James Healey

A Portland pandemic dance survey

Local dance companies and choreographers are adapting to the new normal

During the past couple of months I have been checking in regularly with some of the folks that make up Oregon’s dance community to see how things are going. The good news is that Oregon’s dancers are still dancing. You definitely can’t keep a dancer from dancing under any circumstances. It’s who they are and it’s what they do. Plus, dancers are already used to working under harsh conditions and with minimal resources anyway. The bad news is that their situation doesn’t look like it’s getting better any time soon.

The multitalented Katherine Disenhof soaring through the air.
Photo by Jason Hill.

Almost immediately following the lockdown, the international dance community jumped online and began connecting with each other and audiences through dance classes, performances, and discussions via Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Here in Portland, Katherine Disenhof a dancer with NW Dance Project, who has since left the company and moved back home to the Bay Area, created Dancing Alone Together, an online hub where dancers could go to find online dance classes and events during this time of “social distancing.” 

As of today, you can pretty much find every independent dance teacher and dance studio online, teaching daily classes, of all kinds, including Oregon dance studios and companies. 

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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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DanceWatch Weekly: New Expressive Works

Subashini Ganesan's New Expressive Works project funds another round of new dance

There is just one performance offering this weekend and three chances to view it, so don’t miss out. It’s the New Expressive Works residency performance (N.E.W.), a program that takes place twice yearly, showcasing the work of four new choreographers each time.

This residency offers choreographers a chance to make a new work in a supported environment, with feedback from peers, no strings attached and no expectations of what the work should look like in the end.

The work that comes out of this residency is extremely varied, sometimes polished, sometimes not, and quite often turns into larger works that the artists produce themselves at a later date.

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