By JAMUNA CHIARINI
Originally from Muncie, Indiana, Eric Skinner has had a hand in some of the most important dance developments in Portland during the past two decades, both as a dancer and choreographer. He was a founding member of Oregon Ballet Theatre, performed with Gregg Bielemeier, was a founder of aero/betty aerial dance theatre, and formed BodyVox Dance Company (with artistic directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland), where he is now Artistic Associate. In 2002 Skinner with his partner Daniel Kirk, formed their own company, the Skinner|Kirk Dance Ensemble.
Skinner’s newest piece is titled “Feeling Unknown,” and it’s one of four new works, each by a different choreographer, created for the upcoming BodyVox-2 concert March 7-9 at the BodyVox Dance Center. The choreography, danced to the song “Hand Covers Bruise” by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is for the three women of BodyVox-2—Holly Shaw, Anna Marra and Katie Staszkow. Having used mostly men in his previous choreography, this is Skinner’s first time choreographing for an all-female cast.
“My choreographing initially was just to create dances and initially there were several men around that were willing to come into the studio and participate,” Skinner said. “In those experiences I came to love the power, strength and grounded feeling you often get with men working and dancing together. That being said, this piece has all of those qualities and the women that are dancing it are wonderful. Holly, Anna and Katie are all amazing dancers. I never doubted that they wouldn’t be wonderful, but I had never created the opportunity for myself to set my work on just women until now. It has been a great experience and I am anxious to do more.”
The small section of “Feeling Unknown” that I saw back in January was vigorous and exciting. Skinner says that “he likes ballet as a foundation but likes the variety that modern offers, something he can really sink his teeth into.” The choreography definitely reads as ballet-based but feels unrestricted and limitless in its expression.
The dancers began as three separate units facing off into a corner. As soon as the music started, they began revolving and weaving around each other, tossing one another into space as they traveled across the room like a whirlwind, separating at the end and walking off alone. The choreography had a sense of strength and power and propulsion. It’s was like watching someone turn a wind turbine on that blew the dancers across the room–and then turning it off.
Skinner is meticulous and driven in his artistic process. He admits to liking a deadline. “It’s all in there, you just need permission to let it out or a reason to.”
He teaches the dancers several phrases of movement at a time, watches them dance it, gives them detailed feedback and then repeats the whole process over and over, adding more and more steps as they go along. It sounds exhausting, but the dancers really enjoyed being part of the creation of this new piece. How the dancers responded to Skinner’s feedback in the movement was as much part of the dance as his directions and vision.
Q: What is your choreographic process like?
“It seems to change all the time, at least in my mind (dancers I work with may beg to differ). I sometimes come into the studio with several long phrases of movement already prepared to teach the dancers. Then use those phrases to build the dance. Other times I will come in with music that is inspiring to me with nothing else prepared. I then climb up to the top of the high dive platform, take a deep breath, and jump. This method is scarier, but I feel that the movement comes from a deeper place and often times with better results. This is what I did for this new BV-2 piece, and I am very happy with the results. They are looking beautiful, and I am seeing them dance in ways I have not seen before.”
Q: Do you have any advice for choreographers on the process of making dances? How to start, how to get unstuck, how to work with and communicate with dancers, time management, how not to self-sabotage, etc.
“Start with confidence when you walk into the studio. Even if you have not prepared a step, know and believe that you can do what you are setting out to do. Every time you create something you are taking a chance. It would be boring otherwise. If you get stuck move on to something else and come back to what you got stuck on. Most dancers just want to believe in what they are doing and want to do the best they can, why else would they be there (it usually is not for the money!!). They are the one on stage and want to feel good about what they are doing, and that comes from the confidence the choreographer brings into the studio.
Time management is a tough one. You just need to stay on top of it and, like I said, if you get stuck, move on to something else.
Self-sabotage? Don’t over-think things and learn to edit.”
Q: How did Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble come into existence? What was the impetus to start the company? What are your plans for the company?
