Eric Skinner

Men, bottled up and burning

Skinner/Kirk's "Burn It Backwards" dances in and around the way men try, and sometimes fail, to make relationships

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.”

Brent Luebbert and James Healey, facing off. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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.

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Life and our own sensation disorientations

Tahni Holt's new dance operated on its audience in very particular ways. Soup is involved.

Midway through the opening-night performance of Tahni Holt’s Sensation/Disorientation I had my own sensation-disorientation experience. I was struck with the feeling that this dance had a lot to do with the soup I had made for dinner that night. I don’t mean to diminish or speak irreverently about Holt’s work by any means—my soup was no ordinary soup and neither was the dance.

The soup was Moroccan Lentil Soup from my favorite online recipe source, Forks Over Knives, and it was one of the tastiest soups I have ever made. It was a simple recipe, which was helpful because I had squeezed in cooking and eating with my family between picking my son up from school, picking up my mom to babysit, shopping for ingredients, and going to the theater. The recipe included such basic ingredients as onions, carrots, tomatoes and red lentils, with the addition of an exotic, colorful collection of spices and flavors: coriander, cumin, turmeric, smoked paprika, cinnamon, ground ginger, garlic, parsley, salt, pepper, vegetable broth and lemon juice.

It was the gorgeous photo that accompanied this recipe that initially piqued my interest. The soup was made up of oranges and yellows. Garnished with green parsley on top, it sat in the middle of a beautiful turquoise, ceramic bowl, which was decorated with small white embossed flowers. It was beautiful, achingly beautiful.

Tahni Holt’s “Sensation/Disorientation”/Photo by Kamala Kingsley courtesy of White Bird

In this moment, while watching Sensation/Disorientation, time and space collapsed, and all of a sudden the soup that I had made for my family—its colors, spices, vegetables, and lentils—connected me to history, to women, to my femininity, my family, my role as a woman in my household (as a mother and a wife), and in my life in society. More, my relationship with other women became present in the dance. In this instant, I suddenly felt connected to the earth, to every culture, to every woman that ever existed and to every woman here now. This was a dance made unapologetically by a woman, for women, about women.

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Let’s see, now, where were we? Big inauguration, American carnage, big threats, bellicose speech. Bigger protest, millions of women, pink hats, sea to shining sea. Twitter wars unabated. Health care on the skids. War on reporters. Alternative facts.

And, oh, yes, tucked away there in the corner: a vow to kill the National Endowment for the Arts. And kill the National Endowment for the Humanities. And “privatize” the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which has mostly been privatized already, anyway. Cost-cutting. Getting tough on the budget. Victory for the taxpayers. (NEA 2016 budget: $148 million. NEH 2016 budget: $148 million. Percentage of total federal budget, each: 0.003. CPB 2016 funding via federal government: $445 million. Percentage of total federal budget, all three agencies: less than 0.02. Federal budget 2015 for military marching bands, $437 million. Taxpayer expense to build or renovate National Football League stadiums, past 20 years, mostly through local and regional taxes: more than $7 billion.)

A fiscal conservative or libertarian can make an honest argument for eliminating the NEA and NEH on grounds that they’re simply not an appropriate use of taxpayer funding; culture should be funded privately. Here at ArtsWatch we don’t agree with that analysis. We believe there are many valid reasons for government financial aid to culture, and that the payoffs to taxpayers are many, from economic – in healthy cities, the arts are job and money multipliers – to educational and much more. Historically, consider the continuing dividends of the WPA and other cultural projects underwritten by the federal government during the Great Depression of the 1930s: In Oregon, for instance, Timberline Lodge.

But there’s much more to this move than a courteous philosophical/economic disagreement. The move to defund the NEA has a long and embattled history, dating at least to the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and ’90s, when a resurgent right-wing political movement convinced that artists were mostly a pack of degenerate liberals discovered that attacking the arts was a splendid red-meat issue for its base. They didn’t succeed in killing off the national endowments, but they did weaken them. The new administration seems to think it can finally finish them off. That would weaken state agencies such as the Oregon Arts Commission, which gets funding from the NEA, and in turn weaken arts organizations across the state, which get money from the OAC and, often more importantly, a stamp of approval that helps them raise private donations. Killing the endowments would be a rash move that would save hardly anything in the national budget and cause deep mischief to the nation’s well-being. It strikes us as petty and vindictive and, frankly, foolish.

It’s also a reach that might fail. Republicans like culture, too, and understand its value, and often support it generously. Traditionally, that has included Republican politicians. Will they fall in line with the new administration, or will they quietly scuttle its gambit? Keep your eye on this thing. We will, too.

