Ashley Roland

BodyVox’s ‘Lexicon’: New expression through tech

BodyVox launched its 20th anniversary season with 'Lexicon," a deep marriage of movement and tech

By HEATHER WISNER

Tech has partnered with dance for years, often to thrilling effect, from the otherworldly motion-capture images generated in Merce Cunningham’s Biped to the wireless heart monitor attached to a bare-chested Baryshnikov in Heartbeat: mb. So it follows that BodyVox—which has a long history of multimedia performance, particularly with collaborator/filmmaker Mitchell Rose—would eventually build a show around a tech theme.

That show is Lexicon, which opened the company’s 20th anniversary season last night in the company’s Northwest Portland dance studio. Lexicon is a suite of dances infused with a variety of tech, from green screen and animation to cell phones and video gaming. BodyVox’s high-level collaborators in this endeavor include Boxtrolls animator Mike Smith and FoxTrax programmer Wade Olsen. (The production as a whole makes Deere John, company co-founder Jamey Hampton’s lovesick duet with a tractor, which was part of the entry that won the American Choreography Award for Outstanding Achievement in Short Film in 2002, seem positively archaic from a mechanical standpoint.)

BodyVox kicked off its 20th anniversary season with “Lexicon,” a multi-media extravaganza./Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

Hampton and co-founder Ashley Roland don’t appear onstage in this show; their focus has been creating its choreography—and additionally for Roland, its costumes—but various combinations of the company’s eight dancers carry out their vision. (Roland and Hampton do make an appearance in Icons, a short film Rose shot of them dressed as the black cutout figures on public signage for restrooms and the like. Though not as tech-y as some of the program, it’s an entertaining vision of what could happen if those figures came to life.)

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A mellow ‘Meadow’ like old times

BodyVox's "Urban Meadow," a blend of repertory favorites and a celebration of dancer Eric Skinner, is like a dinner party with old friends

Going to opening night of BodyVox’s Urban Meadow at Lincoln Performance Hall on Thursday evening was a little like dropping over for dinner with a bunch of old friends you haven’t seen in a while, and remembering why you liked them in the first place. The table was set nicely, the food and wine were good, and everybody swapped old jokes and stories with easy familiarity. There was even a guest of honor, who was fondly feted, and who told a few good tales himself.

The “guest,” or more appropriately the member of the family, was dancer Eric Skinner, an original BodyVoxer whose final Portland performances with the company after twenty years will be at the end of this brief run on Saturday. And the show, though technically a Portland premiere, is made up of a bunch of favorites that longtime BodyVox followers will recognize, and generally be pleased to see again. (Newbies will have the pleasure of meeting the members of the family for the first time.) This is the program, assembled a year and a half ago, that BodyVox takes on tour: It’s been from Germany to China, and is heading soon to China again.

“Hopper’s Dinner”: an exuberant feast. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Urban Meadow is an expansive program, running a little over two hours with the addition of three celebratory pieces chosen by Skinner as a sort of final tip of the hat, but because all of the works are short and well-shaped, it doesn’t feel overstuffed. The whole thing’s introduced with wit and charm by co-artistic director Jamey Hampton (his mother-in-law, he noted wryly on Thursday, liked to refer to him as the Dick Clark of dance) and, before Skinner’s portion of the program, by Ashley Roland, Hampton’s co-founder, co-artistic director, and wife.

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ChamberVox shakes things up

Chamber Music Northwest and BodyVox dance to the music of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

At heart, dancing is moving to rhythm, and that means it’s almost inseparable from music. There are exceptions and variations: experimental cases when dances are created without sound; the Merce Cunningham/John Cage partnership, in which movement and music were created deliberately in isolation from each other so one would not influence the other, but were performed together; contemporary pieces with more or less arbitrary music that might better be described as “specimens of sound” (which, of course, can make their own sort of music); dances in which extended periods of silence are part of the score. But on the whole dance and music are pretty much happy bedfellows, cohabiting almost by instinct.

A fairy queen cavorting with a donkey: Anna Mara as Titania and Brent Luebbert as Bottom in "Midsummer." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

A fairy queen cavorting with a donkey: Anna Mara as Titania and Brent Luebbert as Bottom in “Midsummer.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

So the relationship between Chamber Music Northwest, Portland’s premiere summer music festival, and BodyVox, one of the city’s leading contemporary dance troupes, seems like a natural, and it’s beginning to be a tradition. This year’s collaboration, which opened Thursday night at the BodyVox studio in Northwest Portland and continues through July 23, brings a third player into the mix, too: that musically savvy playwright, William Shakespeare. Titled Death and Delight, the program pairs a version of Romeo and Juliet set on Sergei Prokofiev’s R&J Suite with a new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream danced to Felix Mendelssohn’s ravishing score.

