Eric Skinner

Dancing inside and out of the lines

Review: Skinner/Kirk's "Within the Lines" thinks entertainingly about fear, restraint, creativity, and crossing borders

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.

Shaw and Skinner, all wrapped up. Photo: Christopher Peddecord

Shaw and Skinner, all wrapped up. Photo: Christopher Peddecord

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.

Continues…

BodyVox-2: the future is now

The 'second company' is making a vital case for its slice of the BodyVox pie

Josh Murry, Holly Shaw in Jamey Hampton's "Alter." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Josh Murry, Holly Shaw in Jamey Hampton’s “Alter.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The house was packed Thursday evening for the opening of BodyVox-2’s weekend run of new and revived pieces, and the eagerness of the crowd suggested the growing conviction among Portland dance followers that this is no ordinary apprentice company.

What is it, then?

“We’re really trying to figure that out,” a pleased Una Loughran, the company’s general manager, said after Thursday’s performance at the BodyVox Dance Center. “It’s an evolving thing. When we started it we thought it was a two-year program. It’s obviously moved far beyond that.”

One thing it is, as this short run of performances through Saturday illustrates, is a tight ensemble of skilled performers capable of pulling off a polished and fully satisfying evening of varied short works. The company’s six members – Jeff George, Samuel Hobbs, Anna Marra, Josh Murry, Holly Shaw and Katie Staszkow – are young but not beginners, and they’ve developed the kind of well-practiced teamwork that allows them to relax and let their individual personalities also come across. Directed by main-company dancer Zachary Carroll, they’re at ease in the BodyVox style, which requires a playful and dramatic blend of acting and dancing skills, plus a taste for quirkiness and vaudevillian physical surprise. And they’re adaptable: the current show features premieres of works by four choreographers, and also dips into the repertory as far back as 1985, or before some of the performers were born.

Anna Marra in Eowyn Emerald Barrett's "I Asked of You." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Anna Marra in Eowyn Emerald Barrett’s “I Asked of You.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

They’re also very much part of the present of the main BodyVox company, and they could be a very big part of its future. The BodyVox-2 dancers do a lot of the company’s school performances and residencies – a bread-and-butter task for a company like this – and they’re showing up increasingly onstage in the main company’s shows, too. This injects a shot of youth into what is a company of veterans, and it also expands the palette for BodyVox choreographers, allowing them to do bigger works with more dancers. More and more, BodyVox-2 is both an essential element of the main company and its own thing: like Nederlands Dans Theater 2 and Joffrey II, it’s developing its own following and identity.

Because of external events, the signal work among the four new pieces is Anne Mueller’s “Tuesday, 3:47 p.m.,” a witty, swift and prop-laden (table, chairs, giant water pitchers) short dance that blends contemporary pop motifs with a ballet sensibility. Mueller, a former longtime Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer, took over as OBT’s interim artistic director after Christopher Stowell’s surprise resignation late last year, and people inevitably will be reading “Tuesday, 3:47 p.m.” like tea leaves in an effort to see what she might be thinking about for OBT. That’s not really fair –  she choreographed this piece specifically for BodyVox-2, not for OBT, and it’s not a ballet, it’s a contemporary dance. Still, it has an airy feel, with both fluidity and grace, and a sense of humor, and a penchant for visual storytelling: the props and situations brought to mind some of the work Robin Lane has done with Do Jump! It’s a savvy, well-shaped piece: I liked it.

The other three new dances are closer to home: co-founder Jamey Hampton’s “Alter,” a tightly knit showcase for Murry and Shaw; veteran BodyVox dancer Eric Skinner’s “Feeling Unknown,” performed to music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross by the second company’s three women dancers; and “I Asked of You,” by onetime BodyVox-2 performer Eowyn Emerald Barrett, an intricate and yearning piece for all six dancers performed to Max Richter’s contemporary reconception of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” All three have polish, substance and spark. They know the dancers and the company style, even though they pull in different directions, from extreme physicality to coquetry to emotional tugging.

What comes across best in this program is how well the old and the new have become integrated, each bringing its own strengths to create a broader scope of possibilities. Suddenly, BodyVox feels like an institution in the best sense of the word: an organization capable of growing and evolving and regenerating itself. So maybe it’s fitting that both acts end with short pieces from the 1980s, before BodyVox existed, when Hampton and co-founder Ashley Roland were performing with ISO. In 1985’s “Scare Myself,” which Roland and Hampton danced around the world, George and Marra nimbly carry on the tradition. Presented in a puff of stage fog, it’s a witty crowd-pleaser, and a period piece within a period piece: when it was new it was already nostalgic for the social dance of the 1950s; now it’s nostalgic one more step removed. That makes it, again in the best sense of the word, charming.

Nineteen-eighty-seven’s “Psycho Killer,” created by Hampton, Roland, Daniel Ezralow and Morleigh Steinberg, comes from a similar place of puckish period theatricality, once again with stage fog (was this when steampunk started rolling?) and over-the-top whimsy. Performing to The Bobs’ bouncing rendition of the David Byrne tune, George, Murry, Shaw and Staszkow operate like a four-piston engine, conjoined at the ankles and bobbing, bouncing and bopping to the rhythm. It’s all a bit like following the bouncing ball in an old-time drive-in movie cartoon. It’s quite terrific to be reminded of what BodyVox came out of, how much of that original impulse has been retained and how much has been toned down, and how well a new generation can step into the old shoes and recapture some of the magic, even as they continue to explore their own variations on the BodyVox theme.

A good, smart program, all in all – and a promise of what’s yet to come.

NOTES

  • BodyVox-2’s spring program concludes with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday (March 8) and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (March 9). Tickets are tight; information here.
  • Choreographer Barrett is planning to take a program of her work to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a six-day run in August, and it’ll have a BodyVox flavor, with Murry, Shaw, main-company dancer Jonathan Krebs and Barrett performing, and BodyVox technical director James Mapes along to run the lights.
  • Jamuna Chiarini wrote for ArtsWatch about the rehearsal process for three of the program’s four new pieces. Read her interviews with Mueller, Skinner, and Barrett.

 

Katie Staszkow, Anna Marra in Anne Mueller's "Tuesday, 3:47 p.m." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Katie Staszkow, Anna Marra in Anne Mueller’s “Tuesday, 3:47 p.m.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

 

 

 

 

 

Open rehearsal 3: Eric Skinner on choreographing with confidence

The last of a series of peeks at the BodyVox-2 concert, which begins Thursday

Eric Skinner rehearses his new piece for BodyVox-2./BodyVox

Eric Skinner rehearses his new piece for BodyVox-2./BodyVox

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.

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Holly Shaw, Anna Marra and Katie Staszkow of BodyVox-2

Holly Shaw, Anna Marra and Katie Staszkow of BodyVox-2

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.”

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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.

Juxtaposition, skinner/kirk dance ensemble from Sumi Wu on Vimeo.

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’.”

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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.

NOTES

ArtsWatch observed the open rehearsal process for the dances of both Eowyn Emerald Barrett and Anne Mueller, and interviewed each of them.

Daniel Kirk (foreground) and Eric Skinner in "Flying Over Emptiness." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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.

Skinner and Kirk in "One." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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.

 

 

 

 

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