Eric Skinner’s happy landing

After two decades as a mainstay of BodyVox, the Portland dancer is ready to move on after this week's "Urban Meadow"

On the afternoon that Snowpocalypse struck Portland, Eric Skinner walked into the lobby at BodyVox Dance Center after a morning in the studio and settled easily onto one of the long couches in the corner. As always he looked trim and taut: small but strong and tough, with a body fat index down somewhere around absolute zero. If anyone looks like a dancer, Skinner does. Even in repose he seems all about movement: you get the sense he might spring up suddenly like a Jumping Jack on those long lean muscles and bounce somewhere, anywhere, just for the sake of bouncing.

His high forehead was framed by tight wiry curls, his eyes were quick and curious, his smile relaxed.

Or maybe not.

When BodyVox opens its new show Urban Meadow at Lincoln Performance Hall on Thursday evening, Skinner will be starting his final Portland run with the company he’s performed with since its beginning, close to twenty years ago. And where he’ll be landing, not even he knows. “I’m not quite sure what’s next,” he said, “but I thought that after nineteen years it was time to do something else.”

Erik Skinner. Photo: Michael Shay

BodyVox, the contemporary dance troupe founded by Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland to create movement for a Portland Opera production of Carmina Burana, quickly spun off on its own. Based at first on Hampton and Roland’s experiences in the physical-theater troupes Momix, Pilobolus, and ISO Dance, it soon developed its own style, a blend of contemporary ballet, physical theater, and mime, whipped up with wit. Through all of its years Skinner, his partner Daniel Kirk, Roland, and Hampton have been the consistent members and most prominent faces. The current company is a vital blend of older and newer, the original quartet blending easily with a core of sharp younger dancers who’ve added fresh zest to the BodyVox style.

Skinner is 53, which would be very old for a ballet dancer but not necessarily for a contemporary dancer: If he can’t do everything he once did, he can do plenty, and with the benefit of more than thirty years’ experience built into his muscles and bones, he can dive deeply into the mysteries of movement. “As long as I make age-appropriate dances for myself … you can dance until you’re 90,” he said.

Which – who knows? – he might. He and Kirk, who is staying with BodyVox, will still run their own Skinner/Kirk Ensemble, an independent company they founded in 1998 that for the past several years has taken a slot inside BodyVox’s Portland season. The loose partnership has been rewarding for artists and audiences alike, with Skinner and Kirk helping to translate Hampton and Roland’s buoyantly subversive vision, and BodyVox providing a launching pad for Skinner/Kirk’s more personal dance explorations. “Skinner/Kirk goes places that BodyVox doesn’t, and vice versa,” I wrote in 2011 about Skinner’s piece Obstacle Allusions. “The relationship between the two companies is subtle and close, but also separate: they thrive in each other’s company.”

In all, Skinner’s been a fixture on Portland’s dance scene for thirty years, and in that time, he says, he’s seen a transformation: “I’ve loved seeing the Portland dance scene morph and change since I got here.” At first, he said, there was a ballet bubble and a modern bubble, with audiences choosing one or the other but rarely crossing over. People like Gregg Bielemeier, Mary Oslund, Matthew Boyes, Northwest Dance Project’s Sarah Slipper, and Walter Jaffe and Paul King of the dance presenters White Bird broadened the possibilities significantly: “Walter and Paul came to town. Jamey and Ashley came to town.”

And Eric Skinner came to town.

He had grown up in Muncie, Indiana, and before he started dancing he was a gymnast, a background that reveals itself in his superb body control and occasional aerial choreography. He was one of the founders of the aerial dance troupe Aero Betty, and especially in its early years, with pieces like 1997’s One and 2002’s X-Axis, aerial work was a big part of Skinner/Kirk’s repertoire. “I didn’t start dancing until I was 17,” he said. That’s late for a ballet dancer, and his first classes were in jazz and tap. He needed to catch up.

He soon started driving into Indianapolis for more classes, and got into Butler University’s Jordan School of Fine Arts there, where he got lots of ballet training. Out of college he spent a year at Milwaukee Ballet. Then, on a summer scholarship stay in Seattle at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s school’s he met a couple of people from Portland and asked if there were any dance jobs there.

