The Shaun Keylock Company studio on N. Albina Avenue was warm and dimly lit, alive with chatter from patrons heading up the flight of stairs to join a bar line and gather around the raffle table. Fall Fête, SKC’s sold out one-night-only fundraiser on November 15, incorporated a festive gala reception with two repertory performances and a company premiere. As string lights illuminated the audience chairs set neatly on the rich wood flooring, community members, friends, dancers, and arts supporters excitedly greeted each other before packing in tightly to find their seats.
After a last call for raffle tickets, SKC Artistic Director Shaun Keylock took to the floor, welcoming his guests and explaining the evening’s purpose: to raise funds in support of the company and its mission — as he seeks to push his boundaries and the boundaries of the audience. With a round of applause, the show began.
The first piece of the evening was Portland choreographer Gregg Bielemeier’s Suit Side In, which initially premiered in 1996 on Michael Menger’s Really BIG Dance Company and was restaged by SKC in 2020. Originally beginning his career with Portland Dance Theater in 1970 and becoming one of the six founders of Conduit Dance, Bielemeier has been an active choreographer, performer, and dance educator for nearly 45 years. In Suit Side In, he explores the lighthearted as performers don inside-out suits by designer Adam Arnold, whose flapping strings and pockets “just added to the movement,” according to the choreographer. Through heavy postmodern influence married with Limón technique-style flair, the dancers made their way through battements, bounces, quick weight shifts, turns, and footwork in the cardiovascular piece.
Shaun Keylock’s Calamus, which premiered in 2018, was, according to the program notes, dedicated in memory of Portland dancer Matthew Cichon. The work began in low lighting to the calming sound of crickets while two dancers in matching white pants, gray shirts, and ballet shoes entered the space. They embraced and rapidly dissolved into partnering and unison that incorporated sweeping motions, floorwork, and lifts. Fueled by music by Evan Swope, dancers Irvin Torres-Hernandez and Omar Vargas depicted a tender relationship in Keylock’s study of identity, masculinity, and softness.
The final dance of the evening, Derek Brockington’s Banner, premiered on Dance Theater of Harlem in 2021. The work commenced amid indigo-blue lighting, introducing a pleasant ballet suite complete with long, pastel pink dresses with flowing skirts. The lovely work featured six dancers darting and turning; executing jetes, petite allegro, and pleasing arabesque sautes in an arrangement of ballet technique and character acting. Led by lighting changes and music by Jessie Montgomery, the work delved into the traditional drama of classical ballet with a contemporary twist.
A series of solos, duets, trios, and group work featured dancer Annabel Kaplan, the recent George Mason University BFA recipient whose extension and artistry shined in her unique interpretation of the work. As the piece came to a whirling end, the stage lights dimmed and Keylock addressed the audience, inviting them to attend the fundraiser’s post-showcase reception and donate to help the company continue with its goals.
Amid SKC’s exciting plans for the future — including revivals of Keely McIntyre’s Drift (2009) and Tere Mathern’s Evidence of Division (1999) during a three-part evening called Recharged from June 21-23, 2024 at Lincoln Performance Hall — I spoke to Keylock via email to discuss the 2021 SKC and Conduit 501(c)(3) merger and its impact on the company during the last two years. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell me a little bit about the transition of becoming a 501(c)(3). What has been the most challenging aspect thus far?
The merger with Conduit in late 2021 was a significant turning point for the company. After our retrospective with Gregg Bielemeier that year, Tere Mathern, Conduit’s former director, approached us with an offer to inherit the 501(c)(3) status and archives of Conduit Dance, Inc. This development was particularly exciting for our Moving Archive Project, an initiative dedicated to preserving and archiving the work of dance elders in the community. For the last several years, we have functioned as a single artist-run company, so this transition has provided us with an opportunity to expand our historical programming and further develop this crucial project.
