Partners Onstage and Off
By Claire Willett
Their first joint show was in a shipyard warehouse, they finish each other’s sentences, and they get a kick out of audience members who ask if they’re a couple. Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk took me to school on the evolution of dance in Portland, the up-and-comers you should watch out for, the fascinating roots of their new work “Nat’s Farm” (premiering in February at BodyVox), male emotional intimacy onstage, and twenty-five years of dancing with each other. Now I am in love with them. You will be, too.
Two Trapezes In a Shipyard: How Skinner/Kirk Was Born
Claire Willett: So, to start out, I’m not sure I even know how it was that you two first met.
Daniel Kirk: We actually met at OBT, dancing there. Eric moved here in ‘87 and danced with Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre, and then the two companies merged and became Oregon Ballet Theatre and I came here as a founding member. So that’s where we met. So we’ve been dancing together for over 25 years, and living together for about 23-plus years. So there’s a pretty tight, long-standing relationship there.
Eric Skinner: On and off the stage. Just to be clear. (laughter) Just to be clear.
DK: You know, when we left Oregon Ballet Theatre – we left at different times, Eric left maybe two years before I did – and then when I left, we both were just happy to experiment with different things. Eric started working with Gregg Bielemeier, he worked with Mary Oslund and Minh Tran, he really kind of threw himself into the local dance pool. And then when I left the ballet I kind of followed suit. So we were just kind of experimenting and finding different voices –
ES: I had kind of taken a slight hiatus, I took about a year off and didn’t dance a whole lot, and then I had been, like, “I still need to keep dancing,” so I found Gregg Bielemeier and that’s where I really started crossing over. We kind of found each other. He was just moving back into town and wanting to start something up, so we started doing some projects together. I did maybe, I don’t know, four shows with Gregg Bielemeier, and Daniel like two or three, and that was how I kind of dove into the contemporary modern dance scene. And that was something that had always interested me anyway, even when I was at the ballet. You know, the classics were great, and it was fun to do them, I’m just not a story ballet person. But when Bebe Miller came, and all these more contemporary artists, I was just like, “Yes, something to sink my teeth into.”
But you came from straight classical training, right?
ES: Yeah, my training was Butler University. It had an excellent dance [department] but it’s focused on ballet. But it’s a really well-rounded program, where there’s jazz and modern and tap and all kinds of character dances. So I felt really well-rounded coming out of college, but my primary focus was with ballet. And then Daniel started at the Joffrey School.
DK: Yeah, my background was very classically-based, but in that Joffrey kind of way, so, contemporary ballet.
A little different flavor to it.
DK: I didn’t really grow up doing classical ballets, per se, like Swan Lake and stuff like that. So I kind of found my niche [at the Joffrey School]. And then I got hired to come out here. I got hired by Dennis Spaight for Ballet Oregon. I was driving across the country from New York to start my new job, and I was in the middle of Wyoming, in Casper, and I called him to check in and he was like, “Oh, by the way, there’s something you should know – there’s been a merger and I’m not longer the director of the company.” And I’m like, “Oh, shit, I’m out of a job.” Like, it’s the end of August, and I’m hosed. And then he said, “Well, part of the deal was that I get to keep all of my dancers, even the people like you who aren’t even here yet, and James [Canfield, Artistic Director of Pacific Ballet Theatre] has to let his dancers go but he’s going to be the director.”
Oh, I don’t think I ever knew that was how that transition had worked.
DK: Yeah, if they’d kept both companies it would have been epic, way beyond their budget, so they had to cut somewhere, and that was part of their deal. James had to cut from Pacific Ballet Theatre but he also got to be the director. And so then, as the story started unfolding, it started making sense to me. I’m like, “Wow, I trained at the Joffrey Ballet, it was like my dream company, and now suddenly I’m working for James Canfield, Mark Goldweber, Patricia Miller –“ It was like, in my mind I’m thinking “Joffrey West.” I’m like, “This is gonna be amazing.” Much better than I signed up for. So it turned out to be a really great move. I was just looking for something different at the time, a chance to get back to the West Coast. I really didn’t think that it was going to turn into such a life-changing experience.
And were you thinking that Portland was where you were going to stay –
DK: At that time, no.
. . . or sort of just come here for a little while and then see what’s next?
DK: Yeah, sort of stick my toe in the water and see. And I figured I’d give it a year and get a sense. And right away I knew. I loved the city, I loved the company I was dancing with and the people I was dancing with –
ES: I think we were open to going someplace else if the job came up, but we both really liked Portland and were thinking we needed to find ways to stay here. And that was one of the reasons that I wanted to start getting to know the local talent that I hadn’t really been exposed to. Because the ballet’s such a bubble, you know, you’re just in your little bubble, and I knew these people existed but I hadn’t ever been exposed to them [or] gone out to see their work. So it was a really fun two or three years where I just thought, okay, I’ll go do a Mary Oslund thing. Okay, I’ll go do a show with Gregg Bielemeier. And then Minh Tran wanted to work with us. And that’s when I [realized] there’s some really great, interesting work going on in this city.
