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.
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.
Skinner began to create Within the Lines by thinking of fear as a motivator, and then moved into thinking about tension, perspective, and space. For a choreographer, or any artist, really, those are central questions of both form and content. It’s not too much of a stretch to say they approach philosophy. And their ramifications ripple into everyday life, from how we get out of bed in the morning to the way we think about the functioning of the culture itself.
There are no libertarians in the world of matter and physics, which has inviolable rules and predictable consequences if you try to ignore them. In a practical, palpable sense, we can never live in the land of the free: transgress the universe too rashly, and it’ll slap us down. We live in a universe of restraints, continually pushing and pulling us, channeling us, limiting and occasionally emancipating us, defining what sort of movement through time and space is possible.
Dance, at least in one sense, is a testing of those limits. How high can we jump? How much can we bend? How far can we lean without falling over? What happens when our bodies meet other bodies, also in flight? How fast can we go until there’s no more speed? The variations seem endless, but the truths of bodies in motion still hold.
As intriguing as the underlying questions are, they don’t mean a lot if the dancing doesn’t capture our interest, and it’s no surprise that Skinner/Kirk holds up that end of the bargain wonderfully well. This is a vividly physical small company of dancers, taut and disciplined and elastic, attuned to traditional patterns but fully at ease with the contemporary approach of using the whole body as a fit vehicle for expression. Skinner and partner Daniel Kirk have been dancing together for nearly 30 years, back at the beginnings of Oregon Ballet Theatre, as longtime and continuing BodyVox mainstays, and with their own company since 1998. Their background in ballet, aerial dance, contemporary dance (both worked for a spell with the inventive Gregg Bielemeier) and the hybrid upbeat Americana at the root of BodyVox is all visible in their own work, which is part of the family but distinctly itself. Brennan Boyer is a former OBT soloist; and Holly Shaw, who has deep ballet background and also works with young contemporary choreographers such as Éowyn Emerald, has a home base at BodyVox. And Katarina Svetlova, who began dancing with OBT as a teenager and was a principal at Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, Germany, before returning to Portland, brings an unrelenting focus and expansive skills to what’s become a tight ensemble. The movement can be crawlingly slow or purposely wayward, or come in bursts, briefly unfettered. Svetlova and Skinner are often partnered, as are Shaw and Kirk, although things mix around. Skinner lays in a few jokes – not the carefree optimistic humor that distinguishes much of BodyVox’s work, or the absurd humor that Bielemeier mines, but moments of comedy for release and relief.
And although the issue is tension and restraint – how free can we be without becoming formless? – Within the Lines is very clearly formed: Skinner’s made sharp choices about how far things can stretch, and in which directions. It’s a musical dance, and the music isn’t wandering or ambient, it’s melodic and structured. The soundtrack’s a hodgepodge but of a piece, with selections from Erik Friedlander, Osvaldo Golijov, Jenõ Jandó, Kid Loco, Arvo Pärt, Trent Reznor, and Amon Tobin.
Yes, sometimes things stretch, almost until they snap. But Within the Lines makes a virtue of restraint and its inherent ability to create shape. When the lights come down on the evening’s final, memorable moment, there’s no doubt about it: this is the end.
Within the Lines repeats at 7:30 p.m. April 19, 24, 25, and 26. Ticket and schedule information here.