White Bird Uncaged: Skinner|Kirk + Bielemeier

I don’t know how to write about dance. I wish I could, but I suffer from a few handicaps.

First, my short-term memory seems to be atrophying. Coupled with the ephemeral quality of dance, that means I can't remember much of what I’ve just witnessed on stage, unless the work was so stunning, intriguing or bad that it was seared into my brain. By the time I’m in the car and starting to think about ice cream, most dance performances have already begun to fade.

Second, although I’ve seen a lot of dance, I lack the depth of experience and knowledge upon which a real dance critic draws to put a performance into context. I have a limited pool upon which to compare and contrast what I’ve just seen, and certainly no book-learning on the subject.

Third, my powers of description are as weak as a cup of coffee that is brown but not dark brown like strong coffee would be. I would be an unhelpful crime witness ("I dunno, he was a guy with a knife ... or maybe a gun?"), or wine critic ("Mmm ... tastes winey ... or is it wine-ish?").

Finally, I was raised with the adage, “If what you say behind someone’s back is unlikely to stay there, better to not say it at all.” The Portland arts community is small, convivial and full of hard-working, well-meaning people, so it’s uncomfortable for me to be critical out loud. (And don't think for a minute that Mighty Toy Cannon is a shielding alias--anyone who wants to know who I am can drop me a note).

With that caveat, the following is my take on the Skinner/Kirk + Bielemeier performance presented by White Bird on Wednesday night (continuing through this weekend).

For the next two years, White Bird has been exiled from PSU’s Lincoln Hall while the building is renovated. White Bird opted to take the smaller and edgier of its two subscription series on the road under the sobriquet, White Bird Uncaged. The dance presenters are bringing the four companies in the series to diverse locations – from Oaks Park to a YMCA gym. Regrettably, we missed the first in this year’s series in November – Kidd Pivot at Kaul Auditorium at Reed.

For this second outing of Uncaged, White Bird has adapted the black box of the Portland Opera Studio into an effective, intimate dance venue with approximately 200 seats. No doubt the Opera has the venue tied up for most of the year, but it would be fun to see more dance in that space. The dance floor is surrounded by seats on risers, creating a theater-in-the-round with good sight lines for everyone. Ticketing is general admission with a section of seats reserved for subscribers (which made me feel so special). In choosing where to sit, consider how much you like the frisson of almost getting kicked in the head – in the front row, you’ll be that close to the action. Here's a shot of what you might see if you sit up front:

The lighting design by Peter West, and the light installation by Hap Tivey are arresting: Shafts of light penetrate the space like a … um… like a Jedi light saber … or, how about… piercing beams of light trace filigree patterns while limning the illusion of solidity in a diaphanous ether. (whew). A gentle touch of “theatrical haze” gave the light effects dimensionality – an appropriate use of a stage trick that usually wearies me. (Note: Theatrical fog should be reserved for performances that are: (1) set in London, or (2) involve pirates or headless horsemen).

The first piece, Here and There, Now and Then, choreographed by Eric Skinner, was pleasant enough, though not much of it stuck with me. The dancing lacked the precision needed, and was marred by a few awkward lifts and mid-stage collisions. (More accurately, the problem wasn’t the lifting as much as the putting down). This may reflect first-night jitters or inadequate rehearsal time, so subsequent performances may be smoother. The piece featured a nice duet movement between Eric Skinner and Zachary Carroll. As it commenced, I braced myself for the banal four-step trajectory that typifies many male dance duets, e.g.:

Step One: Swaggering and strutting. "I'm the cock of the walk!"

Step Two: Wary circling. "You lookin' at me?"

Step Three: Wrasslin’ and tusslin’. "I'm gonna kick your ass!"

Step Four (traditional): Bemoaning the fallen enemy. "What have I become!"

Step Four (alternative): Falling into a homoerotic embrace. "Let's get a room."

Skinner’s choreography surprised me by not going in that direction, and was much more interesting as a result (though two days later I can't recall any details, so sorry about that). I liked the women's costumes: simple black frocks with a little ruffle of colored petticoat peeking out (see picture above).