DK: But also, during the OBT years . . . during our summer hiatus we would go down and dance with the Los Angeles Chamber Ballet, which was, hence the name, a really small company. And, again, very classically trained but very contemporary in choreographers . . . And it was really nourishing to go down there in the summer and come back. But, again, it solidified the fact that we loved Portland a lot. It takes leaving to appreciate coming back. So that was part of our deepening roots in the city. And then after we left the ballet we co-founded a company with a couple of friends – that was sort of an accidental thing, I shouldn’t even say co-founded “a company,” that’s putting the cart before the horse. We just wanted to play. One of the girls, her neighbor had a big warehouse space he said we could use, and we went in and hung up some ropes and started experimenting with aerial stuff. And we’d go in three times a week and we called it “playing.” We made a structure as far as time – like, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from whatever time to whatever time, so it was structured in that respect – but we’d get there and we’d just [say], “Hey, what would happen if you hung from your elbow, what would this position look like” –
ES: Developing a vocabulary.
DK: And then we’d go in and put on music. Just for ourselves. Just put on one of our favorite CDs of the moment, you know, and just play. And the suddenly the vocabulary would start taking on a musical shape, and then we’d put a couple of phrases together, and then after awhile – and I’m talking like after a year’s time – we sat there and thought, “You know, I wonder if this would be interesting for people to watch.” And we thought, “Well, why not. We’ll do a really low-brow kind of showcase thing.” We had grouped some of our vocabulary into sequences, like “Spinning” was one, and “Big Swings” was another . . . and we divided them up. “You do a piece about big swings, he’ll do all spinning.” And then we gathered some other stuff. We did it out at Portland Shipyards [where we were rehearsing], but it’s a high-security space . . . every single person that comes out to that space, their name has to be on the list at the security kiosk. So you couldn’t just show up. So it’s this whole thing about driving all the way out there –
ES: It was an adventure.
DK: It was an adventure! Having your name checked off and then driving through huge hangars with doors open and sparks flying out because they’re welding 24/7, giant ship parts moving, and you have to go all the way to the end and then you walk into this dirty [room], and we had 100 seats, just around the walls, so one row, and two trapezes hung . . . I think we probably had like eight light instruments hung up . . . And we did this show. And that was in maybe ‘96, and people are still talking about it. “Oh my God, you did that show, that was the most amazing thing.”
ES: There was such a rawness to it.
DK: But that was part of the adventure. So that’s where we kind of taught ourselves our aerial vocabulary. Eric choreographed a duet in that show that we don’t perform often but it still comes up and we still do it. It’s really something that is dear to both of us, we love it a lot. And he’s since choreographed a second duet on the trapeze that we’ve performed all over the world; that thing we’ve toured like to death [and] was performed at BodyVox shortly after that. And that was an interesting company because, you made a comment [earlier] about how many Oregon Ballet Theatre alumni went on to do other things –
Yeah, it seems to me like the whole Portland dance community is seeded with all these people who all came up at OBT at the same time, and they’re everywhere, totally reshaping the dance landscape – and not just in ballet. I just find that so fascinating. Everyone kind of knows each other.
DK: Yeah. And I love that. I don’t know if you’ve been part of this 25th Anniversary of OBT and this opening season show –
Yes, I saw the show.
DK: I feel like a key thing I was really waiting for Kevin to express – but I just don’t think he’s been here long enough to understand really the importance of it – but back when OBT started in ‘89, the dance scene was basically coming out of PSU. It was a very modern dance scene and had a very distinctive flavor. Sort of homogenized. And all of a sudden there’s this company that’s now attracting the attention of the country and dancers are coming from all over the country to dance here. And, like us, once they’re here they love it, they want to stay. And then they leave the company but they don’t want to leave the city. So suddenly you have this influx of really – I don’t want this to sound not inclusive, but, really talented and trained dancers coming in for the ballet –
ES: And it’s an affordable city, in comparison to New York or San Francisco –
DK: Especially then. So suddenly you have this pool of really trained dancers from all over the country that are staying put, and wanting to do something other than the ballet. So that is a big part of it. And that was a really huge thing the ballet has given the city.
ES: We all have other jobs, because we have to, but we also continue to dance.
And you have dancers transitioning into choreographers after they retire, and founding their own companies – it feels like there’s this whole generation of dance artists who all came up under Canfield and so much of the contemporary dance that’s happening in Portland and the cool indie choreographer stuff is kind of under that umbrella.
DK: And I think an interesting distinction about you bringing up Canfield specifically is that he loved a well-rounded dancer. I mean, obviously he really treasured the ballet technique, but he loved a dancer that could move to –
DK: Yeah. And I think when Christopher Stowell came in, he was more focused on the classical and neoclassically trained dancers. So I think when they left, they were less inclined to integrate into the contemporary dance scene.
