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Dance Review: Shaun Keylock Company’s ‘The Age of Influence’

Presented at the 2024 Portland Jazz Festival, SKC’s latest world premiere promised to transcend artistic boundaries with innovations that take dance and sound in a new dimension, though delivered a more puzzling traditional concert dance experience.

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NW Dance Project's Andrea Parson joined the performance as a theatrical narrator, addressing "The Age of Influence" audience directly throughout the evening. Photo: Norm Eder.
NW Dance Project’s Andrea Parson joined the performance as a theatrical narrator, addressing “The Age of Influence” audience directly throughout the evening. Photo: Norm Eder.

On Friday, February 23 at Portland’s Winningstad Theatre, Shaun Keylock Company premiered The Age of Influence in collaboration with the drums and electronics duo Methods Body as part of the 2024 Biamp Portland Jazz Festival, presented by PDX Jazz. For one night only, the dance company of five was joined by Andrea Parson of NW Dance Project and founding company member Jillian Hobbs to perform for audience members gathered at the theatre’s mezzanine level. The show was roughly 90-minutes in length, starring Parson as a theatrical narrator donning a gray suit dress, pumps, and late ‘80s-style short, curled hair. In the program, the audience was provided with large promises: to “transcend artistic boundaries” and deliver “a totally deconstructed space-time” – priming the viewer to expect a “unique and captivating” experience of singular proportions.

The performance began with a welcome from Parson, who introduced SKC company director Shaun Keylock and the Methods Body band, comprised of John Niekrasz and Luke Wyland. Parson embodied a jovial, quirky, fun-aunt-at-the-party persona, asking the audience sporadic questions, such as “Do you ever question the reality of this?” before rattling off an abridged history of Jell-O and the jellyfish, and telling us to turn off our phones. The dancers, who wore black spandex and sunglasses reminiscent of the 1999 film “The Matrix,” padded barefoot behind her. As the musicians – one seated behind a keyboard and the other at drums – began to play a spacious tune, the dancers moved slowly and rigidly together in the center of the stage. From there, the first group piece ensued, resulting in an appearance from Parson again. She returned to the stage and spoke over the music, discussing those who stockpile for the end of the world and returning to the topic of Jell-O – text all written by her.

“God is still on his throne and he controls everything… even the computers,” she says, her narrative objective seeming to portray, or satirize, a particular conservative American demographic. After a few more phrases from Parson, a dancer in pink entered the stage. As the piece progressed, the even-tempered dance contrasted with the unusual punctuated time signature of the music, which became increasingly more vivacious. Though more dancers in pink and purple entered, the energy of their choreographic recitation remained even-keeled. A dancer still wearing black from the previous section walked across the stage holding a sign that read, “THIS IS A SIMULATION.” Though I was hopeful that this sign would signify the point that the night shifted from concert dance to radical deconstructed performance piece, the change did not come. Keylock’s signature Limón instructor style and notes reminiscent of Horton technique continued through the group piece and into a duet featuring classic lifts, stag leaps, and triplet steps against a deep, musical rhythm that dissolved the intro drone.

The drums and electronics duo Methods Body plays in the background as dancers move slowly behind narrator Andrea Parson (center) in "The Age of Influence." Photo: Norm Eder.
The drums and electronics duo Methods Body plays in the background as dancers move slowly behind narrator Andrea Parson (center) in “The Age of Influence.” Photo: Norm Eder.

The show’s title, The Age of Influence, though not identical to The Age of Innocence, harkens to the 1920 novel by American author Edith Wharton. Originally published in four parts during 1920, it tells the story of a lawyer named Newland Archer and his love triangle between the pious May Welland, to whom he is engaged, and her cousin, Countess Olenska. The story is set in upscale 1870s New York and is considered by some to read as a cautionary tale of the demise of the resolute gentleman. Throughout The Age of Influence, I wondered whether there was meant to be a connection, however subtle, to the theme of ‘influence’ presented in the novel – or perhaps the 1993 movie adaptation starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, and Michelle Phifer as the troubled trio – within the tidy dancing. Or maybe the notion of influence stemmed more so from the musical aspect, rather than the performative. I would have to wait and see.

When Parson addressed the audience a third time, she told us that if we “are having questions, those questions are questions” and later, that we should “let this happen.” I found myself wondering what she was referring to by questions, and by the use of this. And then she said it: “we are in an intense relationship with this moment.”