The advance press on the show reported that Daniel Kirk would be absent, called away to tend to a serious family illness in California. Fortunately, he was able to return to Portland and perform last night. As the stagehand rigged the ropes in the darkened space before Semita, my warning system shrieked: “Aerial Dance Ahead!” Fortunately, rather than flying around in loopy-de-loop circles and other standard aerial vocabulary, Kirk used the trapeze as a simple sling from which he was suspended as the lights came up. Slowly, he uncurled from a Half-Pietà to a Full-Crucifix Extension. Some stigmata and a thorny crown would have enhanced the effect.

Kirk’s dance partner, Elizabeth Burden, slinked in on her back, slowly inching her way along a path of projected light. She rose from the floor, he dismounted from the sling, and the rest of the piece was a slow-motion duet that was quite lovely in its stillness and precision. Kirk’s physique (which I understand is referred to as "chiseled") may be the most memorable aspect of the piece, likely to be appreciated by anatomy students and aficionados of Renaissance sculpture.

The final piece, Half of Some, Neither of Either, was packed with Gregg Bielemeier playfulness, wit and energy. For a few moments I thought I was seeing a reprise of some of the gestures and poses struck in Skinner’s opening piece, as if Bielemeier was parodying that work. (Which I thought would have been hilarious, if a little unkind).

A highlight of the performance was Habibi Addo, a titan-sized dancer whose rotund heft evaporated under the grace, fluidity and humor she brought to the stage. In a playful duet, she and Eric Skinner shoved and tugged at each other in repeated phrases as they crossed the stage on a diagonal. The movement was fun in and of itself, but Addo imbued it with personality that popped and was a joy to watch. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the ensemble work didn’t reach a level of infectious elation I think Bielemeier intended – the kind that spills from the dancers to the audience. While a few choreographic jokes got chuckles, the audience struck me as attentive but affectless through most of the performance.

Mild disappointment was setting in until Bielemeier arrived to perform a high-energy solo that stood out in both technique and emotion. Catching my attention was the way he conveyed a balance between exuberance and world-weariness. I may be projecting a lot into it--that dichotomy may not have been the choreographer's intent. Since seeing Oslund+Company dance two weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about dance artists, such as Oslund and Bielemeier, who have played a hugely influential role in this region, yet who struggle year-after-year to secure grant funding, solicit donations, obtain commissions and sell tickets so they can pay the bills and pass some along to their dancers and designers. I admire the artistic drive that keeps them from throwing in the towel, and am intrigued by the idea of artists who are pushed, inevitably, to create and perform no matter the financial and physical obstacles. World-weariness would certainly be an appropriate emotion. (More on that topic in a future post).

Throughout the final piece, vocalist Lyndee Mah wandered the periphery of the stage scat-singing over a recording of herself scat-singing a score she wrote with jazz composer David Ornette Cherry. It was a nice theatrical effect and fun, though I had a hard time discerning Mah's live singing from the taped loops, and it was all a bit busy.

Conclusion: This isn't the dance performance of the season, but go see it anyway for three reasons:

(1) Venturing out and discovering new performance venues is a good thing. I think it's a challenge to get audiences to venture out of their geographic comfort zones to see performances. Bravo to White Bird for an experiment that may help break that pattern.

(2) Supporting local choreographers and dancers is laudatory. Bravo to White Bird for continuing to support local dance -- now it's your turn.

(3) This show may not be groundbreaking or memorable, but it is engaging and has enough stand out moments to make it a worthwhile way to spend 60 minutes.

Final Note: If you’re going to this show, look up the directions to Portland Opera’s Hampton Center carefully. Instead of relying on Google Maps, a GPS system or your own, unerring sense of direction, visit White Bird’s website for specific directions. The City's Big Pipe project has blocked some of the routes that may be what you're used to. Give yourself time to stroll over to the river’s edge to gaze at the sparkling view of our beautiful city. (As we left the performance, a perfect partial moon was pinned just above the skyline to the west).

UPDATE: Go visit to Art Scatter for a more detailed and skillful review of the performance, apparently from the Friday evening show.

Photo Credits: Chris Roesing

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