I think it will be interesting to see, as they come up through the ranks and then age out and retire, the dancers that came in under Christopher, whether that will continue that same trend or whether they’ll end up doing other things.
DK: It seems to me like most of the dancers [Stowell] brought in when he first became director of the company were a lot more classically-minded, and will probably if they stay in town be more inclined to teach.
Or move into arts administration. Like Anne Mueller’s at Bag & Baggage, and Alison’s doing development there now, and it seems like that’s more the shift – staying in the classical arts world in a different role instead of [branching out into contemporary]. . . . Candace Bouchard might.
DK: Yeah. Candace is extremely innovative and I really admire a lot of the stuff that she’s done . . . So then [with] BodyVox you have Jamey [Hampton] and Ashley [Roland], who came from ISO, this amazing contemporary dance company that hit the world in a way, in a place and time that just clicked. Like I don’t know how familiar you are with ISO – it was maybe a little bit before your time – but, you know, modern dance was certainly happening, and you had your stalwarts – Paul Taylor and Martha Graham and Cunningham –
DK: Yeah, this was sort of in the same vein as Pilobolus, but it took off like a rock star. And Pilobolus are hugely popular, anybody can sell out a house for Pilobolus, but you don’t have people standing at the stage door screaming for them after a show. And with ISO, that was the case. They toured to Israel and Japan and all over Europe and people were screaming at the stage doors, and during the show they were yelling at the stage . . . These were rock stars. And Jamey and Ashley were two of those four creators and founders of that company. And so they came to Portland on a commission from Portland Opera to create Carmina Burana, and, again –
DK: “Hey, Portland’s really cool!” And so they stayed, and put together BodyVox. Which was all former OBT dancers . . . and then Jamey and Ashley. But it was a really great mix –
ES: It was a cool combination.
DK: Because they could ask for things, and we brought the clarity and line that made it different.
ES: [And then] we did our first skinner/kirk [show] – it wasn’t called skinner/kirk at that time – but we did our first collaboration together. We collaborated with David York. We did a half an hour piece, he wrote an original score and we choreographed. It’s called “Apollo and Hyacinth . . .” It was a wonderful experience. He had a live 18-piece orchestra, it was part of his graduate thesis, it was really great. Not a whole lot of people saw it because we only did one performance, but the people who did see it still remember it. I was just talking to someone a couple months ago who was like, “I remember that piece, it was so beautiful.” So that was kind of the start. And at that point, BodyVox was starting to get rolling, and I still really wanted to choreograph, so I started choreographing [with them]. Jamey and Ashley had asked me to choreograph in BodyVox shows – they opened it to anybody but I was like, “Yes, give me [a shot].” And I quickly realized that BodyVox was their artistic vision and I was like, “Well, I have my own stuff that I want to say.” So that’s what was more pushing me and Daniel to create our own performances and shows. So we started writing some grants and did a show maybe a year or so after that and that’s when we decided, okay, we need a name. So we named it Skinner/Kirk.
DK: We dug deep for that one.
ES: Yeah, we dug deep.
DK: “We could call it Smith & Wesson?”
ES: No . . .
DK: “How about Sears & Roebuck?”
ES: No . . .
DK: “Hey, how about Skinner/Kirk?”
Sea Gods and Tribal Elders: Anatomy of a New Work
ES: We just had the pleasure of getting to do a three-week residency at this place called The Yard on Martha’s Vineyard, which is an amazing little dance incubator hub. It’s primarily New York and East Coast-based dancers that go there. But we got a three-week residency and . . . it was really quite an amazing experience. We were asked to come with four artists total, including –we had to pick a main artist, which was me, and then we brought Daniel, and Vanessa Thiessen, who is –
Another former OBT dancer!
ES: Yeah, and then we brought Tim Ribner, who is a musician, because we wanted to create an original score for this piece. So the three of us and Tim went to The Yard for three weeks and created a 20-minute new work. And it was an amazing experience . . . We created 20 minutes because that was our timeframe, we were only allowed 20 minutes, but we developed a lot of different other material that we still want to explore and add to it [for the February performance at BodyVox], and we also want to add dancers to it . . . It’s called “Nat’s Farm”, and there’s a little history behind that. I have been going to Martha’s Vineyard for a bajillion years, and my family, we have a place out there called Nat’s Farm . . . I was like, “I want to show up and I want the experience of being there on the island to be what the piece is about.” So we had two people that had never been there before – one of them maybe once when he was a little kid for five minutes – so the first few days we just started [going] out on these little adventures around the island and I’d show them, you know, this is my favorite beach, it’s called Stonewall Beach, and we started collecting rocks and soundbites from the ocean and then Tim started being like “What’s that over there? Look at that view over there!” so we’d go over and investigate and all of a sudden he’d come back with some amazing idea . . . and he started writing these poems and stuff, and Vanessa’s influencing the movement, and so it was really just this kind of cool organic process –
ES: And then we ended up getting in touch with the Native Americans on the island and hearing some of their stories and incorporating that into our piece. And it turned into this really lovely 20 minute piece that we want to expand and add to.
