Daniel Kirk

Tripping on Memory Lane

Turning points in a life of dance: Eric Skinner moves on, Balanchine's grave, Paul Taylor's passing, Pacific Ballet Theatre days, 'Napoli'

A visit to Balanchine’s grave (and my mother’s).

The departure of Eric Skinner for a new life in Chicago.

A reunion of Pacific Ballet Theatre’s dancers.

The death of Paul Taylor.

These are the happenings of the past five weeks that have sent me tripping on Memory Lane, making me realize that the personal and the professional are, in my case as in many, inextricable from each other.

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George Balanchine, who died on April 30, 1983, is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, Long Island, one of this country’s oldest whaling ports, and now, for better but more often worse, one of the Hamptons. He made no stipulation in his will about his final resting place, and some, according to Bernard Taper, his first biographer, thought he should have been buried in Venice, with Stravinsky and Diaghilev, or in Monte Carlo. But Balanchine detested Venice, was charmed by Sag Harbor on his visits there when he was in residence at his Southampton condominium (he reportedly told someone it reminded him of the South of France). And while he remained firmly rooted in Russian culture, he was without question the principal creator of American ballet style – an American citizen, and proud of it.

George Balanchine, right, with New York City Ballet dancers, in Amsterdam, August 26, 1965. Dutch National Archives, The Hague / Wikimedia Commons

Which made it entirely appropriate to bury him in this historic American cemetery, which contains a monument to whalers lost at sea, a marker for a soldier of the Revolutionary War who, and I quote, “Did not run away,” and the graves of novelists Nelson Algren and William Gaddis, playwright Lanford Wilson, writer and actor Spalding Gray, pioneering site-specific artist Gordon Matta-Clark, and, across the path from Balanchine, dual pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, who were longtime friends of his. Close by as well lies Alexandra Danilova, his muse and common law wife, whose impact as ballerina and teacher on American dancers was nearly as powerful as his.

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Dance review: skinner/kirk take the old with the new

Dancers and dances age, but they don't stay in one place

One new work, two old works, five men, and ten years between then and now, old work and new.

That’s the formula for skinner|kirk Dance Ensemble’s concert at BodyVox (through February 10). The pairing of old and new work isn’t its only consideration of the passing of time: The concert also explores the passage of time for its creators. The company was co-founded in 1998 by Daniel Kirk and Eric Skinner, and both have had extensive careers in performance (notably with Oregon Ballet Theatre and Milwaukee Ballet). They were both founding dancers of BodyVox, where Kirk continues to dance, and they started skinner/kirk to present their own work. Reflection on that lived experience is at the heart of this concert.

The first piece, 54/27 (the ages of the dancers involved) paired Skinner with a much younger dancer, Chase Hamilton. The work begins in unassuming simplicity. A modest spotlight outlines the emptiness of the space. Moving calmly, the men take their time easing into movement, starting with simple walking. These walking patterns lay the groundwork for the evening’s one new work, allowing the audience to acclimate to the dancers’ bodies and demeanor, without the fluff of performance and gaudy dance moves to distract from their humanity. After a few minutes, they invite more motion into their bodies, sustaining by the powerful presence the two had already established.

Chase Hamilton, left, and Eric Skinner in the world premiere of Skinner’s “54/27” for the skinner/kirk Dance Ensemble at BodyVox/Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert


Intensity grew, in part due to composers Verdi and Charpentier’s baroque crescendos, that undergirded the grounded movement. The choreography and execution maintained a calm that kept the work centered and relatable. Skinner and Hamilton demonstrated that their physical movements need not override their emotional presence throughout the work by allowing the two to exist in a complementary fashion. At times, the delicacy with which Skinner attended to his movements recalled the many years of training he has spent becoming innately attuned to his body as a seasoned dancer. Simultaneously, Hamilton’s spritely energy and eagerness of focus highlighted his youth and tenacity. For a work that focuses on the juxtaposition of age, the duet was one of equals. Counterbalancing one another, they sewed movements together in a way that made 54/27 a work fully dependent on trust and respect.

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Skinner/Kirk Dance Company hits rewind and fast-forward

In their upcoming concert Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk pause to revisit their pasts and ponder an uncertain future

By HEATHER WISNER

The big questions we begin asking ourselves in middle age—about identity, achievement, love, loss, and how to reconcile the passage of time—color an upcoming concert by dance company Skinner/Kirk.

Founded in 1998 by Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk, the company has produced work as the pair’s day job—dancing with BodyVox—allowed. But Skinner recently retired from BodyVox, where he and Kirk were founding dancers, and is considering his next moves, and both men have paused to revisit their pasts and ponder an uncertain future.

This new show, which runs February 1-10 at BodyVox, features an all-male cast that includes Brian Nelson, Chase Hamilton, and Skye Stouber, and it offers a world premiere and two restaged works, both of which, Semita and Here and There, Now and Then, were originally commissioned by White Bird. During the creation process of Semita, Kirk began to spend more time with his dying father, which pulled him away from the project: the dance palpably reflects that feeling of being unmoored. It opens with a figure floating in space, lit by lighting designer Mark LaPierre.

