company in “Urban Sprawled.” jingziphotography.com

That was really true of Urban Sprawled, which opened the program, and which was originally made by Skinner in 2007.  It is performed by the same cast as Nat’s Farm with the addition of the elegant Mari Kai Juras, who also dances with Eowyn Emerald. The crisp white shirts didn’t fit anyone very well: post-modernism notwithstanding, as my seatmate commented, there is a difference between ordinary clothes and costumes. Having said that, the neckties and suit jackets worn with slacks by the three men are part of the urban feel of the piece, just as the unison choreography, some of it looking like morning calisthenics, contributes to the anonymous feel of large cities. One witty section is reminiscent of Paul Taylor’s acidly funny Cloven Kingdom – no surprise there, since Kirk and Skinner performed in it when dancing with OBT. In general, the choreography is highly athletic for both men and women, with Thiessen holding the stage as she has been doing since she was a little party guest years ago in OBT’s Nutcracker.

Opening night had the atmosphere of a family reunion, speaking of OBT, with the ballet company’s artistic director Kevin Irving in the audience, as were a couple of board members, some long-time company supporters, and a chic-looking Alison Roper, lately retired as a principle dancer from OBT’s stage. Several had come specifically to see Thiessen, who left OBT for San Francisco and Michael Smuin’s company when the artistic directorship shifted from James Canfield to Christopher Stowell. She is now back in Portland, freelancing still in the Bay Area as performer and choreographer – and now, like Skinner and Kirk, a seasoned artist who, also like them, knows exactly what she’s doing on stage. Young companies, when they’re as good as Nederlands Dans Theater 2, which performed in Portland last week as part of the White Bird season, are wonderful to watch, to be sure. But there’s immense pleasure to be had in seeing the well-honed artistry that comes only with experience. Examples? Skinner and Kirk’s duet in Nat’s Farm and Thiessen’s solo. I thank them for the gift.

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Skinner Kirk Dance Ensemble repeats its program at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 19-21, and 2 p,m, Saturday, Feb. 21, at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 N.W. 17th Ave. Ticket information is here.

Dancing inside and out of the lines

Review: Skinner/Kirk's "Within the Lines" thinks entertainingly about fear, restraint, creativity, and crossing borders

A lot of the time, Eric Skinner’s new hour-long dance piece Within the Lines isn’t. Skinner and his four fellow dancers in the Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble spend the hour onstage at BodyVox Dance Center traversing the lines – slipping below or between them, stretching them into different shapes, hog-tying them into corners, wrapping themselves up in them, tripping or tromping on them, using them as springboards, snapping them in and out of shape.

It’s an always intriguing, often beautiful exploration of a question that’s physical, metaphorical, and even spiritual: what are our limits? Well, the line is wavy. But it’s fun and invigorating to watch as these five bodies try to figure it out.

Shaw and Skinner, all wrapped up. Photo: Christopher Peddecord

Shaw and Skinner, all wrapped up. Photo: Christopher Peddecord

Where do the lines come from? Immediately, from the mind and fabrication of artist Sumi Wu, who supplies the dancers with a series of elegant forms, or booby traps, or possibilities, or however you want to think of them. Consisting mainly of very strong stretch fabric and possibly plastic slats (program notes don’t make their construction clear), they’re like little string theories for movement, solid yet malleable, shifting with and against the performers. At various times they seem like clothes lines, circus high-wire ropes, swimming-pool lane markers, big-box gift ribbon, telephone wires, crime-scene tapes. One semi-flexible structure – the same one used in 2012’s Juxtaposed? – is like a cave-sized, see-through hexagonal prism, creating a barrier and a small performing space at the same time. As lighted by technical director James Mapes (who also did some of the fabrication), the dance between performers and set pieces is a rising and falling mystery, a visual banquet.

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Daniel Kirk (foreground) and Eric Skinner in "Flying Over Emptiness." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Somewhere amid the bird-screeches, stark film closeups and intense physical exertions of Flying Over Emptiness, it’s good to remember two words.

“For Mary,” the program note says simply, as if in an afterthought.

Except that the Mary in the dedication of Josie Moseley’s splendid and deeply moving new dance, which premiered Thursday night at BodyVox Dance Center, is no afterthought. Choreographer Mary Oslund, whom Moseley has known and worked with in the tight-knit circle of Portland contemporary dance for more than 20 years, is the reason the dance exists.

“I made this for my friend,” Moseley said before the opening of Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble’s new four-work program, “and I don’t know what’s happening with her.”

For some time Oslund’s been dealing with the bewildering effects of a neurological disease that has caused her to lose her muscle coordination. For anyone, it’s a painful and life-altering condition. For a dancer, it strikes to the core of who you are and what you do.

