BloodyVox: Family friendly laughs and scares for Halloween

BodyVox's annual Halloween bash is back for another set of humorous takes on the rituals and characters of the holiday

Don’t let the title fool you: “BloodyVox,” the semi-annual Halloween-themed show by Portland dance favorite BodyVox, really isn’t bloody at all. Unless your idea of macabre entertainment features orthopedic surgery, dance and slippery fluids aren’t a great match.

But if we had to determine the production’s blood type, we’d have to assume it’s O positive: O, for the deep Oregon roots of this company. And positive, because—for all the nods toward the darkness and danger that typify Halloween fare—the artistic disposition on display here remains unmistakably sunny.

Bodyvox has opened a new version of its Halloween special, "BloodyVox"/Blaine Covert

Bodyvox has opened a new version of its Halloween special, “BloodyVox”/Blaine Covert

“BloodyVox” first stalked the autumn night in 2010 and has been re-animated every couple of years since, each time re-stitched with a somewhat different collection of spare parts. The latest 75-minute lark-in-the-dark is subtitled “Blood Red Is the New Black,” but don’t come expecting anything remotely grim. These folks just aren’t the guts-and gore type. (Once asked by Willamette Week’s Heather Wisner what scares dancers specifically, company co-founder Ashley Roland replied, “Maybe poundcake.”) BodyVox has never been strongly associated with children’s audiences, as, for instance, Imago Theatre is. But this show feels like a lure for that market.

The lighting is low, emphasizing lurid reds and greens. Zombies and other curious creatures caper. Mysterious nocturnal visitors complicate peaceful slumbers. A recurring duet with Roland and co-founder Jamey Hampton wryly looks for “a tale of terror” in the quotidian emotional ebb-and-flow of a contemporary couple’s relationship. (Hell, after all, is other people.)

It’s all presented with the reliable BodyVox touches: strong and varied music choices, clever integration of video, striking costumes, and above all the deceptively polished precision and athleticism of an experienced troupe of dancers making it look easy.

The elements come together best in “Dormez Vous,” one of the show’s foundational pieces, in which those aforementioned visitors emerge from the middle of a mattress as if from a night-time netherworld to whisk a pair of resident sleepers around the room, the movements (gentler for the woman, a bit confrontational for the man) suggesting the emotional dynamics of the relationship being worked out through dreams.

A similar poignant resonance comes in the closing moment of “Side Show,” a circus-puppet riff set to contemporary American string music by the likes of Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. As the female puppets, Alicia Cutaia and Anna Mara achieve a wonderful balance of stiffness and fluidity, inertia and momentum, while they’re manipulated and tossed around by a band of grinning roustabouts. Done with their fun, the men dump their playthings into boxes. That’s when we get a lovely, quiet moment that adds meaning to the whole, as Cutaia and Mara reach out and clasp hands, a sign of heretofore unnoticed volition and connection.

By contrast, “Wall of Uncertainty” turns up the energy and wit by bringing several of the show’s disparate characters together in madcap maneuvers involving a wall of large fabric panels with dancers inside them.

Bodyvox's "BloodyVox" is family friendly/Photo by Blaine Covert

Bodyvox’s “BloodyVox” is family friendly/Photo by Blaine Covert

It’s a pleasant enough diversion, and brief enough not to tax your patience. But there’s little here to make your heart race with excitement, much less fear. BodyVox is capable of much more challenging, inventive choreography. A few random jerks and grunts get sprinkled through the spinning, pogoing and ensemble floor work of “Zombie A Go Go,” but the piece looks less like the dancing dead than a garden-variety troupe wearing grubby clothes. By comparison, “Interview With a Zombie,” this summer’s revelatory show by Jim McGinn’s Top Shake Dance, seemed to explore the notion of how the human form might move with only mechanical signals at its disposal, absent the living/thinking person’s learned complex of emotion, motivation, habit.

Overall, this installment of “BloodyVox” suffers from a lack of tension, in the construction of the movement, the narrative flow and the artistic sensibility as a whole. The performances are crisp and lively, but so much of the material feels just slack enough that the company’s characteristically sly visual wit shows through in moments too scattered to make or sustain much impact. Would that the troupe still included Jonathan Krebs, whose darkly antic Krebby the Clown brought an edge to the 2012 edition of the show.

BodyVox is, by and large, a light-hearted bunch, with a large, loyal audience that loves the reassuring, sometimes whimsical quality of its work. And that’s in no way a bad thing. But maybe they should have listened harder to the late, great Warren Zevon, whose “Werewolves of London” graces the end of the show, when he barks the urgent advice, “Draw blood!”

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