Shaun Keylock Company: Dancing the past into the future

Updated: Oct 2


The Shaun Keylock Company navigates Covid-19 shutdowns in its new space while looking to Portland’s modern dance elders for direction.


JANUARY 30, 2021 // DANCE // ELIZABETH WHELAN


The Shaun Keylock Company paves the way for the future by honoring the past with a revival of a suite of solos and duets that choreographer Gregg Bielemeier created between 1993 and 2002.

Let’s flash back to just over a year ago, to let’s say…simpler times. It’s January 1, 2020, and most of us are riding that superficial, yet undeniably contagious new year high. We’re setting lofty goals and suiting up in the new exercise apparel we scored over the holidays and heading to the gym…or better yet, the dance studio. Keep contagious in mind. For Portland-based choreographer Shaun Keylock, that January 1 wasn’t just another start to a new cycle around the sun: It was the day he opened the doors of his brand-new contemporary dance space, Shaun Keylock Studio, in the Albina neighborhood of North Portland. At the new studio, Keylock and company would be able to create and rehearse new dances, teach class, and produce community events for other community artists. We all know what happened next, because it happened to all of us. By the middle of March, we were all bunkered in our houses, downloading Zoom, debating whether gloves were necessary for a quick run to the grocery store, and clutching our toilet paper rolls with an intimacy that was (here it comes) UNPRECEDENTED.

The classes and rehearsals that had begun at the studio paused, and Keylock, along with all of the other studios around town, was forced to rethink what it meant to be a small business owner with a financial plan based entirely upon humans gathering together in an enclosed space. Well, it’s been almost a full year now since Covid shook the framework of our lives, and we’ve all figured out how to navigate (for better or worse, more or less) through this rollercoaster of a time. But what really happens when you’ve just opened a dance studio just as Covid-19 tramples through the world and you’ve got a company of nine eager dancers depending on rehearsals and performances for both income and mental stability? I’d been able to witness the studio’s growth throughout 2020, as I had been teaching a weekly contemporary class at the studio before the classes shut down, but I wanted to get the full picture from Shaun about what it’s been like behind the scenes as a new studio owner and director of SKC. I sat down to a Zoom chat with Keylock about what 2020 has meant for the studio and to learn about the company’s exciting new project: an intergenerational collaboration with local LGBTQ+ elders and master choreographers for a performance series reviving historic dance works for new audiences. A quick summation of the project before we jump into conversation with Keylock: The new project functions as a survey of the work of LGBTQ+ choreographers who have informed the dance history of Portland and the Pacific Northwest. The series will present the work of these artists and that of their network of collaborators through rare and never-before-seen video presentations and live performances. It will mark the first time these dances, many unseen for more than 20 years, will be performed outside of their original companies. For example, for the first concert of this series, Keylock and company will revive and perform a suite of solos and duets by Gregg Bielemeier created between 1993 and 2002.

Company dancers Willow Swanson and Aaron Peite in the company’s Albina studio. Photo by Mario Gallucci. For Keylock, this project acts as a physical archive, allowing him to frame his own dance history and lineage, showing what came before him to inform what he will create now and in the future. “Our region has seen a dramatic increase in new arts patrons eager to experience what our community has to offer,” he says. “This project will present dance history within a contemporary framework, giving these historic works a fresh new take, and consequently, the longest life possible.” The project was put on hiatus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last March but resumed in September with the company finding ways to rehearse safely with masks on at a distance. A feature-length documentary about this project is currently in production with local film company, Document PDX. ArtsWatch: What was important to you in the process of opening a dance studio in Portland? Shaun Keylock: Establishing our studio last year was really about looking at the history of the neighborhood, who was in our community already, and how we might help serve the needs of dancers and artists here in Portland. I have always felt a deep connection with history. It provides context for me as a queer artist and helps ground me in my identity. That’s why when we got the opportunity to open the studio, it felt important that we considered the history of Portland, not only in the context of the current housing crisis and the ongoing gentrification of our city, but also the legacy, of dance and the arts, that has been part of the city for many years. I’ve lived in and around Portland my whole life, so I’ve been fortunate to be a part of the rich history of dance here. I’ve also seen the city change a lot and I’m not sure that new dancers are aware of the incredible lineage of artists that have been part of this community.

