The smooth meets the idiosyncratic: Skinner/Kirk+Bielemeier

Let’s just say we’re about to face-plant along a truly scouring patch of financial gravel road. Let’s just say. And those responsible for the emotional health of the citizenry (who would that be exactly?) start looking for a way to cheer us up, bread and circuses before we become an angry mob. Who should they call?

Here’s a vote for Gregg Bielemeier, because nothing brings a smile to your face faster than a Bielemeier dance. His dances are a little like those old Tex Avery cartoons, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, with maybe a little Fantasia thrown in to class up the act a little, the amusing bits of Fantasiaanyway. They have their own madcap illogic, the same happy spirit, the same invitation into an absurd world. And at the end of the day, or the show, they are gentle somehow, too, even Utopian a little bit. We dance, and that is good.

As I was grinning through the “+Bielemeier” contribution to the Skinner/Kirk+Bielemeier dance concert, which runs through Sunday, Half of Some, Neither of Either, I finally just clicked my pen and put it back in my pocket, leaving the note-taking to someone else. I just wanted to connect to the jazzy mix of David Ornette Cherry’s winsome music and Lyndee Mah’s scatty vocals, to Bielemeier’s own madcap solos, to the sweetest duet imaginable from Habiba Addo and Eric Skinner, to the funny little bits and general joy of living tossed off by the rest of the dancers as if they didn’t have a care in the world.

In short, this was vintage Bielemeier. If asked to pick my highlights of dance presenter White Bird’s 11 grand seasons in Portland, I would certainly include Bielemeier’s “Odd Duck Lake” (the link is to Martha Ullman West’s Dance Magazine review) from the very beginning of the series. But that only takes us back a decade or so. Bielemeier goes back more than two decades deeper into the heart of the beginning of real modern dance in Portland, to Portland Dance Theatre in the 1970s. (I chatted too briefly at Friday’s show with Jan McCauley and Judy Patton, who were both part of that now-famous company, too.) And though he has performed and choreographed sporadically since, when he does get an opportunity, he’s always amazing — his capacity to spring surprises on his audience, to leave them feeling better than he met them, is of the very highest order.

Back to the dance for a moment. I’m flashing on the first part part of Gregg’s first solo. He’s swiftly pacing off the large orange square that delineates the “stage” in the theater-in-the-square set-up at the Portland Opera Studio Theater; he’s looking at the line and out at the audience, intently, too intently, almost fiercely, to the point of… comedy. And then he peels off the line into the center and begins what I think of as Bielemeier’s own strange little dance, the inner Bielemeier, a fascinating combination of sincere and campy, quirky and beautiful, with little tics and sudden jarrings, his long arms sweeping up as he steps forward bent a bit at the waist, as though he’s approximating a ballet move he saw as a kid. The closest representation I can think of is Jules Feiffer’s dancer — the joy, the concentration, the abandon.

The duet. Eric Skinner is a strong, slim, ballet-trained dancer. Habiba Addo, a native of Ghana, is far rounder than we are used to seeing our dancers on American stages. They start of the dance walking along one of the diagonals of the square, and they start pushing each other, turn off the diagonal at the end spin, reload, and they are walking that diagonal again, but this time pushing each other offline with a little more oomph, not malicious mind you, maybe what your gym teacher called “rough housing”. They partner each other, Addo turning around Skinner gracefully, allowing him to get some momentum by pushing off of her, getting the best of him with her lower center of gravity when they push against each other, bottom to bottom. And then, Skinner, who has been pretty straight-faced through all of this, melts — he smiles and takes it in and delights. Is this acting? I don’t know. If so, it is great acting, but just as wonderful is the idea that it’s his true response.

Addo smoothly integrated into the group dancing, too, during which Skinner, Dorinda Holler, Zach Carroll, Heather Jackson, Elizabeth Burden and Margo Yohner, quickly and energetically did little take-offs on jitterbugs or tango. The stage stayed busy, you followed one couple but missed another, you waited for the next interruption, the next surprise, the pattern suddenly dissolved by… something, often Bielemeier, a sort of Puck in the dance, looking for the most preposterous way to intervene. These are good dancers, and watching them shift into high gear for this dance, embracing its comedy, its counter-intuitive moments, somehow became inspirational, at least to me.

The evening began with Skinner’s well-made Hear and There, Now and Then, a “classical modern” dance, which employed a lot of ballet vocabulary and attitude — the high and open chest, the round arms, the perfect arrangement of fingers in casually exact gestures, the phrase concluding in a beautiful pose. (Thanks to Joan Acocello for her concise ballet description in the New Yorker, which suggested this to me.) The dancers were probably more at home in this one than Bielemeier’s dance, locating the smooth logic of its straightforward vocabulary and spooling out the phrases effortlessly often in unison. I found myself caught up in the arithmetic of the five dancers: 5+0 (all in unison), 3+2 (three in unison with one phrase, two in unison in another), 4+1 (the one a solo), then watching the groupings change. An equally smooth acoustic soundtrack encouraged a similar tempo throughout, and this became wearing, and I wish the interaction with the Hap Tivey lighting designs, a geometry that played on the floor from time to time, had been closer somehow, though seeing the designs meant that the stage had to be dark.

The second piece was Daniel Kirk’s duet Semita, which included a trapeze element at the beginning, Kirk himself in repose a few feet above the ground, one harness around his chest and another at his ankles. He looked so at ease lying there, turning slowly with the barest of movements, that I wished he had stayed up there, to teach us how to live in another dimension (the greatest at this I’ve ever seen: Seattle’s genius aerialist Robert Davidson) or maybe just another level. Once dismounted, he began relating to his partner, Elizabeth Burden, in a piece that connected a vocabulary similar to Skinner’s to some specific gestures (an arm outstretched in farewell or greeting, “writing” on one’s arm, gingerly holding an imaginary globe of some sort). For some reason, here, I liked the deliberate pace more, and the concluding passage, a rhythmic forward movement propelled, seemingly, by Burden’s hand in Kirk’s back, gently but firmly, almost delicate.

Which set us up for a complete change in state, with the arrival of Bielemeier and company.

UPDATE: A couple of other reviews of the dance have come to my attention — well, I found them in my surf-age. First, MightyToyCannon at Culture Shock did a great job of explaining the problems that bedevil all attempts to report on dance, then gave us a good sense of what it was actually like to be stage-side (including photos!), for which we thank him. And Catherine Thomas at OregonLive focused more attention on the Skinner/Kirk portion in case you’re feeling a little cheated about my more cursory take.