DK: On this residency, we went in, like he said, the only thing we took to the Vineyard with us is knowing that we wanted to be inspired by the space . . . We went to this part of the island that is part of a reservation and . . . you stand at the overlook and look at the beautiful cliffs, and [there’s] this sign and it talks about this legend of a sea god and he takes a whale and swings it and rams it against the cliffs and that’s why the cliffs have these beautiful colors in them. But the sacrifice of that whale has created a sort of safety area for the whales to come and thrive and be safe. So [Tim] wanted to find out more about that. And we went and talked to one lady and she said, “Oh, you need to talk to that lady over there,” so we go across the street and talk to her, “Oh, no, you need to talk to somebody from the tribal council. So we call somebody from the tribal council. “Wait, when is this performance?” “Well, it’s in two weeks.” “Well, this is a conversation that should have started like four months ago.” I’m like, really? It’s a legend! We’re just asking you to share a story with us . . . And you’d think they’d be happy to share their thing –
ES: They’re very protective. They want to protect their stories. And they weren’t quite sure, who are these people coming in and asking us –
Right, like is this icky white appropriation or –
DK: Exactly, and I think they’re so used to being misrepresented that, I mean, for generations, that they’re very guarded about their history.
ES: As anybody would be.
DK: So Tim took it upon himself and called the tribal council, met with one of the tribal elders, went out there to the res, met with her in the longhouse, recorded an interview with her, and then came back like “You guys, this is amazing.” And we actually used her voice in part of the score [where] she’s telling the story. And it’s really cool. They really opened up. And that would not have happened if we hadn’t been open to [Tim] going off and doing that. So really cool things came out of it that surprised us. If we had just gone in and had our vision only, it would have been a great piece, I’m not saying we wouldn’t have done something great –
ES: Of course we would! It would have been fabulous!
DK: But we wouldn’t have been surprised.
ES: He took it in directions we would never have foreseen, or could have foreseen.
DK: And we love that.
“The Perfect Storm”: Skinner/Kirk’s Unique Partnership with BodyVox
ES: Jamey and Ashley approached the two of us and said, “Hey, we’re thinking about starting a company, we really want you guys to be on board, and if you guys would do it with us, we’ll start this company.” And we’re like, “Great.”
So you guys were in it right from the beginning.
ES: Yeah. We were. There were other dancers who were in it right from the beginning but the conversations that were happening about the company started between Jamey and Ashley and Daniel and I. So yeah, we were in on the ground floor.
And then was that concurrent with you guys creating skinner/kirk as your own separate thing?
ES: It was right around the same time . . . BodyVox was picking up pace, and we started touring with them, and we didn’t have a ton of extra time, so we thought, okay, when we have something to say, we’ll do a show. So it might have been something like every other year. And then I choreographed a piece called “Urban Sprawled” – that was one of the last shows we did at the old BodyVox space – and that caught the eye of Paul [King and Walter [Jaffe, of White Bird]. They had already seen us dance but that piece caught their eye, and that was when they asked the two of us and Gregg Bielemeier to do the Skinner/Kirk & Bielemeier show that they presented and commissioned. And then, you know, we just kept doing things, and then about four years ago . . . BodyVox was deciding they really wanted to present a season and not just do a show here and a show there on top of all their touring. So they had the idea to bring us into the mix. And we tried it out and just did a one-off, and then they’ve asked us every season since to do a show as part of the BodyVox season, which has been fantastic.
DK: It’s been a win-win for everyone.
That’s one of the things I think is so cool about what you guys are doing. It feels like it’s a really interesting model, that you’re your own artistic entity, and you’re your own 501c3 now even, but that you have the umbrella of this bigger organization with access to their resources and access to their audience but your own individual identity. Which feels kind of like the perfect storm.
ES: It really is.
Because you don’t have to have your own marketing director or your own building –
ES: And we just feel so blessed.
And you don’t have to do like seven shows a year, you just do a show when you have a show. I think it’s fascinating. I wish more larger organizations would adopt smaller organizations to do that sort of resource-sharing. It feels like it’s really replicable.
ES: It is. I mean, I think there was a little bit of concern in the beginning mostly because Jamey and Ashley . . . didn’t know what our work was really going to be like, and they were worried that maybe it was going to be too similar to what they do. So they were kind of sitting back and waiting to see how everything played out. [But] after the first couple of shows Jamey was like, “You know, you guys’ stuff is so different from ours, but complimentary to what we do” –
DK: And that’s part of that perfect storm.