Focusing on the present moment, also often called mindfulness, has become a large topic in the mainstream conversation over the last decade. From mindfulness as self-care to mindfulness as a buzzword used by CEOs to explain away their key to success, it has become a common and polarizing phrase across the globe. Mindfulness may be attributed to an origination in ancient Buddhism, where it is considered part of a religious practice that encourages focus on the body and breath as a tool to seek spiritual liberation. In Hinduism-inspired meditation, much of which is directly related to various lineages of Yogic practice, the main utilization of mindfulness is to accomplish Samadhi, an undefinable state of nothingness in which the senses of self and duality are shed – also known as enlightenment.

“Live quietly in the moment and see the beauty of all before you. The future will take care of itself,” said Paramahansa Yogananda, chief disciple of the yoga guru Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri, about Samadhi.

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With this in mind, I sat back as Parson put on sunglasses and watched a solo from a stool upstage. A swirling graphic is later projected on the back wall as one of the two musicians walked a metallic instrument from the audience to the stage. Later, many gray, white, and black plastic balls fell from the ceiling and dancers rolled around the stage to remove them for the next piece. Parson made another return saying “you’re in a dream” as I awaited the promised deconstruction of the work.

SKC dancers Irvin Torres Hernandez (left) and Eva Crystal in "The Age of Influence." Photo: Norm Eder.
SKC dancers Irvin Torres Hernandez (left) and Eva Crystal in “The Age of Influence.” Photo: Norm Eder.

Later, director Keylock made a cameo in a short duet. He crawled and slid from stage left and immediately caught my eye, his gaze distinct, direct, and thoughtful. He is a pleasing dancer, and gracefully demands attention with each adjustment of his head and epaulement of the shoulders – thanks in part to his clarity of intention as a performer. After a coruscating moment in the limelight, Keylock disappeared stage right. 

The evening continued with a balance-testing solo from Jillian Hobbs, lit by a spot and clad head to toe in a tight black sequin dress, followed by another concert-style group piece in which dancer Sophia Beadie showcased her strength. Parson returned with a comment about artificial intelligence or machines already having communed with humans, and mentions change, Jell-O, jellyfish, and time – though she does not elaborate on how the topics are connected, their place in the piece, or their role in today’s societal, economic, or political climates.

All the while, Methods Body impressed with their at-times groovy, at-times enigmatic jazz music style. They remained, however, perched in the stage’s left corner and did not physically join or interface with the performers throughout. Nor did the dancers interact with or acknowledge them in any direct way. This brings to the forefront an age-old consideration about collaboration between dancers and musicians. Is it possible for one not to overshadow the other in a traditional proscenium format? At what point do dancers become backup entertainment for musicians, and at what point are live musicians simply providing a score for the dancers? What makes a live music and dance performance a true collaboration, and how out-of-the-ordinary should a viewer expect it to get?

Perhaps, in this circumstance, the contradiction of an unruffled concert dance in contrast with expectations of a time-bending, reality-questioning performance art experience was where its radicalism was meant to lay. Perhaps it was the expectation of the possible, where anything could happen, but was never realized, that signified the ‘dream’ Parson spoke of. Where was the “Dark Age of the Future” from the first line of the program? Perhaps it cultivated the conceptual consideration of an unfulfilled promise – the wait for something that would not come – that the audience was meant to let revel in. If so, I’m for it.

***

On March 4, Shaun Keylock Company moved from their former studio space, the Baker Building in NE Portland, to a new location on SE Foster. The studio will be shared with Classical Ballet Academy, who renovated the historic 1915 Day Theatre building and is creating the adjacent 200-seat Foster Theatre.

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A look at the new SKC studio shared with Classical Ballet Academy on SE Foster.

“We’ve been at the Baker Building for four years, but, as our organization expands, we wanted to move to a purpose-built studio prioritizing our dancers’ needs,” Keylock told me over email, “Our previous location lacked ADA accessibility, essential amenities like mirrors and sprung flooring, and the high costs impeded our growth. We’re thrilled about this move as it will immediately lower our overhead costs, like rent and utilities. This means we can focus on boosting pay for our dancers next season, supporting more artists, and expanding community projects tied to our historic archives and merger with Conduit Dance, Inc.”

When asked about plans for the space and whether the move suggests an expansion of the company, Keylock replied, “The new location will serve as the primary rehearsal venue for the company, but we’ll also continue to hold professional classes and workshops regularly… our focus is on long-term stability and prioritizing our current staff and dancers.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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