Burn It Backwards is not about Elliott Smith. The show, by longtime Portland dance ensemble Skinner|Kirk, is set to a selection of 14 Smith songs, and the title is taken from a lyric in "Sweet Adeline." But Daniel Kirk and Eric Skinner's thoughtful choreography is not intended to be biographical, or even a tribute to the late Portland singer-songwriter. Instead, it simply explores the space in which we experience our lives and interact with others, both in joy and heartbreak.
A team of five male dancers—Chase Hamilton, James Healey and Brent Luebbert along with Skinner and Kirk—perform a series of routines with grace and agility, the movements alternating between the fluid and the frenetic.
The show illustrates the nature of falling—physically, in love, in life. Sometimes we have to push ourselves back up, and other times someone will give us a hand. The choreography set to "Pretty (Ugly Before)" embodies the magnetic push and pull of relationships, and Hamilton's solo piece during "Say Yes" is simply hypnotizing for the level of skill he displays with ease.
Two of the routines incorporate partially screened-in boxes that lower from the ceiling, the meaning of which is unclear and feels more distracting than anything else. Props are unnecessary next to the precision of the movements, which are like acrobatics performed in slow motion—each lift, fall, flip and spin executed as if underwater.
The music, arranged by Portland composer and pianist Galen Clark and performed along with Bill Athens, Catherine Feeny and Chris Johnedis, serves not as background but backbone. The gently jazz-tinged interpretation marries perfectly with Smith's pervasive melancholy and becomes more tribute than cover. Feeny's gorgeous vocals mirror the soaring movement of the dancers, delicately wrapping around their bodies to fill the spaces in between.
Burn It Backwards manages to hold its own against Smith's large legacy, and the result is beautifully cathartic. Because sometimes we just need to find solace in a beautifully sad song.
SEE IT: Burn It Backwards is at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave., bodyvox.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Saturday, through April 1. $24-$64.