ES: Yeah, and that’s part of the perfect storm.
DK: That we’re different.
ES: That we’re not a threat to each other. That we have complimentary aesthetics.
DK: Did you see the Arcane Collective? Last year, or two years ago. Amazing piece. And in fact the lady who’s the director was a third member of that ISO group, of the original four. So they had a lifelong relationship. She’s got a company based out of Dublin. And her work is polar opposite from BodyVox. And they presented her company one year. And whereas with us, because we’re such a part of BodyVox, the audience that’s coming, even if our work is different, we’re familiar faces –
People feel like they have a relationship with you.
DK: Everyone knows us. And this work was so unique that the biggest concern was, oh my God, are we going to lose audience members because it’s so different? . . . I mean, it’s like butoh theatre. And I think the people who saw it really appreciated it for what it was. But that was a really big concern.
That’s a tricky artistic director question. Like, how far can you push your audience without losing the stalwarts, but you don’t want to keep them in the safe zone all the time because then they don’t have a chance to stretch and grow.
ES: I think the people who came to that show were kind of blown away by it.
DK: And even with our company, there’s a lot of overlap between a BodyVox audience and a Skinner/Kirk audience. But there are those sections that don’t cross over. There’s a lot of people who will come to our shows that won’t come to a BodyVox show, and there’s people who go to BodyVox shows that just don’t get what we do. And that’s fair. There’s no problem with that. But it’s interesting to acknowledge that’s not a complete crossover. And that’s, again, part of that perfect storm. Because Una [Loughran]’s hope when she first presented us was that we’d draw a new audience.
What do you feel are the roots of what makes your work really distinct from what BodyVox is doing?
DK: I think largely it’s shaped by our ballet backgrounds. I feel like BodyVox’s work is very theatrical –
ES: Still very physical, too, though.
DK: They love telling stories with movement, but the movement is usually – more organic, I think might be a good term . . . whereas our movement comes from a more architectural place, it’s more design-oriented.
ES: And ballet-influenced.
DK: Definitely ballet-influenced. We really, in our dancers, look for that same line and that same training. There’s more of a unity, I think, in our company. Whereas with BodyVox, you’ve got sort of this motley crew that somehow becomes a family and can tell a story together, so it works. But in our work, I think if we had that much diversity in technique –
ES: Well, we tend to lean towards people that are still a little more connected to the ballet world, because that’s just sort of where our eye goes . . . Even though BodyVox has a lot of very balletic-trained dancers, the approach Jamey and Ashley bring to creating a work is very different from what we do. We go into the studio with BodyVox and we kind of wait to see what’s going to come out in the room, whereas – and I’m speaking for myself – if I’m going to choreograph a piece, I come in with a good solid phrase and start building upon that.
That seems like a very ballet, classical-choreographer technique. You bring in the pattern and then you let the dancers shape it instead of going in and sort of freestyling.
ES: And Jamey and Ashley come in with a concept, and develop movements and a piece based around the idea of that concept, and you never know what it’s going to be.
DK: I don’t think they know what it’s going to be until they’re there.
ES: Which is exciting. It’s cool.
DK: But part of that is necessity and efficiency, because we have very limited rehearsal time. Like our last show that we did, “Between the Lines,” we basically only had the whole company on Sundays. So we found little times during the week that we could work with one person or maybe four people, but we didn’t get the whole company, so we had to be efficient. You have to come in with a plan.
ES: And you have to start months earlier than you normally would.
“Raising the Bar”: Evolution of the Portland Dance Scene
What are some of the things you’ve seen change in the dance scene in Portland since you guys both started at OBT?
ES: Well, it’s kind of exploded. In large part [thanks] to Paul and Walter and White Bird. Those two have changed the dance landscape in this city. I mean, how they’ve educated this community in dance, and in so many different forms of dance, dance from all over the world –
DK: They’ve raised the bar.
ES: And they’ve really raised the bar. And they’ve also just really made Portland a pretty savvy dance town. I mean, you think about the Schnitz, where they’ll sell a show that’s like three thousand people seven times a year. And the audiences are always different and the shows are always so different. So yeah, that bar has just been completely raised . . . And I think also it’s made all of the artists who have been here for years just step up their game a little bit. It challenges them. Which I think is a healthy thing, really great . . . In the beginning I think some people were threatened by that. But then they quickly realized that, you know, Paul and Walter were so encompassing of everybody and just wanted to be there to support everybody. And I think once everybody kind of just took a breath and settled down they were like, “Okay, this is a good thing.”
And that we all benefit when everyone is bringing their best work.
DK: And they’re very community-minded, too. It could have turned out differently in the hands of other people, but Paul and Walter are so inclusive and work so hard to bring companies in, to use a different studio every time for the incoming company, or they’ll do a different workshop, they try to involve everybody in the community in a really great way, and I think that has helped as well.
