"I worry people are going to think I take myself very seriously, and I'd like to suggest that the way the piece started was me attempting the impossible," says Hankins of her newest work, Like a Sun That Pours Forth Light but Never Warmth. "To create an amalgamation of myself and this monster historical figure was very funny to me and very arrogant, because I am nobody and he is, you know, legendary."
Ask Hankins anything about Nijinsky, who danced with the Ballets Russes in the early 20th century, and her eyes gleam as she recounts stories, such as his empathetic reaction to bullfighting—imagery she incorporates into her own piece with gold glitter and a large swath of red spandex—or his iconic solo as the Golden Slave. She even employed a trainer to help her build the strength and stamina to jump repetitively up and down for five minutes during her hourlong solo performance, much as Nijinsky did. The title of the piece draws from an offhand comment made about Nijinsky to a Hungarian woman who'd been following the dancer around Europe.
"This other dancer was like, 'Oh, be careful of that guy, he's like a sun that pours forth light but never warmth,'" Hankins says with a laugh—adding that the woman, despite the warning, went on to marry Nijinsky. "As soon as I read that, I was like, that's my title. That's just too good of an image."
Famous for his extraordinarily high jumps and intense characterizations, Nijinsky often chose roles based on how well they related to his life—he perceived himself as an overworked slave and was given to hallucinatory ravings and extreme withdrawal. He retired at 29 and would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia, spending the remainder of his life in and out of mental hospitals.
Hankins began dancing in college on the suggestion of a teacher, who thought her knack for athletics—she was an all-star softball player during high school—might serve her well. Then a psychology major at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, she enrolled in a modern dance class, and has been pursuing it ever since.
"The thing that compelled me about sports was efficiency—how to organize the body in such a way that actions could be explosive and effective with the least amount of effort," says Hankins, who also spent her childhood running track and ice skating. "I definitely took that into dance, and it informed the way I look at choreography now."
She moved to Seattle in 2008, opting to choreograph her performances in order to stand out in the city's busy dance community. Teaming up with collaborative dance company Salt Horse, she began to explore experimental work, focused more around a political or emotional conversation than on any specific technique. Her movement style can be glitchy or mechanical rather than fluid—in Like a Sun, she favors sudden, commanding pivots and repetitive images, like rubbing her eyes or rounding her back into a slouched position.
"I'm really interested in finding out all the different ways dance can look," Hankins says. This tendency to experiment reaches the point that she sometimes hesitates to label her work as dance. "People come up to me after a small performance of seven-minute works, and they say, 'Oh, I really liked your dancing…can I call it dancing?'"
Since relocating to Portland in 2012, Hankins has been working on Like a Sun during residencies at Performance Works NorthWest and Studio 2, and performing with the likes of Tahni Holt, Keyon Gaskin and Lucy Yim. It's not unusual for her to spend so much time fixated on a single piece. Her first choreographed work, a duet called By Guess & By God, was inspired by Anne Michaels' novel Fugitive Pieces and was something she researched for two years before performing.
"I get obsessed about a thing and then I have to figure out why I'm obsessed with it and kind of try and dig through my own self," Hankins says. âI think thatâs why I do it: to learn more about myself.â
SEE IT: Like a Sun That Pours Forth Light but Never Warmth is at Conduit Dance, 918 SW Yamhill St., risk-reward.org. 8 pm Friday-Sunday, Oct. 24-26. $15-$40.