Whether sizing each other up like high-noon at the OK Corral, engaging in suspenseful, cat-and-mouse improvisations, or coolly picking themselves up and dusting themselves off (without admitting that they'd ever fallen in the first place), Wilkes and Barber are Portland's Hepburn and Tracy of contemporary dance—in a version of The Matrix directed by George Cukor.
Not unlike the classic screen-team, their work is marked by a deep mutual affection, intensity and sense of play that ignites their every interaction. The fact that Barber is gay and Wilkes is a lesbian is beside the point. The force is strong with these two. It's a terrific, palpable energy—like the glow of an unbridled infatuation—that bristles with razor-sharp timing, elegant zeal and endless nuance. And it's deliciously infectious.
Barber, 49, and Wilkes, 48, came of age as artists during the particularly fertile era of early '80s dance—Barber, largely in Seattle with time spent in New York; Wilkes, in New York. Wilkes was fortunate to work with innovators like Anna Halprin and Kei Takei, among other artists who reframed acceptable approaches to dancemaking. Barber gained a heightened theatricality from work with avant-clown Bill Irwin and choreographers Pat Graney and Llory Wilson.
The two began exploring collaboration shortly after Wilkes relocated to Portland and Barber left aero/betty aerial dance theater in 2000. (Dance-watchers are likely to recognize their names in connection with Barber's wildly popular brainchild, the 10 Tiny Dances series.) To date their collaborative gambit has paid off in spades, in works like Wilkes' yearlong work Penta, performed on the banks of the Willamette River, through a number of smaller works, including the riveting Wicked and Fetch, and now their first shared, evening-length foray, A Certain Facilitation of Impasse, running this weekend at Disjecta.
They developed the work during a monthlong residency in 2004 that they undertook, according to Wilkes, "to figure out how to work together." Ironically (or perhaps fortuitously) they reached an impasse in the first week—and for a period worked separately through solo sessions before coming back to the "how" of collaboration. Working with composer-electronica wizard Heather Perkins, dancers Jenn Gierada and Margretta Hansen and a German shepherd named Hermann, the evening unfolds through solos, duos, video projection and multiple performance vistas.
While the work is a large-scale roving experience, the "impasse" is manifested through small moments exploring containment, variances of control, fear, internal quandary, together- and apart-ness. Witness: Barber's Jimmy Stewart-in-Vertigo moment on a platform, the ultravivid "face opera" video montage, a tender, mesmerizing, minimalist pas de trois with two dancers and a dog, and an electrically charged duet knee-deep in baton-passing choreographic control, whimsical territory-marking, and hot-wired partnering that teeters on the edge of frenzy.
While much of Impasse might qualify as avant-garde for its daring juxtapositions, choreographic choices and use of nonlinear audiovisual textures, one doesn't need any guide or secret code to get it—you feel the chemistry and spark. The real gift is that intent and vitality of the work is spot-on and immediate. Without gimmick or compromise, Barber and Wilkes' collaboration takes the respective energies of downtown-NYC postmodern dance and classic screwball cinema and forges a glorious marriage we can all throw rice at.
Mike Barber & Cydney Wilkes: A Certain Facilitation of Impasse at Disjecta, 230 E Burnside St., 913-6884. 8 pm Friday-Sunday, 2 pm Sunday, Dec. 8-10. $15.