“As much as Daniel and I have loved our involvement in BodyVox, it is Jamey and Ashley’s creative vision in which we play a part. We both knew that we had a voice of our own that was different from theirs and needed a way to express that, and voila, Skinner|Kirk Dance Ensemble was formed. We are in the process of getting our 501(c)(3) non-profit status and the future will see what comes.”
Q: How have you sustained yourself as a dancer and an artist for so many years in terms of injury prevention and keeping yourself inspired?
“I have been extremely lucky as a dancer. Since I left college, I have been dancing professionally non-stop, except for about a year-and-a-half just after I left OBT. During that time I went back to school and I became a licensed massage therapist. Since then I have sustained my career as a dancer with BodyVox, teaching dance, and doing massage, and I do very little massage anymore. I now mostly teach, dance and choreograph.
As for staying inspired, I love what I do. I am blessed to have come from a family that enabled me to follow my passion, and this is the biggest gift in life that I could ever have been given. I count my blessings all the time. Thanks mom and dad!!
Injury prevention, I listen to my body, feed it well. Very little junk food and no fast food!”
Q: For me you are a role model in that you are dancing past the “normal” age for dancers. What is your philosophy on this topic?
“I want dance as long as I can and so I try to be smart about the decisions I make. I also tell all of my closest friends that they are my barometer, and that they need to be honest with me and tell me if it is time to hang up my dance belt.”
Q: I am interested in the creation of your piece “Juxtaposition” that you choreographed for your last concert. Who created the sculpture that you danced in and around? How did this collaboration come about? What was this process like?
I am always open and looking for collaboration and “Juxtaposition” was a wonderful collaboration on every level. The sculptures were an idea that I originally had driving around one day and then sketched onto paper. I then approached a friend and sculptress, Sumi Wu, who then brought them to life. The process was very exciting every step of the way, from my initial meeting with Sumi, to the creation of the actual sculptures, and then, when we put the lights on them…wow, I couldn’t believe how amazing and striking they were.
The live music came about in Josie Moseley’s modern class at BV. She has a live accompanist named Tim Ribner, he is amazing! He comes in and sits down at the piano, and when he starts playing, the most amazing sounds start coming out. Things that you never thought could or should be coming from a piano. I fell in love with his spontaneity, his improvisational skills, and his ability to capture the mood and vibe of the movement that was happening in the moment. One day I approached him after a class and asked him if he would be interested in creating music for this new dance I was working on. The ask was kind of in left field because I really didn’t know him, never worked with him, but I had a good feeling about him and felt it was worth exploring, and I am so happy I did.
The costume designer was another first time chance Daniel and I were willing to take and are very pleased we did. We had been to see a show earlier in the year where we liked the costumes very much. We made a mental note of the name Rachelle Waldie and when this project came around we contacted her. She was a pleasure to work with, and we loved thought and designs she brought to both pieces that she costumed. We would definitely work with her again.
Q: Please talk about your experience with collaboration and what makes it successful.
“I feel that collaboration is a wonderful thing, and I love what a group can bring to the creation process. I like working with other people, I like having the input of others and bringing their ideas into the fold. Fortunately, I can’t think of any bad experiences. Some are tougher and more complicated than others, but you just have to keep the faith and trust in the people you are working with.”
Q: What is next for you?
“Next for me is putting on my dancer hat and going on a tour to Europe with BodyVox and then the final show of our season ’15’.”
Spending time in the studio watching the BodyVox-2 dancers prepare for their concert during the open rehearsal was simply sublime. I could have sat there forever watching them rehearse, but really I wanted to jump out of my chair and join in. BV-2 is made up of a group of really sweet, beautiful dancers who are incredibly eager to learn and hard-working. I enjoyed getting to know them as dancers and people. It sounds a little clichéd but being able to see the behind the scenes development of a dance really adds another layer of value to the final product and makes it that much more special. And it made me eager to see the concert this weekend.