Personally, I’ve always been inspired by Conduit’s mission. It was one of the first places I worked after high school. Tere Mathern, who was running Conduit at the time, invited me for an internship and I started meeting other local artists for the first time. I saw how a space like Conduit can help motivate and provide resources for artists in the community. It continues to inspire me today at our studio. What about the Albina neighborhood made it fitting for SKC to call home? Making the decision to move to the Albina area, a neighborhood with so much history and vibrant culture, was really intentional for us. Beyond being a major resource for the company, we wanted the studio to become part of the larger fabric of the city and serve our neighbors and community members. I was inspired by the kind of community hub that [the pivotal dance studio] Conduit had been for artists. It felt like the place to be for every dance maker in Portland. It didn’t matter who you were or what style of dance you did, you were welcome at Conduit. These days there are lots of hubs in Portland, activated by their own neighborhoods and communities—BodyVox and Polaris Dance Theatre in the Pearl; FLOCK in the NW Industrial District, NW Dance Project, STEPS PDX, and New Expressive Works in Central Eastside; and Performance Works NW in Foster-Powell, and so many more in other areas as well. So it was really important to us when we got the studio that we considered where each of these different spaces was located at the time and how we could complement the resources that they were already offering to the community. One thing that we noticed was missing in Portland was a space for professional modern and contemporary dance training. There are a lot of opportunities to take ballet class, but less focus on modern and contemporary dance. This has always seemed odd to me. Despite having quite a few artists creating work in those styles in the city, many don’t have a place to train regularly that is affordable for them. Since I didn’t get my start in ballet, I don’t feel as precious about this style. I wanted to create a space that would really lend itself more to modern and contemporary dance, which I think helps set our company apart. Thinking about modern dance in general, it really moves your body. We wanted a studio where we could fly across the room! When I saw the space for the first time, I thought, “This is it!”

Artistic Director Shaun Kaylock, Photo by Mario Gallucci. What were your plans for 2020 in the beginning of the year in terms of your company? I had taken a 5-6 month break after our last show of 2019 at New Expressive Works, and in January 2020 I had just started rehearsing with the company again. We had just held auditions, and I was beginning to think about our new commission with White Bird, as well as our company’s national tour schedule, which was set for Houston, Austin and San Francisco. Plus, I had another project I had been planning with Gregg Bielemeier and other LGBTQ elders in the Portland dance community, too. So there was a lot on our plate last year! Tell me more about your relationship with Gregg Bielemeier. How did you meet, and what sparked the idea for this “living archive” project? Gregg came to our show in 2019 and really enjoyed it. That season, we worked with another Portland legend, Josie Moseley, who had set a solo on SKC company dancer Jillian Hobbs. After that show, Gregg and I kept running into each other… at Crush Bar, at coffee shops… it just felt like we kept seeing each other. So in a lot of ways, it felt like we were supposed to work together because the universe just kept putting us together! We were sitting together at Crush one day discussing repertory for SKC and what it would look like if we were to do a sort of retrospective of his work. Portland has such a rich history of modern and contemporary choreographers. These figures are powerful artists, and they shaped the history here. We’ve lost a few, most recently Mary Oslund, but many are still with us and live here in Portland, but just don’t produce their work as often. Self-producing is hard, it’s expensive, it takes a lot of time and energy. I’m in a position with my company where I am self-producing a lot; I have the momentum and energy to do the work, to write the grant, and produce the show. The questions I’m asking are: how can the company help our LGBTQ+ elders produce their work again, how do we carry their legacy forward, and how can we teach and inform new audiences about what was here before and what has informed the work we do now? We often refer to the project as a living archive because Gregg is in the room with us the whole time, giving us his feedback and guidance, and making sure we are getting all the details just right. It’s very important to me that we involve him in this process as much as possible. What inspired this need to archive the dance history here in Portland? I studied dance and art history when I was in school, so history has always been a big part of who I am as an artist and what my own work is often inspired by. There were two summers in college at Pacific University where I worked for the University Archives. My job was to digitize the records and media collection of Oregon Governor Victor Atiyeh during his time in office from 1979 to 1987. I was responsible for gathering and scanning all of these images and I wrote notes and descriptors for the metadata on the website. I learned a lot about Oregon’s history just from working with this collection. It was really fun and my first experience with archives and museum work. In a lot of ways that is what I’m doing now with this project with Gregg. During one of our first meetings, Gregg brought a tote bag full of old tapes of his work on VHS, and we sat in the library at PNCA and watched all of his creations. We decided which pieces he wanted to preserve and carry forward with us in the future. That’s a big part of this project—that I will become a custodian of these dances and that they will live on with our company. We are performing and reactivating these different dances, and it provides the longest life possible for the work of our elders. That’s fascinating. So what dances made the cut to move forward as part of the living archive? Seven dances, set on nine dancers. Some of them are full pieces, some of them are excerpts from larger shows. We’ve created a new suite of solos from Gregg’s Odd Duck Lake from 1998, originally commissioned by White Bird. There is also a piece from when he first started the Gregg Bielemeier Dance Project, a piece that he created for BodyVox, and a duet created with Minh Tran. That last one is one of my favorites because it feels the most recognizably queer— it’s very on brand for our company! All of these pieces are going to be seen in a different way now that they’re being performed again almost 30 years later. That’s the exciting part! Are these dances going to be looked at as historical objects like in a museum, or will audiences look at them just as new and groundbreaking as they were back then? With in-person performances on pause due to COVID-19 shutdowns, what’s your plan to share this project? It really depends on the vaccine rollout and when theaters and venues will be allowed to reopen again. We plan to share this project as soon as we’re able to, but in the meantime, a new feature-length documentary about the project is being filmed right now! We had originally planned to premiere the first iteration of this project live on stage in 2020, so at this point in time, we had planned to perform this show almost seven months ago! When everything was cancelled last March, we had to rethink and come up with a new plan for the project and what this next year would look like for our company. It has kept us busy so far, but we really hope to be back on stage later this year. What is it like to work with Gregg? I think in a lot of ways, Gregg and I are the perfect team. It feels like kismet that we’re working together on this project. Gregg comes to every rehearsal. He has been a part of this whole process from start to finish. We’ve been able to glean a lot of information and content from him, which helps us perform these works as close to their original intention as possible. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this project all the more important. We’ve been reminded that our time together is so short. All of the things that we know now about our lives and practice as artists can change and be taken away in an instant. There was no choice for our company but to keep going and continue this project now while we still can. After such a challenging year, I think about the fact that if trauma lives in the body, so does joy, and so does the spirit and resilience of our elders. That’s what this project is about in the end. To make our history visible and embody the spirit and resilience of our LGBTQ+ elders.

