Pas de Deux
Skinner/Kirk, Partners Onstage and Off.
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 schooled me on the evolution of dance in Portland, the fascinating roots of their new work Nat’s Farm (premiering in February at BodyVox), male emotional intimacy onstage, and 25 years of dancing with each other. Now I am in love with them. You will be, too.
BY CLAIRE WILLETT
Their First Show
Daniel Kirk: Eric moved here in ‘87 and danced with Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre. Then the two companies merged and became Oregon Ballet Theatre, and I came here as a founding member. That’s where we met. We’ve been dancing together for over 25 years, and living together for more than 23 years, so there’s a pretty tight, longstanding relationship there.
Eric Skinner: On and off the stage. Just to be clear.
DK: 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. A fellow dancer’s 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. We’d go in three times a week, and we called it “playing.”
ES: Developing a vocabulary.
DK: Suddenly, the vocabulary would start taking on a musical shape. We’d put a couple of phrases together, and then after a while, like after a year’s time, we thought, “You know … this would be interesting for people to watch.” We did a show out at Portland Shipyards, where we were rehearsing, but it’s a high-security space. Every single person who comes out to that space has to put his or her name on the list at the security kiosk. You can’t just show up. So you’re driving all the way out there —
ES: It was an adventure!
DK: You had to have your name checked off, and then drive through huge hangars with doors open and sparks flying out because they’re welding 24/7, and giant ship parts are moving, and you have to go all the way to the end of the yard. Then you walk into this dirty room with 100 seats, one row around the walls, and two trapezes hung … and … we did this show. That was in maybe ‘96, and people are still talking about it.
ES: There was such rawness to it.
DK: But that was part of the adventure.
On Collaboration and Being Surprised
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. We brought Tim Ribner, who is a musician, because we wanted to create an original score for a 20-minute new work, Nat’s Farm.
DK: We went to this part of the island that is part of a reservation. You stand at the overlook and look at the beautiful cliffs, and there’s this sign that talks about this legend of a sea god who takes a whale and swings it and rams it against the cliffs, and that’s why the cliffs have these beautiful colors in them. The legend says the sacrifice of that whale has created a sort of safety area for whales to come and thrive and be safe. So Tim took it upon himself to call the tribal council. He went out there to the reservation and met with one of the tribal elders in the longhouse and recorded an interview with her. He came back like, “You guys, this is amazing!” We actually used her voice telling the story in part of the score, and it’s really cool. The tribe 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 the experience 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.
DK: I think when we’ve found success in our collaborations, it’s because we’re open to it. We’re open to the input, to the back-and-forth and not a lot of artists are.
ES: But that’s just … they work differently.
DK: Oh, yeah, there’s nothing 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!
The White Bird Effect
ES: Paul King and Walter Jaffe of White Bird have changed the dance landscape in this city. I mean, they’ve educated this community in so many different forms of dance from all over the world.
DK: They’ve raised the bar.
ES: And they’ve also made Portland a pretty savvy dance town … And I think, also, that’s made all of the artists who’ve been here for years step up their game a little bit. It challenges them, which I think is a healthy thing, really great …
DK: At first 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. Bringing in the Paul Taylor and the Martha Graham companies, and all of these great shows that they have, has benefited everyone.
ES: In the beginning I think some people were threatened, but they quickly realized that, you know, Paul and Walter were so encompassing of everybody and just wanted to be there to support everybody. I think once everybody kind of just took a breath and settled down, they were like, “Ok, this is a good thing.”
DK: I love it when audiences read anything into anything. People come up and say, “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. It’s really more interesting to us to hear how other people interpret it. Sometimes their thinking is right in line with what we were thinking while we were creating it. Other times, it’s something we never would imagine, but we’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? We go down to the seed, and we don’t know what that tree is going to look like at that point, how it’s going to turn out. I find a lot of pleasure in sowing some seeds and then just seeing what grows.
Men and Intimacy Onstage
ES: 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. It’s never been anything I wanted to throw in anybody’s face, but we’ve brought [our chemistry] into most of our shows. Except for maybe one of our shows, we’ve always had a male/male duet, and I’ve always wanted it to be about the physicality … but there’s also something deeper than that …
DK: One of the pieces we did years and years ago was 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.” And you know, to me, that’s kind of a special, wonderful thing, when an audience member can read something personal. They could be right and they could be wrong, but when they’re right, you feel like you’ve shared something. The way we move together, that’s what they see. .