 


 

Duffy Epstein and Dana Green in the premiere of the D.B. Cooper play “db.” Photo: Owen Carey

THE FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL, Portland’s sprawling celebration of new works in theater, dance, solo performance, circus arts, musical theater, comedy, and other things that ordinarily happen on a stage, continues through January 29. ArtsWatch writers have been out and about, writing their impressions. You can catch up with some of them below:

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A mellow ‘Meadow’ like old times

BodyVox's "Urban Meadow," a blend of repertory favorites and a celebration of dancer Eric Skinner, is like a dinner party with old friends

Going to opening night of BodyVox’s Urban Meadow at Lincoln Performance Hall on Thursday evening was a little like dropping over for dinner with a bunch of old friends you haven’t seen in a while, and remembering why you liked them in the first place. The table was set nicely, the food and wine were good, and everybody swapped old jokes and stories with easy familiarity. There was even a guest of honor, who was fondly feted, and who told a few good tales himself.

The “guest,” or more appropriately the member of the family, was dancer Eric Skinner, an original BodyVoxer whose final Portland performances with the company after twenty years will be at the end of this brief run on Saturday. And the show, though technically a Portland premiere, is made up of a bunch of favorites that longtime BodyVox followers will recognize, and generally be pleased to see again. (Newbies will have the pleasure of meeting the members of the family for the first time.) This is the program, assembled a year and a half ago, that BodyVox takes on tour: It’s been from Germany to China, and is heading soon to China again.

“Hopper’s Dinner”: an exuberant feast. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Urban Meadow is an expansive program, running a little over two hours with the addition of three celebratory pieces chosen by Skinner as a sort of final tip of the hat, but because all of the works are short and well-shaped, it doesn’t feel overstuffed. The whole thing’s introduced with wit and charm by co-artistic director Jamey Hampton (his mother-in-law, he noted wryly on Thursday, liked to refer to him as the Dick Clark of dance) and, before Skinner’s portion of the program, by Ashley Roland, Hampton’s co-founder, co-artistic director, and wife.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Inauguration weekend dance

Several big shows are on tap this weekend, including Tahni Holt at White Bird, BodyVox, Groovin' Greenhouse, and New Expressive Works

It’s an historic week for so many reasons, some happy, some frustrating, but here, we will focus on the happy and far less frustrating dance events in Portland.

Opening last night at Reed College’s Diver Studio is Tahni Holt’s Sensation/Disorientation, a White Bird commission that looks at femaleness and its layers in modern-day culture, will be performed in the round, by six multigenerational performers from 15 to 60 years old.

Sensation/Disorientation will be performed by Tracy Broyles, Muffie Connelly, Carla Mann, Eliza Larson, Suzanne Chi and Aidan Hutapea, with music by Luke Wyland, costumes by Alenka Loesch and dramaturgy by Kate Bredeson. Holt, within her choreography, investigates concepts of ritual, duration, exhaustion, vitality, and organic versus in organic, rupturing familiar cultural narratives around the female body specifically addressing age and weight.

For further insight into Holt’s process you can read Hannah Krafcik’s article, Reading into Tahni Holt’s ‘Sensation/Disorientation.’ Krafcik co-facilitates an ongoing movement practice with Holt at FLOCK Dance Center in North Portland and possibly offers a more intimate knowledge of Holt’s thinking and doing. You can also listen to OPB’s State of Wonder by Aaron Scott where he talks with dramaturge Kate Bredeson, musician Luke Wyland, Tahni Holt and White Bird directors Paul King and Walter Jaffe on the different aspects of the production.

Sensation/Disorientation was not intended to bookend the 2017 inauguration but works perfectly in that space anyway. Holt suggested in Krafcik’s article that we attend the Women’s March downtown and then head to her concert later in the evening. Sounds like a good plan to me.

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ChamberVox shakes things up

Chamber Music Northwest and BodyVox dance to the music of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

At heart, dancing is moving to rhythm, and that means it’s almost inseparable from music. There are exceptions and variations: experimental cases when dances are created without sound; the Merce Cunningham/John Cage partnership, in which movement and music were created deliberately in isolation from each other so one would not influence the other, but were performed together; contemporary pieces with more or less arbitrary music that might better be described as “specimens of sound” (which, of course, can make their own sort of music); dances in which extended periods of silence are part of the score. But on the whole dance and music are pretty much happy bedfellows, cohabiting almost by instinct.

A fairy queen cavorting with a donkey: Anna Mara as Titania and Brent Luebbert as Bottom in "Midsummer." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

A fairy queen cavorting with a donkey: Anna Mara as Titania and Brent Luebbert as Bottom in “Midsummer.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

So the relationship between Chamber Music Northwest, Portland’s premiere summer music festival, and BodyVox, one of the city’s leading contemporary dance troupes, seems like a natural, and it’s beginning to be a tradition. This year’s collaboration, which opened Thursday night at the BodyVox studio in Northwest Portland and continues through July 23, brings a third player into the mix, too: that musically savvy playwright, William Shakespeare. Titled Death and Delight, the program pairs a version of Romeo and Juliet set on Sergei Prokofiev’s R&J Suite with a new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream danced to Felix Mendelssohn’s ravishing score.

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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.

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