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.
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.