ES: So I think it’s changed dramatically in a very positive way, and it’s been very fun to see that.
DK: Because there was the PSU dance series before that . . . and then when that closed down, there was sort of a void there. And that’s when OBT was young and we were new to the city. The ballet was the only big gig in Portland. And you had some of these independent choreographers, but not choreographing on the scale that they are now. And when White Bird came in, those people were like, “How can I compete when you’re selling tickets to Paul Taylor? We can’t compete with that.” But I knew even then that it was only going to broaden the dance audience. That bringing in the Paul Taylor and the Martha Graham companies and all these great shows that they have [would benefit everyone].
ES: I mean, any given week, it seems like, or at least like two or three a month, there are always things happening, and from all different shapes, you know – aerial work and modern work . . . The circus arts. I mean there are so many movement-based things happening in Portland.
What are the arts organizations in your I’m sure limited free time because I know you guys are so busy, where you like to go and be an audience member, that you find really inspiring?
DK: Wow, that’s a good question. Well, we do have season tickets to both White Bird series, because that is awesome for us to be able to experience. I mean, instead of having to go away to experience these dance companies, they’re coming to us.
ES: I’ve been loving seeing what Jim McGinn [of Top Shake Dance] is doing right now.
ES: I’m not sure if this is true or not but I kind of feel like when I first moved to town was when he was first starting to dance. He’d never really danced. And just seeing him . . . kind of grow as a dancer and then see him branch into choreography has been really fun.
DK: And his work is strong.
ES: Yeah, his work has been very strong. And all of our friends, you know, Gregg, we go to their shows, Mary’s shows, Linda Austin –
DK: We like to be supportive of the dance community. But what’s outside of dance that we like?
ES: Oh, outside? Well, I love Portland Center Stage. The one thing I don’t see enough of that I’d like to see more of is theatre. Because I know there’s a lot of amazing theatre happening in this city –
There really is.
ES: And it’s like, there are only so many evenings in a week, and we have season tickets to all the White Bird stuff, and –
I know. You sort of have to triage.
ES: It’s really kind of crazy. So you almost have to pick and choose. So our social outings tend to be dance. Although Dreamgirls was awesome . . . I’ve worked with Chris Coleman on two or three projects at Center Stage which has been really fun, I’ve worked with the opera . . . [I always love] getting to do those projects [but] because I’ve been too busy I’ve had to turn some down.
Who are some up-and-coming next generation Portland dance artists to keep an eye on? I do think Jim McGinn is sort of having a little explosion right now –
ES: Yes. And then Eowyn Emerald is one. She’s doing stuff in many ways that’s exciting. I think her work is exciting, I think her collaborative evenings of work with multiple different artists [Pacific Dancemakers] is really interesting . . . She’s an interesting little force that’s kind of coming up. So those are kind of the two that are at the top of my list. I know there’s more.
To me, [collaboration] feels like something as an audience member I really associate with the Skinner/Kirk brand. You’ve been presented by White Bird, you perform at BodyVox, you work with, like you’ve said, musicians and designers – it seems like there’s a lot of other artistic voices folded in and I think that’s really unusual. So I just wanted to ask kind of how do you choose collaborators, how do you incorporate that into the work that you’re creating?
DK: Well, all the examples that you just gave are really just organic, you know, building relationships after living in a community for over a quarter of a century. And so those kind of collaborations are easier in the sense that they’re friends – like, “hey, let’s get together and do something!” But we’ve had some great things just come up, you know? Like the one [Eric] mentioned about David York, the composer. We didn’t know him before that project. He approached us and said that he thought we would be the perfect people to embody this fable, this Greek myth. And it was really cool working with him because up until that point, we had used recorded music. So we’d take a piece of music into the studio and we’d respond to that music and create a thing. But with him, we were working on this back and forth. Sometimes we’d go into the studio with no music, or some other music and just start choreographing to that, and videotape it and then give him the video tape. And then he would compose, not listening to the sound. And then other times he’d bring us a midi of something, “I wrote this last night! Try this!” So there was a lot of back-and-forth on how that process came to be. So in one piece there were probably about four methods of collaborating with the music and dance together. And then this recent one, with Tim and the residency, that was a whole other experience, because he was in the studio with us every single moment we were creating. So he was literally a part of the process every bit of the way.
ES: And influencing it a lot, too, which is really cool.
DK: Oh, totally. There are many things in this new piece that would not be if it were not for his input.
ES: That piece I would say was probably the biggest true collaboration we’ve done . . . We weren’t just calling all the shots, we were going in like “What do you think here?” and he’d say “Hey, I’ve got this idea!” and we’re like, “Okay, cool, let’s see what we can do!” And that was really wonderful.
