ROMP!, a dance performance that opens Friday at Lincoln Hall for three performances only, doesn’t precisely represent a return to normalcy: Nothing’s normal, or conventional, or standard, about Gregg Bielemeier’s humorously rebellious work.
So I’d advise you not to miss it. I, for one, need beautifully crafted laughter a lot more than so-called normalcy at this point, and I’m betting a lot of other people could do with some as well. (Bielemeier and I have been friends for the past two decades; I stopped reviewing his work when I realized I was too close for critical objectivity, and cracked us both up by telling him I couldn’t imagine being friends with a bad choreographer.)
Bielemeier, 71, is an Oregon original, independent to a fault – an artist who, like Ken Kesey’s logger, “never gives a inch” when it comes to artistic integrity and the choreographic, performing, and teaching skills he’s been honing, and sharing, for 58 years. And not just in Oregon: He’s done all these things in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and in Holland, where he was based for a couple of years. His choreography is difficult if not impossible to pigeonhole, but this retrospective of his work (nine pieces, made in Portland between 1993 and 2002) can be labeled in a couple of ways we don’t usually associate with Terpsichore’s art.
Shaun Keylock, the 30-year-old founder and artistic director of the Shaun Keylock Company, whose fine-tuned, gifted dancers will perform this retrospective of Bielemeier’s work, calls it an archive – a word some of us associate with dusty files in dark library basements, where serious, very serious, scholars dig for the precise number of angels who danced on a pin (or a stage, or a barge) in the fall of 1863, or was it 1864? Others might associate the word with digitized records of company histories, dancer biographies, and wobbly film of early 20th century performances, that often disappear seemingly forever into cyberspace.
That being said, whether they are ballet dancers, street dancers, modern dancers, or practitioners of butoh or Bharathatnatyam, dancers are the living archive of Terpsichore’s art. They carry the movement in their muscles and their minds, the part of the body that postmodern choreographer Yvonne Rainer loudly proclaimed actually is a muscle, way back in the last century.
Keylock understands this well. The Pacific University graduate—he holds a Bachelor’s degree in art history and dance–happens to be a trained archivist, as well as a dancer and choreographer, who learned the discipline when he was a student there. ROMP! is part of a new SKC initiative to preserve the work of LGBTQ+ elders, of whom Bielemeier is the first. In a recent interview with both artists, I asked Keylock, who grew up in Scappoose, what made him select the Mt. Angel native as the first choreographer for this project.
“Gregg came to my last show at New Expressive Works [the space in Southeast Portland founded by Subashini Gamesan-Forbes to celebrate and support “the creative power of multicultural performing artists in Portland] and I was excited, because I’d known him from meeting him in cafes, and about him from [the Portland choreographer and dancer] Josie Moseley, and others. After the show he sent me a great message: ‘If you ever want a choreographer…’, this was a big compliment.’”
Keylock is right about that: It was a particular compliment to the dancers, because when Bielemeier spots bodies he wants to make work on, he’s like the fictional painter Gully Jimson when he spotted a blank wall—unstoppable. Not that the SKC dancers are by any means blank, or uniform. All of them have had some classical training as well as training in various modern techniques, and their performing experience is, like most American dancers’ today, varied, and stylistically and technically demanding. Because Keylock was also interested in Bielemeier’s well-earned reputation for comedy, the dancers had to be capable of performing and interpreting his choreographic humor—god forbid they look cute! In addition, Keylock saw Bielemeier’s work performed live for the first time at the following year’s New Expressive Works Fellows showcase, so it is fair to say that Subashini Ganesan-Forbes provided the catalyst for this collaboration.
Keylock began by digitizing the available film of Bielemeier’s work and then watching it with him, but it was he who chose the nine pieces on the program and the order in which they are performed. Keylock’s personal taste is part of what drove that process; that’s true of all artistic directors, whether they admit it or not. And his taste, like Bielemeier’s, is eclectic, ranging from camp to what Keylock calls subtleties, from comedy to technical complexity, deployed in the service of narrative and abstraction.
