Vanessa Thiessen embraces life by jumping: high and rhythmically and joyously. You can see it in her eyes, in her smile, in the stretch of her arms and legs, as she breathes in the sea air, smelling the salt, feeling the summer sun.
That solo takes place about midway through Nat’s Farm, Daniel Kirk’s and Eric Skinner’s new piece, which premiered on Thursday night at BodyVox as the second half of Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble’s annual concert.
Nat’s Farm was made last summer on Martha’s Vineyard, during a three-week Bessie Schonberg Choreographic Mentorship Residency at The Yard, an artist’s colony for which Schonberg, one of the founding mothers of American modern and contemporary dance, served as artistic advisor for some years before her death in 1997. It is a wonderful breeding ground for dance. Thiessen, who like Kirk and Skinner is a former Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer, participated in the residency, as did composer Tim Ribner, who is responsible for the terrific score.
The piece begins with Ribner walking toward the musicians, beating a large shell solemnly and steadily against a small rock, while Native American storyteller Kristina Hook-Leslie chants a recorded “thank you for the gift, thank you for my life, thank you for the ocean, thank you for the wind, thank you for it all.” The dancers – Skinner, Kirk, Thiessen, Brennan Boyer and Holly Shaw – arrive on stage, dancing with ritualistic gravitas as the band starts to play, their steps a little too on the beat.
The music, performed by Ribner, Max Ribner and Michael Dougherty, builds, sounding like waves hitting the beach, and the dancers shift to high-energy fluidity, executing pirouettes and lifts in a melding of modern and classical technique, in response to the music and each other. I think of Isadora Duncan, standing on the beach in Northern California early in the last century, inspired by the curve and curl and energy of the Pacific to develop a form of dance that is rooted in nature. Skinner and Kirk have been going to Martha’s Vineyard for more than thirty years, and the impetus for Nat’s Farm comes from the Atlantic, as well as various occupants of the island: Hook-Leslie is a member of the Wampanoag tribe; Thiessen’s solo, Skinner says, was “inspired by two-week-old baby goats that we met the first day we were on the island.”
While it’s not a classic like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Ribner’s score meets Kierkegaard’s requirement “that the music not appear as an accompaniment but reveal the idea.” That’s particularly true for Thiessen’s solo, a kind of scat-song, and the trio for her, Skinner and Kirk that precedes it. In the latter case, the Latin-flavored music changed the ritualistic tone of what came earlier, and it was danced with such ebullience and effervescence that I stopped taking notes, the better to enjoy it. What followed Thiessen’s frolicking dance was a ragtime tune for Skinner and Kirk, the lead-in for a duet that is all about their history with each other, the time they’ve spent dancing, and loving, and living and working together, those signature lifts of theirs saying it all about tenderness and support.
Nat’s Farm ends as it began, with the rest of the cast joining them onstage, then walking off quietly as Hook-Leslie finishes her story: “It’s a good thing, it is, we’re all a part of the ocean, I try to have these kind of talks with the little ones because if I don’t say it it will get lost, I don’t want it to get lost, I don’t want us to get lost and forgotten.”
Kirk and Skinner founded their company twenty-seven years ago, in 1998; they’ve been making work for a long time, and in Nat’s Farm that experience shows. It is beautifully crafted and structured, visually interesting, and its dance, music, and text are very well-integrated indeed. If some of the lyrical moments are a bit too smoothly so, making them look mechanical rather than heartfelt, that is easily changed. My only real quibble is with the costuming: street wear combined with practice clothes, the woven, tailored shirts interfering with the line of the movement.
That was really true of Urban Sprawled, which opened the program, and which was originally made by Skinner in 2007. It is performed by the same cast as Nat’s Farm with the addition of the elegant Mari Kai Juras, who also dances with Eowyn Emerald. The crisp white shirts didn’t fit anyone very well: post-modernism notwithstanding, as my seatmate commented, there is a difference between ordinary clothes and costumes. Having said that, the neckties and suit jackets worn with slacks by the three men are part of the urban feel of the piece, just as the unison choreography, some of it looking like morning calisthenics, contributes to the anonymous feel of large cities. One witty section is reminiscent of Paul Taylor’s acidly funny Cloven Kingdom – no surprise there, since Kirk and Skinner performed in it when dancing with OBT. In general, the choreography is highly athletic for both men and women, with Thiessen holding the stage as she has been doing since she was a little party guest years ago in OBT’s Nutcracker.
Opening night had the atmosphere of a family reunion, speaking of OBT, with the ballet company’s artistic director Kevin Irving in the audience, as were a couple of board members, some long-time company supporters, and a chic-looking Alison Roper, lately retired as a principle dancer from OBT’s stage. Several had come specifically to see Thiessen, who left OBT for San Francisco and Michael Smuin’s company when the artistic directorship shifted from James Canfield to Christopher Stowell. She is now back in Portland, freelancing still in the Bay Area as performer and choreographer – and now, like Skinner and Kirk, a seasoned artist who, also like them, knows exactly what she’s doing on stage. Young companies, when they’re as good as Nederlands Dans Theater 2, which performed in Portland last week as part of the White Bird season, are wonderful to watch, to be sure. But there’s immense pleasure to be had in seeing the well-honed artistry that comes only with experience. Examples? Skinner and Kirk’s duet in Nat’s Farm and Thiessen’s solo. I thank them for the gift.
Skinner Kirk Dance Ensemble repeats its program at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 19-21, and 2 p,m, Saturday, Feb. 21, at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 N.W. 17th Ave. Ticket information is here.