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Dance/Undance: BodyVox’s risk

With eight new dances by non-choreographers, "Pearl Dive Project" takes a big chance and pries open the doors of creativity

Must be something in the water over on Northwest Northrup Street: BodyVox keeps drinking from the well of chance, and emerging spritzy and refreshed.

When last we checked in on the Portland contemporary dance company, back in December, it was doing a show called The Spin: spin a giant wheel, à la Wheel of Fortune, land on a pie-slice printed with the name of a piece from the company’s repertory, and the dancers would perform it. Each night’s show was different, depending on the luck of the spin, and that was part of the fun.

Brent Luebbert, Anna Marra, Katie Scherman, Scott Stampone in China Forbes's "Transformed." Photo: Blaine Truitee Covert

Brent Luebbert, Anna Marra, Katie Scherman, Scott Stampone in China Forbes’s “Transformed.” Photo: Blaine Truitee Covert

On Thursday night, with the opening of Pearl Dive Project, the risks got even riskier. The point of the show, which continues through April 23, is to see what emerges when creative nondancers try their hand at creating dance. This is choreography by people who don’t do choreography. With one exception, the featured dancemakers don’t even have backgrounds in dance, though several are fans who’ve seen a lot of it from the seats. The idea: what if you take a group of creative people in other fields and ask them to apply their skills and intuitions to the world of dance? Can they do it? What sorts of images and movements might they create?

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Spinning wheel, dance by chance

BodyVox's new show of greatest hits takes a chance on chance, adding a comic lightness to a troubling time

“Awright, awright,” Jamey Hampton shouted into his microphone, sprinting onto the stage in his best Joel Grey/carnival-barker impersonation. “Here we go! Welcome to The Spin!”

I’m going to go way out on a limb here and suggest this isn’t the sort of opening you’d expect from, say, a Martha Graham dance concert. Then again, this is BodyVox, not Martha Graham, and in the world of BodyVox, where the view of American cultural history skews more through Mark Twain and James Thurber and Bee Bop a Lula and the vaudeville stage than through the Valley of Earnest Transcendental Gestures, the only surprise about a dance concert filtered through the TV game show Wheel of Fortune is that it’s taken the troupe 18 years to come up with it. After all, BodyVox operates under a couple of core assumptions that color its aesthetic approach: “entertainment” isn’t a dirty word, and humor is important stuff.

Hampton and company, taking a chance on dance. Jingzi Photography

Hampton and company, taking a chance on dance. Jingzi Photography

So, this is how The Spin landed on its opening night Thursday. The company’s nine dancers rehearsed 24 pieces – about 150 minutes of dance in all – from the repertory, and each title was entered in a slot on the giant spinning wheel, which multitasking stage hand Clark Young, sporting a bushy Portlandia beard and a shoulderless dress and answering to the name Manna White, rolled onstage between pieces. Hampton then cajoled someone in the audience to come on up and give ’er a spin. Then, depending on where it landed, the performers rushed to change into the proper costumes while Hampton, sometimes joined by his wife and co-company founder Ashley Roland, filled in the time with what the nightclub crowd refers to as “patter.” Sometimes it was a little story about how that piece came to be created. Sometimes it was a little bio about one or another of the dancers. Sometimes it was just … patter.

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BodyVox aloft (strings attached)

The Amphion String Quartet joins the dancers onstage in BodyVox's latest, stressing the interplay of music and dance

In their choreography for BodyVox‘s mysteriously titled  Cosmosis, which opened last Thursday and continues through June 6, company artistic directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland, in close collaboration  with the Amphion String Quartet, tackle some big and serious subjects, among them sensory perception and nature’s delicate balance. On the whole, it was the dances that did not deal with these subjects that, for me at least, worked best.

Incoming, which started the show, was one of them. Set to John Adams’ Travelers, the high-energy piece proclaims, vividly, in dance and musical terms, the intricacies and risks of the BodyVox-Amphion collaboration.

Dance and music, all intertwined. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Dance and music, all intertwined. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Six dancers – Alicia Cutala, Brent Luebbert, Anna Marra, Josh Murry, Eric Skinner and Holly Shaw – jumped and jogged and lifted each other among and around and between musicians Katie Hyun, Mihai Marica, Wei-Yang Andy Lin and Davie Southorn, who, seated center stage, sawed away magnificently at Adams’ marvelously danceable score. There is no room for error in this plotless piece: at one point I thought a dancer would be impaled on the cellist’s bow; at another, a bow would be knocked out of a violinist’s hand. Despite its military-sounding title, Incoming makes a splendid introduction to these highly talented artists, musicians and dancers alike, not to mention the fine tuned craftsmanship of the two choreographers.

Murmur, which merely deals with the relationship between the sexes, came next. Basically a lovely duet with some unlovely moments, it is both lovingly and contentiously performed by Leubert and Marra to Kui Dong’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes aggressive, always gorgeous and gorgeously played score. Periodically, two couples enter and watch the unlovely combative parts, then exit without reacting. I’m not quite sure why.