The most challenging aspect over the past year, however, has been dealing with the “post-pandemic effect.” Like many of our counterparts in the city, we are currently grappling with financial instability. The uncertainty makes it challenging to plan for the future, forcing us to scale back much of our planned programming this year. Despite these setbacks, we remain hopeful that the situation will stabilize soon and allow us to refocus on community events and programming.
How has becoming a nonprofit changed or impacted your company’s mission, if at all?
Our transition to a nonprofit has led to an overhaul of our mission and a redevelopment of our brand strategy. I’ve always believed that organizations should evolve and change over time. I’m eager to see how incorporating Conduit and its archives will enable us to grow, creating new opportunities to broaden our understanding of the art form through direct engagement with its history, practice, and performance.
What has been the biggest influence of the status on SKC? How has it furthered your programming/impacted the upcoming season?
I think the biggest influence has been discovering what our niche is as an organization and how we fit into the broader ecosystem of the community. Portland has a vibrant dance scene, and it took us some time to identify what sets our company apart and how we can contribute to the city. For the first time, it feels like we’ve pinpointed what makes us unique, which is both exhilarating and inspiring.
Our flagship program under Conduit has been the development of the Moving Archive Project. This initiative aims to preserve, archive, and share the artistic lineage of artists who have shaped the dance history of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. We’ve made significant strides with this project over the last few years, restoring over 20 different works by local artists including Gregg Bielemeier, Josie Moseley, and Jessica Hightower.
From a practical standpoint, the status allows SKC to directly accept donations from corporations, government entities, foundations, and individuals, eliminating the need for an intermediary or fiscal sponsor. This status also lends a sense of legitimacy to our operations. We are now a fully-fledged business with a dedicated staff; our dancers are compensated as employees. This status propels us to continue growing and expanding our capacity to do more.
What does receiving the 501(c)(3) mean to you personally?
It’s a lot more work! This status represents a significant commitment and is markedly different from operating as an independent artist or a fiscally sponsored organization. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have a fantastic and supportive team that helps provide invaluable oversight and guidance as we navigate this new status.
Have any plans been implemented to honor Conduit’s legacy?
We are still in the planning stages and have not implemented specific programming around Conduit and its archives quite yet, but we certainly have plans for the next few seasons. We’re discovering that history is complex and there are many crucial and sensitive aspects to consider, particularly as we work with elders in the community and aim to revive a legacy institution like Conduit. We intend to take all the time necessary to consult with Conduit’s former core members and determine the best way forward.
What type of community building/outreach has the status allowed you to delve into?
Our engagement with the community hasn’t been as extensive as we would have liked, given that much of our energy has been directed towards stabilizing the organization. The merger with Conduit occurred amidst the pandemic, providing minimal financial uplift. Despite the excitement surrounding this development, our budget remains largely unchanged from before the merger. I hope that, over the next year, we can establish a solid support base, enabling us to dream bigger and engage our community more profoundly.
What does SKC have in store for this next season? How can audience members expect to see the status’ impact here?
In addition to Recharged, the company has been commissioned by PDX Jazz to create a new project celebrating jazz-inspired dance, complete with live musical accompaniment. This project will make its world premiere at the 2024 Portland Jazz Festival, scheduled for February 23-24, at the Winningstad Theatre.
What are your long-term goals for SKC and the studio space?
One of our long-term goals is to enhance our capacity to support our staff, dancers, and artists, enabling them to thrive and continue their work with the company. Additionally, since 2021, SKC has toured regularly and I aspire to expand our existing touring initiatives to reach more audiences — not only in the Pacific Northwest, but also nationally and internationally. The merger with Conduit holds significant meaning for us. We hope to embrace it in a manner that provides support and stability for our organization as we look toward the next five years and beyond.
What can the community do to support SKC now that it has the status?
We are currently seeking donations to support our mission, stabilize our organization, and introduce new programming under Conduit Dance. These contributions may be tax-deductible and qualify for a match with the Oregon Cultural Trust. To learn more and make a donation, visit shaunkeylock.com/support.