Shaun Keylock greeted an audience at Lincoln Performance Hall on November 13, reminding everyone that it had been two years since his namesake Shaun Keylock Company had taken the stage in this fashion, and that they were very grateful to be back. This was the company’s second and final night of ROMP, a retrospective of work choreographed by Gregg Bielemeier.
Affirming a commitment to the city’s LGBTQ+ dance elders, Keylock joined forces with Bielemeier to present this retrospective of a whopping nine works created between the early ’90s and the early 2000s. For those who are unfamiliar with the historical ins and outs of Portland’s complex dance scene, Bielemeier came up as a dancer circa 1971 with Portland Dance Theater, and went on to further what we today might call “contemporary” concert dance in a myriad of ways as a teacher, performer, and choreographer.
I am wary of concert dance presented in such a fashion—it is often rife with tumult and violence in its attempts to cull any kind of meaningful spectacle for audiences who can pay (in this case, at least $20 a ticket) under the current social conditions. However, I found this evening to be full of substance and heart, tracing lines of influence that ran across an under-explored generational divide and pulling at the threads of lineage on a local level. There is an intimacy to the dance scene in a city this size, which ROMP drew out through the living archive of Bielemeier’s work.
The evening’s first dance, Suit Side In (1996), set up the entire evening nicely with a foundation of Bielemeier’s aesthetic tendencies and preferences. Most obvious were suits—faithful reconstructions by Adam Arnold, complete with strongly padded shoulders. These costumes jumped out as seven performers gradually filtered onstage, with inverse features such as flapping back pockets and external underwear. This first dance also showcased the staggered formations that Bielemeier would continue to invoke, as well the buoyant jumps, high kicks, and (almost) flailing gestures, which often subverted more presentational movement.
For the second number, One Once More, Aaron Peite performed a bright solo with plenty of balletic influence, set to accordion music. He wore a frilled orange shirt and some grey capri pants—all fitting fashion from 1998, when the piece debuted. As I watched Peite dance, I asked myself: Did Gregg Bielemeier originally dance this solo? Who gets to play Gregg this evening? The choreography felt imbued with a clear historicity, activated in performance by this young dancer. The differences in generational aesthetics, with lineages that extend back before this lifetime, closed in for a moment.
Another solo, Swan Get Ting Up, came next, in a charming performance by Liane Burns. This dance was set to a melancholic string composition by Camille Saint-Saëns, which was originally popularized in the well-known ballet solo The Dying Swan (1905). But Bielemeier’s choreography reversed this swan’s death: It began as Burns flopped onstage. She evolved quiet floorwork into a flourishing dance, and then abruptly scurried away, leaving a spotlight to search for her. In traditional Bielemeier fashion, the choreography of this solo would spazz away from completed lines, as if to let the audience know that presentation is but a joke ,and conclusions rarely happen the way we expect.
The evening’s third solo, Rilda’s Stroll, was performed by Annie Borden. This dance was full of turns, with the timbre of a jig. Puffy pillows were thrown onto the stage throughout the dance, and some even collided with Borden, who continued happily performing her dance. The whole ordeal reminded me of my attempts to take dance classes online while at home during the Covid-19 lockdown. At the solo’s conclusion, Borden muscled an impossible attempt to carry all pillows offstage at once—failure and humor emerged as twin themes that evening.
The number before intermission, ManTango Opera Lounge (1993), stood out as a work so robust it merits more context. Originally, Bielemeier performed this work with Minh Tran, another long-time local dance artist and an educator at Reed College. This evening’s reconstruction featured guest dancers Kenny Frechette and Edromar Undag. As I watched the two dancing side-by-side in their black lace suits, backed by a smoldering orange scrim, I wondered: How gay could one be, publicly, in Portland during the ’90s when this work was made?
The duo performed their rigorous choreography for what felt like an extremely long time. As the dance wore on, a subtle intimacy surfaced through the layers of athleticism. One dancer would bend over while the other sat atop (dare I say, mounted?) and then slid off. The two laid down side-by-side in ambiguity. This dance made no urgent claims from an identitarian perspective, but it was imbued with an affective queerness for those who wish to experience it…I did, and it was emotional.
Following intermission, Keylock emerged to perform S.K. Swan (excerpt)—a short solo for which he wore a belt of many fluttering ties. Somehow, it seemed fitting that Bielemeier had repurposed these silly gendered accessories into a whimsical skirt, which offered plenty of motion for dancing. An ensemble piece, Sfumata (2002) came next, full of sprightly partnering and duos that became scrambled into trios.
Wherefore ART Thou (1993) concluded the company’s performances. In the past, I had noticed that the way dancers take turns onstage often had an undercurrent of function, allowing them rest and reprieve between movements. But the way this athletic trio of dancers shared the stage seemed full of meaning, allowing space for me to notice the individuality of each one. I imagined Bielemeier setting the work, maybe with some friends in Portland.
ROMP concluded with a video projection of a younger Beilemeier, dressed in a suit with a red jacket, performing Romance Dance (excerpt). Suddenly, the very same red jacket descended from the theater ceiling. Bielemeier sauntered out of the wings, took the jacket from its perch, and put it on. The dancers and Keylock joined him onstage for a series of final bows to end the program.
Something about a queer history of friendships hit hard at the conclusion of ROMP, as if the performers were not just retracing movement but also the threads of various relationships that had existed over time. The choreography was distinctively Bielemeier’s—stylistically energetic and cardiovascularly challenging, with few moments of stillness or quietude. Yet, it did not ask the dancers to bend themselves on every imaginable axis, thrash about in violent gestures, or smash their knees in service of compromising floorwork. In short, it did not feel exploitative of their relative youth and mobility in these all-too-familiar ways, and so I didn’t find myself worried for them (as I often do). Instead, I could soak in the generous and unique contributions they each brought into the intimate and queered structures of Bielemeier’s living archive.