This was followed by a showing of Hampton, dancing on film to Daniel Schlosberg’s music played live by the Amphion String Quartet, while the dancers changed their costumes (all of them for the show were designed by Roland) for Vaux’s Descent. I could have watched Hampton’s quirky, joint-separating, rubbery-limbed, mobile-faced dancing for a lot longer than the two minutes or so that we got, and regret that all we got of him and Roland dancing was in this clip and a showing of Advance, another Mitchell Rose film made several years ago.

Hampton on screen, musicians onstage. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Hampton on screen, musicians onstage. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Vaux’s Descent, I’m sorry to say, didn’t fly. Projected text told us that the dance is about the annual migration of the Vaux Swifts to Northwest Portland’s Chapman School, and the killing of one of them by a Cooper’s Hawk some years ago, shocking the audience that was watching them circle the school’s chimneys.

Certainly, the dancers listed above, joined by Heather Jackson and Daniel Kirk, did their excellent, if occasionally strained, best with the Momix-accented choreography. The musicians played Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor eloquently and well. But that didn’t make the music less hackneyed and sentimental or the tulle-trimmed lycra costumes look less frivolous. Nervous giggles from some audience members made me wonder, as perhaps they did, whether this piece about the delicate balance of nature was meant to be taken seriously.

The visually complex Garden of  Synaesthesia, which opened the show’s second half,  fared better.  There are several ways to define the title, but basically it means seeing a color when you hear a sound. The sound we heard was the slow movement of Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major III, given full, exquisite justice by the musicians, who had been moved to stage left. Deep blue, orange, lavender and crimson were the colors we saw in the dancers’ velvet unitards, both on stage as they moved like sea creatures in organically kaleidoscopic fashion against the mirror on the back wall, and on screen.  Audience and musicians were also reflected in that mirror, which made the piece quite interesting, if at times a bit too busy.

Jackson: Singer's Madame X in movement. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Jackson: Sargent’s Madame X in movement. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Like Incoming, Madame X is a fine example of the conjoining of dancer and musician. Made for Heather Jackson, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the portrait of the American expatriate socialite so famously painted in 1884 Paris by John Singer Sargent, the piece in effect is a pas deux performed with cellist Marica, playing music composed by Schlösberg. Musician and dancer are linked by a long piece of cloth, reminiscent of some of Loie Fuller’s integrations of fabric, lights, music and dance, although Jackson is a far better dancer than La Loie is reported to have been. In this, she is wonderful, as, in a replica of Madame X’s glittery strapped black gown, she performs an undulating, creamy, serpentine dance, curling her fingers, curving her strong back, flirting with the fabric, the music and the audience, using every muscle in her body including those in her face.

I don’t know if Hampton and Roland intended to make pieces reminiscent of “aesthetic dance,” as modern dance was called at the turn of the last century, but Between the Bars – basically a waltz composed by Elliot Smith and arranged by Schlösberg, with its filmy costumes for the women – had the feel of an Isadora Duncan drawing-room dance. It’s a very dancey piece, and contains quite a lot of good-humored back and forth between dancers and musicians, as does the closing Cosmosis, which also bears some resemblance to aesthetic dance.

With Incoming, Madame X, Murmur, and Between the Bars, the dancers and the musicians are all good reasons to see the show. And you don’t want to miss Jackson’s final performances.  There are six more, starting Thursday night.

 

Movie madness: Jonathan Krebs (above) hounds Jamey Hampton. Photo: BodyVox

What in modern life is more deeply and thrillingly superficial than the movies, which seem so realistic and profound yet are merely light and shadow dancing on a flat surface? They transfix us, transport us, edify and irritate us with their virtual nothingness. Movies are dream-extensions of our imaginations, realer than reality yet always also something less: playthings of our lizard nerves and Paleolithic minds. A movie is a seducer, an illogical charmer, and we slip into and out of its embrace with easy abandon: love us again, like you did before.

The Cutting Room, the newest evening-length dance performance from BodyVox, is a charming reminder that at the movies, story and reason take a back seat to ritual and emotion. Most of what’s important in a movie is subterranean, felt and understood almost without thinking. As much as we might complain that a plot is predictable or a motivation doesn’t make sense, plot and motivation aren’t really all that important to a movie’s success: movement and the ability to mesmerize are. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali only made explicit the surrealism that Hollywood journeymen casually practice every day.