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Men, bottled up and burning

Skinner/Kirk's "Burn It Backwards" dances in and around the way men try, and sometimes fail, to make relationships

Over the past twenty years, give or take, Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk, founders of skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE, have developed what you might call an autobiographical movement vocabulary: a braiding-together of ballet lifts, modern floor falls, spins and jumps and tumbles that reflect their performing careers in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and the Gregg Bielemeier Dance Project. At OBT they danced in work by Portland choreographer Josie Moseley, and there is a lot of her particular branch of modernism in their choreography.

I saw all that and more in Burn It Backwards, their new evening-length work, which opened Thursday night at BodyVox Dance Center, performed to music by Elliott Smith, played live—extremely live!—by Bill Athens, Galen Clark, Catherine Feeny and Chris Johnedis. Smith, who died in 2003 at a very young 34, lived most of his short life in Portland, and according to Wikipedia (yes, I had to look him up) was strongly influenced by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Of his own songwriting, Smith said, “I don’t really think of it in terms of language, I think about it in terms of shapes.”

Brent Luebbert and James Healey, facing off. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Skinner and Kirk took the title of their piece from a line in Smith’s Sweet Adeline, one of the thirteen songs arranged by Clark specifically for these performances. They chose it, they say in a program note, “because it speaks of forming a new history, both erasing and creating.” That’s a pretty good description of the choreographic process, or the creative process generally, but what Skinner and Kirk actually put on stage was a finished, polished series of dances for themselves and three other men, Chase Hamilton, James Healey and Brent Luebbert, all of them accomplished, well-schooled dancers.

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ChamberVox shakes things up

Chamber Music Northwest and BodyVox dance to the music of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

At heart, dancing is moving to rhythm, and that means it’s almost inseparable from music. There are exceptions and variations: experimental cases when dances are created without sound; the Merce Cunningham/John Cage partnership, in which movement and music were created deliberately in isolation from each other so one would not influence the other, but were performed together; contemporary pieces with more or less arbitrary music that might better be described as “specimens of sound” (which, of course, can make their own sort of music); dances in which extended periods of silence are part of the score. But on the whole dance and music are pretty much happy bedfellows, cohabiting almost by instinct.

A fairy queen cavorting with a donkey: Anna Mara as Titania and Brent Luebbert as Bottom in "Midsummer." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

A fairy queen cavorting with a donkey: Anna Mara as Titania and Brent Luebbert as Bottom in “Midsummer.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

So the relationship between Chamber Music Northwest, Portland’s premiere summer music festival, and BodyVox, one of the city’s leading contemporary dance troupes, seems like a natural, and it’s beginning to be a tradition. This year’s collaboration, which opened Thursday night at the BodyVox studio in Northwest Portland and continues through July 23, brings a third player into the mix, too: that musically savvy playwright, William Shakespeare. Titled Death and Delight, the program pairs a version of Romeo and Juliet set on Sergei Prokofiev’s R&J Suite with a new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream danced to Felix Mendelssohn’s ravishing score.

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Skinner/Kirk goes to church

The dance company's new show at BodyVox dives deep into the mysteries in its sparkling blend of old and new

Eric Skinner climbs atop a box on the stage, which is soon joined by another box, and another, and another. With each box he lifts a foot, slips the cube underneath, brings the other foot upward, and climbs higher. Five other dancers circle around him from below, handing him more boxes, which make the stack higher, the stepping-up trickier, the balance shakier.

At last, towering precariously above the safety of the stage, he squats on the highest box, legs crossed like a yogi in meditation. The room fills with a sound like echoes in a medieval cathedral. Suddenly Skinner grabs the scaffolding inches above his head. The boxes tumble to the ground; he’s dangling in midair. He sways, then drops in a deadweight, risking all. The other dancers catch him and ease him to safety. It’s a leap of faith.

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Skinner/Kirk: town & country

"Nat's Farm" and "Urban Sprawled" bridge the great dance divide in the company's sterling annual show at BodyVox

Vanessa Thiessen embraces life by jumping: high and rhythmically and joyously.  You can see it in her eyes, in her smile, in the stretch of her arms and legs, as she breathes in the sea air, smelling the salt, feeling the summer sun.

That solo takes place about midway through Nat’s Farm, Daniel Kirk’s and Eric Skinner’s new piece, which premiered on Thursday night at BodyVox as the second half of Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble’s annual concert.

From left: Thiessen, Kirk, Skinner in "Nat's Farm." jingziphotography.com

From left: Thiessen, Kirk, Skinner in “Nat’s Farm.” jingziphotography.com

Nat’s Farm was made last summer on Martha’s Vineyard, during a three-week Bessie Schonberg Choreographic Mentorship Residency at The Yard, an artist’s colony for which Schonberg, one of the founding mothers of American modern and contemporary dance, served as artistic advisor for some years before her death in 1997.  It is a wonderful breeding ground for dance. Thiessen, who like Kirk and Skinner is a former Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer, participated in the residency, as did composer Tim Ribner, who is responsible for the terrific score.

