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.”
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.
Burn It Backwards, like most of Skinner and Kirk’s work, is about relationships: February, 2015’s concert, for instance, included Nat’s Farm, which is basically about our (meaning humanity’s) relationship to the environment, specifically the ocean, since the farm of the title is situated on Martha’s Vineyard. Last year’s Church, which I did not see, is about the many ways in which we do and do not relate to religion.
What the company is dancing about this year is the many ways men relate to each other, or fail to, and also about American social and political norms. The show begins with Bottle Up and Explode!, which introduces the dancers and establishes the tone, with the band set up at the back of the stage, backlit in purple (this lighting changes with the music), and the dancers entering the space costumed rather drably in khaki pants and knitted shirts in various shades of beige. They don’t look particularly bottled up, but they do explode from time to time in big jumps with swinging arms, sometimes in unison, more often in solos and duets, with the occasional huddle, and a great many strenuous lifts.
Without giving a blow-by-blow, song-by-song account of the 60-minute piece (there is no intermission), let me focus on some individual moments that have stuck with me. The five men falling to the floor in a circle, arms outstretched in the shape of a sunburst. A section that begins with Skinner eying a rectangular set piece that looks like a big mesh screen as it descends from the ceiling, and pirouetting like mad: A second set piece comes down and traps him, with the walls seeming to close in, and I couldn’t help thinking of political refugees kept in detention by American immigration officials. This made my stomach churn, as did another section with those set pieces (conceived by Skinner and designed and fabricated by Sumi Wu, who for the past several years has done a lot of beautiful work for the company) in which the whole cast is confined behind one panel, trying to claw its way out.
Kirk and Skinner’s beautiful duet danced to I Better Be Quiet Now made me remember my own long marriage. They moved quietly, closely, tenderly and eloquently, doing the hardest thing to do on stage, projecting stillness and a kind of peace. At one point, Skinner lowers Kirk to the floor in what’s called in ballet a fish dive, something I’ve never seen a male dancer do. But these two know precisely what they’re doing when they dance together. Over time they have made and performed many duets about their relationship. In an early one they took to the air. Nat’s Farm featured one that was appropriately earthbound.
Male friendship can be combative, and a duet for Healey and Luebbert is certainly that, with a lot of elegant pushing and pulling. But physical exuberance, too, is part of the male ethos, and Chase, who has also danced with Polaris Dance Theatre, TopShakeDance and BodyVox, expresses that in a virtuosic solo that’s a knockout.
Burn It Backwards ends on an ebullient note, with everyone dancing like bubbles in a glass of Prosecco to a song titled Oh Well, Okay.
The show is maybe a little too long, and I could wish there had been some variety in the costumes. But these are quibbles. This is a show with excellent energy and incredibly generous performers, dancers and musicians. As usual, lighting by James Mapes is integral to the show.
Burn It Backwards continues through April 1 at BodyVox Dance Center. Ticket and schedule information here.