DK: And then we met, through a friend of ours, this designer in New York . . . he just stayed at our house for a weekend . . . and we got to talking, and he’s like this world-class designer that had just won, like, the equivalent of an Oscar award in the fashion world . . . And he was just staying at our house, you know? And we just got to know each other and talk and we were like, “Well, we’re dancers and choreographers,” and he was like, “Oh, I would love to create costumes,” so we collaborated with him on a piece and he created these original costumes. So we were like, Wow, we really scored with that one!” We opened our house up to a stranger and we’ve got this world-famous designer doing costumes for us!
ES: I feel like my favorite collaborations lately have been with Sumi Wu. She designed, I don’t know if you saw the piece called “Juxtaposition,” but we had these giant plastic sculptures. And then [for] my most recent piece that I choreographed called “Between the Lines,” we created this piece with all these elastic straps that dissected the space and created all these beautiful rooms that we performed in . . . She’s been really fun, because I just kind of come in . . . and I have my yellow piece of legal pad and I sketch things on it and then she’ll look at it and she’ll come back with some other sketches, and then we’ll be like “Well, what about this?” and then she’ll make like a tiny little model –
DK: She loves the scale model. She’s an engineer, and she just thinks differently than we do.
It’s cool to have another artist with a totally different artistic process sort of folded in with yours, someone with a totally different kind of creative brain.
ES: And then, our production manager, James Mapes. He’s he’s thinking about the space and the theatre and, “Well, that’s not gonna work” and I think it’s really kind of fun for him.
DK: I think where we have found success in our collaborations, it’s because we’re open to it. We’re open to the input, we’re open to the back-and-forth, and not a lot of artists are.
ES: But that’s just, they work differently.
DK: Oh, yeah, I mean not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are some people who just have that clear vision, and no matter what’s in their way, they’re going to knock it out.
ES: And we know where our strong points are and where we’re not so strong.
DK: And we like to surprise ourselves too . . . We love having people like say something – and James our technical director has done it ten times – where he’ll say, “Hey, what if you do this?” and then we’re like, wow, if we do this, then it dominoes, you know, you’ve got this cause and effect response . . . Sumi Wu, same thing. The first [collaboration] with the plastic things, [Eric] wrote something on this yellow paper, she took that, she evolved it a little bit . . . they worked out logistics, but when it came back around, the final product was exactly like his very first drawing on the yellow paper. It was full circle. And with “Between the Lines,” with the elastic, that thing went through this series of evolutions and was something completely different from what he’d originally expected. But probably cooler than what you’d thought. So it’s really just –
DK: Being open. And not feeling threatened by people’s suggestions . . . And part of that is the people we choose to dance with as well. I really don’t know what I would do if we just had an audition and hired a new dancer and just said, you know, “You’re a good dancer, come dance with us!” I’d be like, “I don’t know what to do with you.” Everybody we’ve ever worked with in our choreography are people we’ve already had relationships with.
ES: Vanessa [Thiessen], and now with Katerina [Svetlova] –
DK: Who we’ve known since she was 15 years old –
ES: And Brennan Boyer –
DK: Zachary Carroll, who we’ve worked with for years – we’ve known Zach for 24 years . . . I don’t know if it’s a comfort thing, you know, when you’re exposing yourself and putting your artistry out there that you want to do it through a vessel that you feel really comfortable with.
ES: But they’re also all people who understand where we’re coming from.
DK: And it’s a comfort thing too. We share a similar background.
Yeah, not so much in a security-blanket kind of way but like they understand your vocabulary, they’re going to get where you’re trying to go.
DK: Faster, for sure.
ES: And you know, with our limited rehearsal time, that’s really important. I mean, I think it’s fun to make work on people I don’t know, as well –
DK: You’ve done that more than I have . . .
ES: So, you know, I like doing that. But with our limited rehearsal time it’s good to know the people you’re working with and everybody knows you so you have more of a cohesive, focused productive rehearsal time.
Apollo & Hyacinth & Skinner & Kirk: Men and Intimacy Onstage
Every time I watch a Skinner/Kirk performance I’m delighted by the opportunity to watch men partner with each other in emotionally and dramatically compelling ways. When you started out as choreographers, was that something you were conscious and deliberate about, or something that sort of evolved organically?
ES: It’s something that, you know, we’ve had this long history together. And we’ve always enjoyed dancing together, and people have always commented on how we move together as a couple, and it’s something that I’ve always been super proud of in a way, and (long pause) – I’m sorry, I’m getting emotional – but it’s never been anything I wanted to throw in anybody’s face.
DK: It was very organic . . . Our first partnership in dance was with “Apollo and Hyacinth.” And the myth of Apollo and Hyacinth, I mean, Greek myths are full of gods seducing humans, so this is another one of those. Hyacinth was a man and Apollo was a god, and they had this relationship together. And Zephyr, the god of the west wind, was also in love with this beautiful man Hyacinth and was jealous of the relationship between him and Apollo. So he and Apollo were playing discus together one day, and Apollo threw his discus, and Zephyr blew and made the discus fly back and hit Hyacinth in the head and killed him. And to Apollo, it felt like he’d killed him, because he’s the one that threw the discus. So what he was able to do with his god powers is make where his blood was running turn into these flowers that would bloom every year as a reminder of this beautiful man. And . . . there’s a very long duet in the middle of this piece and it’s very intimate because it’s about a relationship between two men. And that’s kind of when it started.