The piece begins with Ribner walking toward the musicians, beating a large shell solemnly and steadily against a small rock, while Native American storyteller Kristina Hook-Leslie chants a recorded “thank you for the gift, thank you for my life, thank you for the ocean, thank you for the wind, thank you for it all.” The dancers – Skinner, Kirk, Thiessen, Brennan Boyer and Holly Shaw – arrive on stage, dancing with ritualistic gravitas as the band starts to play, their steps a little  too on the beat.

Skinner and Kirk, at angles. jingziphotography.com

Skinner and Kirk, at angles. jingziphotography.com

The music, performed by Ribner, Max Ribner and Michael Dougherty, builds, sounding  like  waves hitting the beach, and the dancers shift to high-energy fluidity, executing pirouettes and lifts in a melding of modern and classical technique,  in response to the music and each other. I think of  Isadora Duncan, standing on the beach in Northern California early in the last century, inspired by the curve and curl and energy of the Pacific to develop a form of dance that is rooted in nature.  Skinner and Kirk have been going to Martha’s Vineyard for more than thirty years, and the impetus for Nat’s Farm comes from the Atlantic, as well as various occupants of the island: Hook-Leslie is a member of the Wampanoag tribe; Thiessen’s solo, Skinner says, was “inspired by two-week-old baby goats that we met the first day we were on the island.”

While it’s not a classic like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Ribner’s score meets Kierkegaard’s requirement “that the music not appear as an accompaniment but reveal the idea.” That’s particularly true  for Thiessen’s solo, a kind of scat-song, and the trio for her, Skinner and Kirk that precedes it. In the latter case, the Latin-flavored music changed the ritualistic tone of what came earlier, and it was danced with such ebullience and effervescence that I stopped taking notes, the better to enjoy it.  What followed Thiessen’s frolicking dance was a ragtime tune for Skinner and Kirk, the lead-in for a duet that is all about their history with each other, the time they’ve spent dancing, and loving, and living and working together, those signature lifts of theirs saying it all about tenderness and support.

Nat’s Farm ends as it began, with the rest of the cast joining them onstage, then walking off quietly as Hook-Leslie finishes her story: “It’s a good thing, it is, we’re all a part of the ocean, I try to have these kind of talks with the little ones because if I don’t say it it will get lost, I don’t want it to get lost, I don’t want us to get lost and forgotten.”

Kirk and Skinner founded their company twenty-seven years ago, in 1998; they’ve been making work for a long time, and in Nat’s Farm that experience shows.  It is beautifully crafted and structured, visually interesting, and its dance, music, and text are very well-integrated indeed. If some of the lyrical moments are a bit too smoothly so, making them look mechanical rather than heartfelt, that is easily changed. My only real quibble is with the costuming: street wear combined with practice clothes, the woven, tailored shirts interfering with the line of the movement.

The company in "Urban Sprawled." jingziphotography.com

The company in “Urban Sprawled.” jingziphotography.com

That was really true of Urban Sprawled, which opened the program, and which was originally made by Skinner in 2007.  It is performed by the same cast as Nat’s Farm with the addition of the elegant Mari Kai Juras, who also dances with Eowyn Emerald. The crisp white shirts didn’t fit anyone very well: post-modernism notwithstanding, as my seatmate commented, there is a difference between ordinary clothes and costumes. Having said that, the neckties and suit jackets worn with slacks by the three men are part of the urban feel of the piece, just as the unison choreography, some of it looking like morning calisthenics, contributes to the anonymous feel of large cities. One witty section is reminiscent of Paul Taylor’s acidly funny Cloven Kingdom – no surprise there, since Kirk and Skinner performed in it when dancing with OBT. In general, the choreography is highly athletic for both men and women, with Thiessen holding the stage as she has been doing since she was a little party guest years ago in OBT’s Nutcracker.

Opening night had the atmosphere of a family reunion, speaking of OBT, with the ballet company’s artistic director Kevin Irving in the audience, as were a couple of board members, some long-time company supporters, and a chic-looking Alison Roper, lately retired as a principle dancer from OBT’s stage. Several had come specifically to see Thiessen, who left OBT for San Francisco and Michael Smuin’s company when the artistic directorship shifted from James Canfield to Christopher Stowell. She is now back in Portland, freelancing still in the Bay Area as performer and choreographer – and now, like Skinner and Kirk, a seasoned artist who, also like them, knows exactly what she’s doing on stage. Young companies, when they’re as good as Nederlands Dans Theater 2, which performed in Portland last week as part of the White Bird season, are wonderful to watch, to be sure. But there’s immense pleasure to be had in seeing the well-honed artistry that comes only with experience. Examples? Skinner and Kirk’s duet in Nat’s Farm and Thiessen’s solo. I thank them for the gift.

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Skinner Kirk Dance Ensemble repeats its program at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 19-21, and 2 p,m, Saturday, Feb. 21, at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 N.W. 17th Ave. Ticket information is here.