BodyVox is an ideal dance company to dive into the dreamworld of the movies. It’s always used a lot of filmwork in its shows, mostly short sly films by the witty Mitchell Rose but also some by cofounder Jamey Hampton, who happens, with his long loose limbs and rubbery face, to be an excellent comic film performer. And BodyVox shares the sort of idealistic ebullience that the movies thrive on, even if Hollywood sprinkles most of its award-season glitter on earnestly serious projects. Deep down, BodyVox and the movies share a belief that the importance of being earnest is vastly overstated. Even Oscar Wilde undercut the notion in his own play, which is, if anything, earnestly devoted to the cleansing comic value of the deeply superficial. The adage “Dying’s easy, comedy’s hard” could be a BodyVox calling-card, and the difficulty springs not just from technique but also from the labor of achieving a transcendent lightness of being against the cosmic odds.

Space Odyssey scenario. Photo: David Krebs

What The Cutting Room achieves is to distill the essence of movie storytelling without weighting it down with any actual story. And it has fun doing it. It’s a situational comedy, a comedy of mood and ritual trappings. “Stella!” a voice cries; or, “I’ll have what she’s having”; or “I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen”; and we all know what the scene is and where, in Hollywood dreamland, we are. It’s as comfortable and comforting as reciting The Lord’s Prayer. Hampton and his cofounding partner Ashley Roland have snipped out the plots and left the feeling of film in a well-chosen variety pack of genres, from documentary and romantic comedy to Bollywood and sci-fi. Each has its conventions and tropes, and The Cutting Room brings those background elements to the forefront, eliminating the mere facts of the matter as inconsequential.

When it comes to plotting, The Cutting Room cuts to the chase: Jonathan Krebs as a heavy in an exercise suit, chasing a suit-and-tied Hampton through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, up the down staircase and every which way but loose. A chase scene is the ultimate thrill gizmo in modern moviemaking, and at one point The Cutting Room actually cuts to a chase within a chase, Krebs dogging Hampton through an entire scene about movie chases. How meta!

We don’t know why this chase is going on – it has something to do with a botched handoff of a film canister – only that it is. It’s quintessential existential, like Steve McQueen careering down the twisting streets of San Francisco: that’s all we really need to know. And the chase, with its occasional catchings-up and scuffles, races across both film and stage, protagonist and antagonist breaking through the screen along a transgressional path that Woody Allen and others have prepared.

Thanks in part to some cleverly mobile walls (technical director is James Mapes) it’s like one reality opening to another, then slipping back again. On screen, Rose and Hampton and cameraman Nick Magaurn use all sorts of editing tricks, averting moments of disaster by simply making one of the combatants disappear, as the clichéd yet in this case extremely accurate phrase has it, “into thin air.” On stage, as Krebs and Hampton slip and stumble around the very real bodies of the other 10 performers, the visual fluidity becomes grounded in physical reality.

I like the blend of age and youth in the current iteration of the BodyVox company, which ranges from veterans such as Roland, Hampton, Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk to younger dancers such as Anna Marra and Holly Shaw. The 12-person ensemble for this show also includes Krebs, Jeff George, Zachary Carroll, Heather Jackson, Josh Murry and Katie Staszkow. True to the BodyVox approach, the performers aren’t just adept at dance technique: they’re also excellent mimics and more than passable actors. In the opening section lampooning classical story ballet, the intention is clearly comic and the technique is close enough to make it work. It’s not in drag, but the Trocks, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, come to mind.

Zachary Carroll, Anna Marra. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The ensemble, aided a good deal by Roland’s witty costumes and Gene Dent’s lighting design, carries responsibility for establishing the flavor of each genre, and carries it off well, from the ballroom verve of romantic comedy to the bright smiles and supple hand gestures of Bollywood and the high-kicking Broadway-cum-Hee Haw hijinks of the concluding “Americana” section. In each case story is nothing, texture is all. Watching the scenes unreel, we begin to realize how much of what we know about any given movie is less about its screenplay than about the stylistic traditions of its genre. As Gene Kelly might say, That’s Entertainment.

For a century now, movies and dance have been having a grand affair. We rarely see it as explicitly stated as this (although in their own ways choreographers as stylistically varied as Twyla Tharp, George Balanchine and Oregon Ballet Theatre‘s Christopher Stowell, with his Cole Porter-themed Eyes on You, have played similar territory with stage and screen), but the tie that BodyVox makes between dance and the movies is much more than mere whimsy. Like film, dance can have a narrative component but it’s essentially a nonliterary art form, relying on distillation and suggestion rather than explication. Even in the classical dances we call “story ballets” the essence isn’t in the story but in the visual texture. Like music, dance is in the moment. And dance and music are as closely linked as film and music. The Dying Swan isn’t The Dying Swan without Saint-Saëns’ cello solo from The Carnival of the Animals. In the same way, the expertly chosen recorded music for The Cutting Room (it ranges from Mozart and Puccini to Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Thomas Newman and Ralph Stanley) both defines and drives the thrill of the chase.

Like the movies, it’s kind of a dream. The seduction continues through May 19 at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 Southwest 17th Avenue.

 
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