Gregg Bielemeier and Shaun Keylock, in rehearsal. Image taken pre-covid shutdowns in January of 2020 by Tabea Kunzelmann. What has 2020 been like personally as an artist? How are you feeling? It’s been a really hard year. I recently read a New York Times article that stated over half of artists in America are unemployed. Early on during the pandemic, it felt like everything was falling apart. I lost every opportunity I had been counting on and I didn’t know if dance was even going to be something I would be able to do again. I questioned my role in the dance world a lot last year, not only in the context of so much political and social upheaval but also in and around the future of dance and what it will look like post-pandemic. There has been a lot of digital content coming out lately, some of it has been great, but most has seemed like just a way to keep ourselves busy. Personally, I was never very interested in that side of dance. I thought: If dance is going to be just virtual now, that’s not why I started doing it. For me, dance is about community, it’s a social art form. It’s about sharing space, laughing and having fun with your friends, going out to shows and events, and of course, making exciting work together for audiences to enjoy too. This has never been a solo art form for me. I also realized that I had been following certain expectations about having a career in dance, and I had lost focus on my own work and what I want to be doing and making.

Company dancer Liane Burns (left) and Artistic Director Shaun Keylock (right), Photo by Nicholas Peter Wilson. The question “What if I can’t make work how I want to anymore?” was actually what brought me back to dance this summer. In a lot of ways, this question was important for me to be able to figure out what was going to be next for me, what I care about, and what I want to prioritize in my life and my career. It’s always exciting to have to problem solve as an artist. I’m discovering how I can keep my direction going with this art form and be more true to myself as an artist. When Governor Brown gave the go ahead for in-person gatherings again last summer, we were the first studio to reopen in Portland because I was so ready for that transition back to real life again. While we currently can’t have in-person classes or public events, we’ve still been able to serve our community in other ways. I’m feeling hopeful for a new future beyond the pandemic, and I can’t wait until we can get back to class and share real life experiences together again. Give us a peek into your everyday life as a human who also makes art. What are you inspired by, listening to, reading, etc.? Current TV Show or Movie: Tiny Pretty Things—I’m obsessed! This show is a ballet drama series based on the novel by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, created by Michael MacLennan. It premiered on Netflix in December and I can’t get enough of it. The writing and dialogue is hilarious and all the actors and guest stars are real dancers. I live for the drama of it all and I’m crossing my fingers for another season, plus even more familiar faces. Tool: Google Drive and other cloud-based storage — A simple tool, but something we absolutely use every day to organize all of our photos, videos, and other documents, and then share them with our dancers and collaborators. I’ve been using it even more lately. It feels great to start the year off fresh and organized. Music: Mushroom Jazz 1-8: Playlist by LoveJoy Stanton — A friend recommended this playlist to me a few weeks ago. It’s the perfect mix for working from home and pretending you’re a sim getting all your little tasks done. It’s good energy for 2021. Book: Doris Humphrey: An Artist First — I read this last year during the first few months of lockdown. Doris Humphrey was one of the great figures in the development of modern dance. This account of her life and work not only tells the story of this extraordinary woman, but is rich in dance history. My favorite part is the fact that Doris Humphrey lived through the 1919 pandemic and barely mentions it when she’s reflecting on her life’s work in dance. She also skips forward several years, so she can spill the tea about Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn in the last chapter before she passed. Self-Care Product: The Back Pod — A treatment tool to free up a tight upper back and rib cage. I’ve been spending a lot more time working at my kitchen table than I ever have before, and without regular dance classes anymore, my body feels absolutely wrecked from hunching over my laptop every day. This is a must have for stay-at-home workers with long torsos like me.