Perhaps the biggest benefit to being a dance writer is the chance to practice remembering, to put words to fleeting observations that would otherwise slip away in time. This review of Shaun Keylock Company’s show “Counterpoints” — performed in Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Annex warehouse theater December 8-10 — came with the opportunity to engage in this practice and to trace threads of artistic lineage across 15 years of Portland’s dance history. The show’s program offers up “the distinct experience of time” as a touchstone to return to across the individual works.
I attended SKC’s show mid-run on December 9. Artistic Director Shaun Keylock took the stage at the onset to offer thanks and the obligatory reminder for audiences to turn off their cellphones. He also noted that, unfortunately, due to a recent bout of illness and injury within the company, the world premiere of Nicholas Le-Jurica’s new commission, Make Me One with Everything, would not be performed that night. In spite of this change, Keylock assured us that the evening’s program would be robust. With that, lights dimmed, and the show began.
Certainly, the bread and butter of SKC lives in the restaging of dances by local choreographers. This practice of remembering illuminates aesthetic generational connections—dancers taught by dancers taught by dancers who have decided to stay in the Portland metro area to make their contributions. The show began with one such work entitled Arm’s Reach, created by Josie Moseley in 2007 for the Oregon Ballet Theatre School and set to the folkloric music of Lou Harrison.
This work conjured apparitions of formal lines and intricate sequencing, tempered with an air of whimsy. It began with a poignant and spry solo by Nick Weaver, who greeted the audience wearing only gray trousers and an expression that reminded me of Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic. In the following movement, Weaver and five other performers took the stage—all wearing a mix of either blue button-downs and trousers or indigo dresses. They commenced a motif that wove them in and out of partnerships in patterns reminiscent of folk dance. Jackson Conn and Jillian Hobbs occasionally took the foreground as a dynamic pair, sibling-like in their quality of connection.
Near the conclusion of Arm’s Reach, piano keys jingled as the dancers wiggled their fingers while reaching outward—here, music and movement aligned in a moment of synesthetic bliss. The performers found sweet embrace in pairs as the dance ended. This tender moment typified how gentle on the nervous system Moseley’s choreography was to behold—a welcome reminder that it was first developed for younger dancers.
The following work, The Problem of Bias, initially threw me with its charged title, leaving me unsure of what to expect. I later learned this reset work, choreographed by Jessica Hightower in 2013, was meant to interrogate “how minds are manipulated by the passing of time, and memories are often not grounded in reality.” Anna Hooper and Simone Wulfhorst danced this evening’s restaging—a duo with obvious overlaps in their training, as well as satisfying divergences in their delivery. They began by walking slowly, almost uncannily, in their matching gray dresses, arms swaying in unison. The scrim behind them glowed faintly with traces of a large lunar body.
The score for this dance, composed by Katie Griesar, caught my attention with curious chimes, circus organ, and tolling bells, which seemed to mark time’s passage. After a spell of synchronous dancing with Wulfhorst, Hooper fell into an emotionally confusing motif. At one point she held Wulfhorst’s head near the floor, while drawing with a finger on its surface, as if to say “can’t you see?” At the dance’s end, Hooper and Wulfhorst erupted into contrasting gestures and then immediately fell back into their unison stride—as if to indicate divergent experiences hiding under the guise of steady steps.
Both Arm’s Reach and The Problem of Bias harbored the ineffable flavor of contemporary dance from a decade gone by. These choreographies felt, for lack of better words, easy-to-watch: They steered clear of sensationalized brutality, a choreographic device I have limited capacity for without adequate content warning. They also struck me as relatively safe, for I was not plagued by nagging concern for the dancers’ low backs and joints as I often am watching contemporary dance. In essence, the choreographies opened space for me to reflect without running the risk of becoming emotionally overstimulated in the process.
The evening’s final performance, Anthem, featured choreography by Shaun Keylock created for the company’s 2021/22 season and set to a cascading electronic score by Nico Muhly. This work began with a spotlight on dancer Irvin Torres-Hernandez, as he lifted Sophia Beadie into a luscious extension. The lights darkened in on a scene of five dancers walking across the stage from either direction, covered in cascades of fog and silhouetted in their black costumes by a row of low-lying LED lights. The fog wafted toward me, grew briefly overwhelming, and then slowly dissipated as the dance got going.
Anthem featured a series of running flourishes and lifts. I found myself with a visceral appreciation for the occasional moments of pause and anatomical organization that occurred before a lift, which let me in on the skill and strength necessitated for such feats. I studied the choreography carefully and felt a tinge of disappointment when I realized only the women (she/her’s) would take flight during this lift-driven number. The piece concluded as a spotlight went out abruptly on Torres-Hernandez, sustaining the crescendo of energy and athleticism until the last second.
In reflecting on this program of works, I wonder if Keylock drew inspiration from Moseley and Hightower in the creation of his work Anthem—knowingly or otherwise. Certainly, the puzzle pieces are still coming together in Keylock’s commitment to carrying forth the memory of dances from Portland’s past while finding his own niche as a choreographer in its future. In the meantime, SKC’s practice of integrating local memory into its present proves curious, nourishing, and worth showing up for.