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.

The company. Jingzi Photography

The company. Jingzi Photography

This daredeviltry, or angelic swoop, or gesture of human hubris or frailty, is the opening of Skinner’s new dance, Church, which debuted Thursday night at BodyVox. It’s the final piece in Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble‘s annual program at BodyVox, where Skinner and his partner Daniel Kirk are longtime company members. The program continues through February 20, and is a sparkling blend of new and old, highlighted by this fascinating, if a little meandering, contemplation on the nature of faith and its connection to the world of dance. Kirk and Skinner are joined onstage by a tight and adaptable small company that also includes Mari Kai Juras, Holly Shaw, Brent Luebbert, and Vanessa Thiessen; and, for Church, by singer Lindsey Stormo and singer/pianist/percussionist Tim Ribner.

Church seems to be an open, undogmatic, unironic, and un-New Agey exploration of whatever it is we call spirituality, or a connection to something larger than ourselves. We hear snatches of old hymns (“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses …”) and black gospel (“No room at the hotel …”) and jazz (Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday), and, eventually, snatches of conversation from recorded interviews with the dancers, designers, and others, including a rabbi and a cantor: phrases like “Abraham and Isaac” and “My body is a vessel” rise out of the mix. The babble of sound is a mixed bag, underscoring the basic questioning that is crucial to the dance’s theme, but also making the implicit explicit, and sometimes drawing attention away from the movement. Still, it takes everything deeper, into the riddle. The piece seems to take as its starting point that whatever it is that feeds the idea of “church” – ritual, expiation, connection – though it can take a thousand forms, is something humans hold in common. The dancing itself takes on a kind of incantatory nature, at once driving the piece and subsidiary to its theme: something mysterious, something repetitive, something striving, something longing. You feel as if, like Skinner, you’ve tumbled into something, and been caught.

Juras and Luebbert in "Always." Jingzi Photography

Juras and Luebbert in “Always.” Jingzi Photography

A sense of longing, or yearning, also activates the other new piece on the program, Kirk’s Always. As a choreographer, Kirk is a skilled storyteller, a deft comedian, and a master of pop-cultural style who’s capable of twisting a scene into emotionally vulnerable places. Always begins with the nostalgic glow of the ballroom dancing floor, or maybe the school-gymnasium floor, where the sock hop swings. The record player’s spinning Al Green, the Shirelles, Dionne Warwick: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow; Don’t Make Me Over. And a fivesome is pairing off, in various combinations, romantic and not so much. Kirk himself does an opening madcap dance, as if he’s all alone on the floor, despite efforts to get him to slow down and dance close. Boy and girl pair off and switch off. Finally, boy and boy – longtime partners Skinner and Kirk – begin to dance, and connect, and wonder, and draw away: something’s happening, and something slips away. The story’s never quite finished, and never fully told. It’s all delicious hints and feelings, like a classic three-minute love song.

The evening opens with three short pieces, all by Skinner, and all reprises. Feeling Unknown, for the three woman dancers, and T(h)rilogy, for the three men, could be made for each other, although T(h)rilogy, the wittier and more playful of the two, is from 2000 and Feeling Unknown from thirteen years later: both show off the adaptability and technical skills of this small company. The opener, Another World, is a 2010 piece created for one of Mike Barber’s Ten Tiny Dances: short works performed on a four-by-four-foot stage. It’s a solo by Skinner, accentuated, as is the entire evening, by James Mapes’s fine lighting, and it’s at once introspective and restless, pushing at the borders of the format, exploring the territory, pacing around the edges, teetering over the abyss. Which, you might say, is what the entire evening does.

From left: Skinner, Kirk, Luebbert in "T(h)rilogy." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

From left: Skinner, Kirk, Luebbert in “T(h)rilogy.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble continues through February 20 at BodyVox. Ticket and schedule information here.

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