Flying Over Emptiness is far from the sort of “victim art” that Arlene Croce notoriously decried in her 1994 essay Discussing the Undiscussable, in which she declared that Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here, about AIDS and terminal illness, was unreviewable and she wouldn’t watch it. It was a short-sighted argument, which was clear at the time and has only become clearer. We’re human, and to be human is to break down. Eventually, even Faust had to accept that. How can artists not explore such perilous and poorly charted territory?

Moseley’s dance is a work of total theater, and it’s less about Oslund’s disease than the resulting realization of the isolation, the unknowability, of life: things happen, and we don’t understand them, and we reach out, but there are chasms that are uncrossable, even between the closest of companions. We are, indeed, alone. We can’t even understand ourselves. How can we understand what’s happening inside someone else?

Portland’s dance scene has its formalist creators, and its comedians, and its experimentalists and nostalgists and improvisationalists and romanticists and lovers of spectacle. Moseley may be the city’s gutsiest, most dramatic dancemaker: she jumps into the emotional deep end, and then rigorously shapes what she sees.

Flying Over Emptiness is utterly committed, fiercely honed, beautiful like a bare rock in a flattened landscape. It has just two dancers, company leaders Daniel Kirk and Eric Skinner, who move tensely and tautly on a darkened stage, like deeply knotted muscles straining to straighten out. The exertion is riveting. Above them, on a large screen, a film by Janet McIntyre rolls by in a slow black-and-white rush: images of booted feet walking in a wood, silent facial studies of Moseley and Oslund, gestures, objects. Muted lighting, by Mark LaPierre, suggests a tension between stage and screen, and the sound score by Earwax is insistent and gorgeous in a compellingly awful and natural way: scrapes, bleats, the screechings of birds of prey.

Where does your eye go when you’re watching? McIntyre’s film certainly draws attention, and at times you can almost miss what Skinner and Kirk are doing. At other times, the dancers capture you completely. The scene is fractured, fighting against itself, and I think that’s part of what makes it work so well: a battle is going on. There are many ways to look at this duality, and one is this: we have physical lives, and something else that is more than physical, or at least different – something obscured and ghostly and fleeting but also very real. Try to understand it and you will fail, but you will catch glimpses and hints. At times Flying Over Emptiness reminded me of Lear on the heath, not for the old king’s foolishness but for his deeply dawning realization of things he hadn’t seen.

Strangely, the outcome of this predestined failure is not futility or bleakness but a kind of human resonance, a brief immersion in the profound. It’s not solace, exactly, or even acceptance. Maybe it’s simply a recognition of the larger spaces of the unknown. You could call Flying Over Emptiness existential, but that’s only a word. It simply is.

“I don’t even care what anyone thinks of it,” Moseley said of the dance. She wasn’t being imperious, or defensive, or dismissive of her audience. She was simply saying that satisfying the art came first – that acceptance and applause, as nice as they  would be, were secondary. Flying Over Emptiness made me cry. And I mean that in the best possible way.

 All in all, Skinner/Kirk’s program is a hearteningly grown-up evening of dance, less obsessed with the extreme athleticism of hard bodies (although the bodies are plenty athletic enough) than with the ways that movement ideas blend into the ways in which we lead our lives.

Skinner and Kirk in "One." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

If Flying Over Emptiness is about isolation, Skinner’s aerial dance One is about the possibilities of togetherness. He and Kirk first performed this piece in 1997, and it’s held up exceptionally well, both for its quiet physical bravura and its suggestions of tenderness, trust and intimacy. It felt good to make its acquaintance again. The piece has a lovely lyricism, aided considerably by the accompanying recorded voice of the great Frederica Von Stade singing Joseph Canteloube’s soaring Songs of the Auvergne.

Belmont, choreographed by Skinner and Kirk and danced by Kirk, Elizabeth Burden, Zachary Carroll and Holly Shaw, is a light and congenial exercise in partnering, danced to music by Bach, Martijn Hostetler, and the late Portland native Lou Harrison, whose ambitious musical eclecticism is a good match for dance.

The company opened with Skinner’s fluid and quietly captivating Obstacle Allusions, which premiered last June with the same six dancers: Kirk, Skinner, Carroll, Shaw, Heather Jackson and Margo Yohner. I liked it last year and like it more on a second viewing. It’s an unassuming yet clever dance, touching down on ballet vocabulary but loosening up the language, and flowing easily into pairings that combine naturally into male-male, female-female, and female-male: just life the way it is. The hints of social dancing and the costumes, by Skinner and BodyVox’s Ashley Roland, suggest a revisitation of the 1950s. Once again the fine pianist Bill Crane accompanies the movement, to excellent effect.

Last year I fretted a bit in print over Skinner’s decision to end the dance not with Crane’s piano but with the fading scratches of a recorded dance band. This time around, I liked that choice: It suggests that this is a memory-piece, a reverie, an idyll. It’s a good thing sometimes that artists ignore what critics have to say.

BodyVox’s presentation of Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble continues Thursdays-Saturdays through February 11. Ticket and schedule information is here.

 

 

 

 

 
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