The first half of the program is pretty lighthearted, beginning with Suit Side In, which premiered in 1996 and was performed by Michael Menger’s The Really BIG Dance Company. (Menger, like Bielemeier, was one of the six founders of Conduit Dance, the much lamented studio space in downtown Portland’s Pythian Building, that closed some years ago.) This group piece is followed by three solos from the masterful and critically acclaimed Odd Duck Lake, which was first performed at Lincoln Hall in 1998.
ManTango Opera Lounge, a duet Bielemeier originally made for himself and Minh Tran, concludes the first half of the program. Made in 1993, it’s all about men dancing together, sexily, combatively, gently, tenderly. It’s bold indeed to revive this piece on different dancers, but guest artists Edromar Undag, an original member of the SKC, and Kenneth Frechette have succeeded in both replicating and interpreting this dancer-specific piece to Bielemeier’s surprised satisfaction.
Sfumata — made originally in 2002 on BodyVox’s dancers, like Suit Side In — is a company work, and very high-energy. After a two-minute pause, Wherefore ART Thou and an excerpt from Romance Dance, both made in 1993, will close the show.
Keylock, who danced in Tran’s last show at Reed College, also performs in ROMP!, starting the second half in S.K. Swan also from Odd Duck Lake), a solo that provides a visual summary of the vocabulary Bielemeier has been growing since I first saw him perform in 1978 at the then Civic Auditorium in Ear/Heart, when he was a member of the Portland Dance Theater. I say growing, because he refers to that vocabulary of big, loose-jointed, space-eating movement juxtaposed against small, often jittery movement of the fingers, feet, and even facial muscles, as his sourdough: something that continues to live and grow and never gets used up. I speak of this performance in the documentary by filmmakers Judah Switzer and Tanja Miljevic, made among other reasons to fulfill RACC’s community involvement requirement (Bielemeier loathes panel discussions!) and Bielemeier requested that I correct my statement that I didn’t think he’d choreographed his solo. He did, and the bubble was his idea.
Like Keylock, Bielemeier is visually oriented, and much to his delight ,clothing designer Adam Arnold reconstructed the majority of these costumes with finished seams, making garments originally purchased in vintage shops easier to move in. Arnold’s costumes will be seen again in the spring when Oregon Ballet Theatre revives The Lost Dance. Jenessa Raabe has likewise reinterpreted the lighting and set design. More important perhaps is the pleasure Bielemeier has taken in watching these very different dancers “make the work their own. In rehearsal, I loved seeing Liane Burns, whose principle training was in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s School, deploy her long limbs in Swan Get Ting Up, originally made for the compact male body of Mike Barber, who was hilarious in the sendup of Fokine’s Dying Swan. Like the 19th century ballet choreographer August Bournonville, when it comes to gender, Bielemeier is an equal opportunity dancemaker.
ROMP! can also be labeled a family reunion, although I’ve never heard the artistic director of a modern troupe refer to their company as a “family” and they don’t often use the personal possessive pronoun when speaking of the dancers, either. Wearing masks, you may or may not recognize in the audience people who worked with Bielemeier years ago. To name just a few: lighting designer Peter West; Tere Mathern, who ended up as artistic director of Conduit and performed in quite a lot of his work; and Moseley, who suggested to Keylock that he study Doris Humphrey and Jose Limon technique in summer intensives, post-college. A lot of Bielemeier’s work premiered at Lincoln Hall, and Kayla Scrivner, who danced in quite a bit of it and is now technical director of PSU’s performing arts facilities, is making the trains run on time for this show.
Some Oregon Ballet Theatre people intend to be there, too; some ArtWatch readers will remember Bielemeier’s phenomenal dancing in former resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay, along with Susan Banyas, both of them guest artists; she’s likely to be in the audience too. Performance artist and poet Leanne Grabel will be: She is an ongoing collaborator. Rehearsals have already begun for BodyVox’s new holiday show, and Grabel and Bielemeier’s contribution to Serious Cupcakes is already baking.
- Performance by: The Shaun Keylock Company
- Choreograhy by: Gregg Bielemeier
- When: 7:30 pm Friday, Nov. 12; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13
- Where: Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University, 1320 S.W. Broadway
- Ticket information: $35; students $20; here
- Covid information: Plan to enter the building from the parkside entrance. Bring photo ID and proof of vaccination or recent (within seven days of performance) negative Covid test. Masks required for entry and must be worn at all times except when eating or drinking.