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.
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.
In general, BodyVox thrives on sharply articulate storytelling, a fondness for costuming and props and visual tricks, a keen ear for danceable music (the ever-welcome sandpaper scratch of Tom Waits pops up more than once) and an absurdist glee in taking odd moments or situations and stretching them into strange shapes. The company is media-savvy, using offbeat film bits to lead into dances: whatever works, but keep it crisp. And the program is performed, in various combinations, by an appealing and agile company of nine: Roland, Hampton, Skinner, Alicia Cutaia, Jeff George, Daniel Kirk, Brent Luebbert, Anna Marra, and Emily Schultz.
On this program of more than a dozen works, it was especially good to see that goofy romp The Bunny, set by Roland and Hampton (who do all of the choreography on this program, singly or in tandem) to a hypnotic little tune by Mitchell Froom and featuring, for one final time, an orange-pajamaed Skinner as the befuddled rodent hopping nervously amid an odd-duck crowd. Ditto the title piece, Urban Meadow, in which a good shepherd (Hampton) tries to herd a flock of sweetly unruly sheep and keep them out of the claws of a hungry wolf (Luebbert). It’s a tough world out there for the tender and tasty. Alice, to a Waits tune, is a sweet and yearning duet in blue for Skinner and Cutaia; and the brilliantly loopy Hopper’s Dinner, set to Waits’s buoyant song Tabletop Joe, is a fetching piece of acrobatic tomfoolery, an anarchic dinner party among Skinner, Roland, Marra, and Kirk, with Luebbert as the eager waiter. Everybody’s slipping and sliding onto chairs and laps and floorboards, and dancing on the tabletop. It’s splendid foolishness, and given its timing it has an air of cheeky optimistic rebellion to it.
The mood deepened after intermission with Roland’s wonderful work of visual play Garden of Synaesthesia (“synaesthesia: the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body”), set to a score by Ravel, in which the five performers pile together and move in front of a video camera that fragments their images like a kaleidoscope and projects them above the stage. The dancers are in essence dancing against themselves; viewers dart their eyes between the “real” performers and their larger projected selves, which are similar but transformed into something almost geometric. Hampton’s S.O.S., performed to music by Sibelius, is the deepest piece on the program, a sinuous evocation of the final moments of the Titanic, its hopes and dreams and passengers swept up by the sea: If you’re of a mind to think of it in terms of current events, it might be the melancholic flip side of Hopper’s Dinner.
After a brief pause the program shifted its focus to Skinner and his three short pieces: Bottom of the World, Baby Fools Around, and A Good Man Is Hard To Find. In each he was in his element, a figure of grace and elegance putting himself into odd situations: wheeling around the floor on a pushcart, finding himself lifted on a long two-by-four, rising high above the stage, cupped in the balance by his fellow dancers. The applause that followed was long and hearty and standing, and wasn’t just for this performance. It was for twenty golden years.
Urban Meadow continues at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 20-21. Ticket information here.