ES: But we’ve brought it into all of our shows, all except maybe one of our shows we’ve had a male/male duet, and I’ve always wanted it to be about the physicality –
DK: It’s really about the physicality –
ES: The physical relationship, but there’s also something deeper than that. And I never want it to be like too sexual, that’s always been a very conscious choice.
Yeah. Giving room for different kinds of relationships to be seen onstage that we don’t get to see.
ES: Yeah. And I love the idea of people in our audiences coming who wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable watching two men dance together in an intimate way, but [then they can] be able to appreciate it and look at it and say, “Wow, there’s two guys that aren’t, like, super making out onstage, but they can be physical and intimate and close, and it can also be very strong.”
Well, and it feels like it’s sort of an important baby step towards equality in mindset; like if you see a man and a woman dancing together in a classical ballet, there can be intimacy without you assuming that it’s sexual, or without it being a love story. But we automatically map sexuality onto two men dancing. We don’t allow for that whole spectrum of what those relationships can be. And that’s part of why I think what you guys do is really cool. Because we don’t get to see that onstage.
DK: One of the pieces that we did years and years ago, a duet together, after we performed it, this lady came up to us and she said, “I don’t know you guys, I don’t know if you guys are a couple, I’m not assuming anything. All I want to say is, if you aren’t, I’d be disappointed.” (laughter) And she was ready to walk away and never hear the answer to that. And we were happy to tell her that we were. But she sensed that, you know what I mean? It wasn’t somebody who was familiar with us and knew the backstory, it was someone who came and saw a performance and saw these two men doing this thing and in her mind she’s like, “I’m going to be disappointed if they’re not [together].” And then something just happened this last weekend, with “BloodyVox” at BodyVox. Eric choreographed this duet like, I don’t know, ten years ago at least, and we’re doing it in the show, and somebody said almost the same thing. A little more crass. (laughter) But basically kind of the same thing. And you know, to me, that’s kind of a special, wonderful thing, when an audience member can read something personal and have that. I mean, I love it when audiences read anything into anything. Like people come up, “So, what was that piece about?” “Well, what do you think it was about?” I would much rather hear what they have to say than what we have to say about our own work. We both kind of don’t like talking about our work very much. I mean, you wouldn’t know it from today. (laughter) But if you would ask us about a specific piece we wouldn’t be quite as talkative about it. And it’s really more interesting to us to hear how other people interpret it. And sometimes their thinking is right in line with what you were thinking while you were creating it. Other times, it’s something you never would imagine but you’re like, “Yeah! That was totally what it was about! That’s it!”
ES: And a lot of times too our work just evolves, you know? You go down to the seed, and you don’t know what that tree is going to look like at that point, how it’s going to turn out. So I find a lot of pleasure in sowing some seeds and then just seeing what grows.
DK: But it’s cool that people might read that sub-story, like, oh, these guys must be in a relationship. And they could be right and they could be wrong, but when they’re right, you feel like you’ve shared something that wasn’t intended. And if you saw this piece I’m referring to, it’s not at all sexual, it starts out with these men swordfighting –
ES: You can’t even see our faces.
DK: You can’t see our faces, we’re masked, and yet those people were able to read that we were a couple. The way we move together, that’s what they see.
ES: It reminds me of something I saw the other day, when we went to the OBT show – the Parsons brothers [Chauncey and Colby Parsons in a duet by Nicolo Fonte] –
Yes! That was beautiful.
ES: And how focused that was, and how you knew there was a history with those two because of the way they moved together.
There was such an intimacy. I loved that. And that was what made me actually think I wanted to ask you this question, because I was so struck by sort of just the novelty of seeing that, like, in an OBT show! At the Keller!
ES: It was really the highlight of the show for me.
Oh my God, me too. Except I didn’t know it was his brother so I told my friends afterwards, “Oh my God, that gay duet was so hot,” and they were like, “That’s his brother!” and I was like “OH MY GOD I’M SO SORRY!” (laughter) But I just thought, it was so beautiful and so intimate –
ES: But you read the same thing.
I read the same thing! Like the way you could feel the –
ES: The eye contact.
Yes. The eye contact. Well, and I think when people watch you two they’re seeing that connection, seeing that history. It’s cool that you’re able to create art that lets you sort of be more authentically yourselves than maybe if you were still in that classical ballet, holding twirling princesses –
ES: We get to be who we are.
Visit www.skinnerkirk.com for tickets and info on their current production and upcoming productions.