By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST
A celebration of “All-American optimism” is what my colleague Bob Hicks called Program A of the BodyVox fifteenth-anniversary retrospective. That applies to Program B as well, which opened on Thursday night with a dozen pieces (two of them on film), ranging from the silky and stylish excerpt from “Leave the Light On,” which opened the show, to the bruising, elbow-in-your-ribs humor of “Man I Keep Hid,” which closed the first half. In the second half, the elaborately costumed and highly entertaining “Bollywood” opened the entertainment and a repeat of the new mixed-media “Café Blanco” ended the evening on a gleeful note.
Along with American optimism, and fifteen years of hard and talented work, BodyVox celebrates the stylistic egalitarianism that has marked much of our theatrical dance since Eugene Loring made “Billy the Kid” in 1938. Want to mix classical ballet with gymnastics, ballroom dance, modern dance, jazz dance and contact improvisation? The three choreographers represented in this show are fearless genre-blenders. I saw more classical ballet steps Thursday night than I did the night before at the Schnitz when Ballet B.C.’s gorgeous dancers performed nearly everything but in their Portland debut.
“Leave the Light On,” danced to bluegrassy music by Edgar Meyer, set the eclectic tone. Company founders Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland, who choreographed and performed it with Zachary Carroll, Heather Jackson, Daniel Kirk, Anna Marra, Josh Murry, Holly Shaw, Eric Skinner and Katie Staszkow, made the blending of several styles look easy, lyrical, romantic, the women’s tiered ruffled dresses adding to the rippling effect, the men energetically courtly. No surprise about the men: three of them, Skinner, Kirk and Carroll, are former ballet dancers; all of BodyVox dancers have some ballet training.
Costumes, all of them designed by Roland, are integral to most of the work made by the BodyVox artistic directors, from pure and lovely dance pieces like “Leave the Light On” to broad comedies like “Open Line,” in which dancers in mix-and-clash outfits of plaids and stripes take calls from the audience on their cell phones and say things like, “It’s hard to dance and talk at the same time.” This was mildly funny in 2005; today, for me, not so much, but the Thursday night audience was vastly amused. As for the oversized, baggy shorts worn by the dancers in Roland’s “Man I Keep Hid,” performed with their arms thrust down into the waistband, sort of like Irish step dancers who must keep their arms plastered to their sides, it looked clever and amusing for about two minutes, before it descended into cuteness.
On the other hand, Hampton’s “Stop,” a takeoff on choreographers, and possibly Arthur Murray (there is a diagram of dance steps on the stage) delivers its humor through the dancing itself, especially Hampton’s own. With the twitch of an eyebrow, the lifting of a knee, the reach of one of his long, eloquent arms, Hampton can, and does, send the viewer into gales of laughter. He did it in “Carmina Burana,” for the Portland Opera, which was really the beginning of BodyVox; he does it in “Bollywood” as a sort of 007 figure being chased by a bad guy (Jonathan Krebs) in sunglasses, and he definitely does it in “Stop,” one of several pieces set to songs by Joe Henry, in which he treats Roland and Carroll like mannequins (or puppets, my seat-mate thought), manipulating their bodies into the positions he thinks he wants, then changing his mind and doing it over. I’ve been watching Hampton dance for more years than he wants me to reveal (also Skinner and Kirk). After seeing him perform in “Stop” and with Roland in the two Mitchell Rose films – the superb “Advance,” in which he and Roland, filmed facing away from the camera, dance their way through landscape and cityscape, even the Portland Art Museum; and the witty “Contact,” which seems to be a send-up of James Bond – I hope he doesn’t quit ’til he stops breathing.
As a choreographer, Hampton, who certainly knows his craft, has one tic I wish he didn’t. The company aesthetic is determinedly apolitical and non-polemic, and that’s refreshing. But we live in a political world, and pieces like “Trampoline,” in which a lone female dancer is bounced up and down and dragged around by seven men who form the equipment of the title, remind me a little too vividly of the amount of abuse, physical, emotional and I’d venture to say economic, that women are being subjected to in contemporary America. Nevertheless, Anna Marra looks lovely while being dragged, and permits herself to be bounced with considerable aplomb. There’s a bit of such dragging in the lovely duet “Alice,” danced by Jackson, one of the stars of this company, and Skinner to a Tom Waits song about the vicissitudes of love, against a projection of clouds that make the piece as visual as it is musical. But all this hefting of the female body is truly becoming, no other word for it, a drag.
On the other hand, I was delighted to see again Skinner’s 2010 “Write My Book,” a solo he made for himself in which he dances with, around, through and in a small collection of rubber car tires. It hasn’t a lick of tap-dancing, but is nevertheless highly reminiscent of that great exemplar of American dance Gene Kelly. I liked this piece when I saw it the first time, for the fearless insouciance of Skinner’s seemingly improvisational performance and the natural ease of his boyish dancing. This, too, is danced to Joe Henry, and makes a a seamless transition to “Man I Keep Hid” when the dancers in that piece make their entrance via chute and Skinner beats a hasty retreat.
All of the transitions in this show are seamlessly done, with film often functioning like the entr’actes in classical ballet, little performances given in front of the curtain so the scenery can be changed behind it. It was opportunities to change costumes that were needed in this show, and this device made the 12-piece program move very fast indeed. As did the dancers, a fairly unusual mix of the experienced and the young, all of whom seem to have an equal amount of energy on stage. We saw this in “Bollywood,” with its faintly tawdry costumes, giving it the feel of the Tony Curtis version of “The Thief of Baghdad,” and “Shed,” in which the dancers perform with two-by-fours, placing them on the stage floor and hopping from one to another, then breaking into quartets and the like, executing pirouettes and fouettés along the way with considerable éclat and technical skill. BodyVox-2 company member Jeff George was exuberantly outstanding in “Bollywood”; all the young dancers – Samuel Hobbs, Marra, Josh Murry, Shaw, Staszkow – distinguished themselves as individuals and ensemble members throughout. And technical director and lighting designer James Mapes does a superb job of creating settings with lights that also move the proceedings right along.
“Café Blanco” certainly flashes by rapidly, even after the dancers hop off the Razor scooters. As choreographers, Hampton and Roland seem to be exploring all of all the ways in which dancers can use their arms. It’s highly effective, and as Hicks notes, it ends the show with a very American exuberance, as manifested in a duet of rapid little jumps and a brief solo for Hampton in which he scoots rapidly across the studio space on his butt, ruefully grinning all the way.
They know what they’re doing, these BodyVox folk, and they’re providing considerable distraction at a time when as Americans we need it. Me, I’m grateful for the entertainment, and the pleasure of watching lovely dancers move, even with the caveats above. I had fun. You will, too.
Program B repeats at 7:30 tonight (Saturday, May 11), 7:30 p.m. May 17, and 7:30 p.m. May 18. Program A repeats at 7:30 p.m. May 16 and 2 p.m. May 18. Performances are at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 Northwest 17th Avenue, Portland. Ticket information here.