Skinner and Alicia Cutaia in “Alice.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

As it happened, yes. He auditioned for the old Ballet Oregon, run by the late Dennis Spaight, and joined the company in 1987, performing in Rodeo and other works. A year later he moved on to Pacific Ballet theatre, led by former Joffrey Ballet dancer James Canfield. There, he danced Benvolio in Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet, alongside Canfield and the late Mark Goldweber. “How did I get here with these two guys?” he recalled wondering. “They were big stars at the Joffrey!” In 1989, when Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre combined and became Oregon Ballet Theatre, Skinner stayed aboard. There, in addition to works by Canfield and Spaight, he performed in works by a string of high-profile guest choreographers, including Bebe Miller and Karole Armitage. He danced José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane with the late Elena Carter, who had come to PBT and then OBT after starring at Dance Theatre of Harlem.

After several seasons with OBT Skinner moved on, going to school to get a massage-therapy license and starting to work with the noted contemporary choreographer and dancer Gregg Bielemeier. Contemporary dance, Skinner felt, just fit his body and inclinations more comfortably. He worked with Aero Betty, then joined BodyVox as a founding member: “I was attracted to Jamey and Ashley’s vision because in addition to doing shows in Portland, they really wanted to tour. I love travel.”

With BodyVox he’s traveled plenty: Europe, Asia, national tours, regional tours. Not long ago the company was in Delhi, India, and 24 hours later performing in Medford in southern Oregon. He’ll dance the three nights and one matinee in Portland of Urban Meadow, which is BodyVox’s new touring show, and then “I’ve committed to doing two tours with it after. One to Olympia and the other to China.”

And that will be that, at least with BodyVox. “My career has happened on gut instincts,” he said, and moving on from BodyVox is one of them. Skinner began thinking about it two years ago, but the time didn’t seem right. Then, about eight months ago, he told Roland and Hampton that Urban Meadow would be his final show with the company. For the Portland performances of Urban Meadow they’ve set up something of a tribute. The show will include three short pieces from the repertory especially for him: Bottom of the World, in which he performs a solo and a duet with Kirk; Baby Fools Around, in which he performs on a pushcart; and A Good Man Is Hard To Find. “It’s been a really amazing symbiotic relationship with Ashley and Jamey. They’ve been very generous with Daniel and me.”

Meanwhile, Skinner/Kirk continues. Its next show, at BodyVox March 24-April 1, will feature five male dancers and Elliott Smith music, played live, with a woman singer. “We’re very definitely going to move forward with that,” Skinner said.

There is also, in addition to performing, creating dances. “I never even considered doing choreography until after I left OBT,” he said, and yet choreography has become a major part of his life. He “likes ballet as a foundation but likes the variety that modern offers, something he can really sink his teeth into,” ArtsWatch’s Jamuna Chiarini wrote in 2013. Chiarini asked him what advice he had for choreographers: “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. … Don’t overthink things, and learn to edit.”

Whatever comes next – I’ve been flirting with the idea of of going to graduate school” to get a master’s degree in dance,said Skinner, who’s taught part-time at Reed College for 10 years – he has given Portland dance followers some indelible images onstage. Those include, from his work Church for Skinner/Kirk a year ago, the towering, teetering sight of him rising slowly and precariously on a stack of boxes until the boxes tumble and, in an act of “daredeviltry, or angelic swoop, or gesture of human hubris or frailty” he “drops in a deadweight, risking all.” It was a calculated risk, a hugely theatrical moment, evidence of an artist working at peak power.

“Since I became a performer I’ve always said I wanted to go out when I felt I was still doing good work,” he said. He still is, and if he eventually stops dancing that “eventually” is not necessarily now. Yet this is undeniably a major shift. What about leaving the BodyVox nest?

“I’m scared, but I’m also very excited. This has been such an integral part of my life for so many years.”

To be continued.

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BodyVox’s Urban Meadow will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, Jan. 19-20, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, at Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University.

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