Chambered nautilus: BodyVox’s unsinkable classic

The Portland dance troupe and Chamber Music Northwest send out an eloquent "S.O.S."

Harpist Bridget Kibbey: Nearer my God. Photo: David Krebs

Harpist Bridget Kibbey: Nearer my God. Photo: David Krebs

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

Jamey Hampton’s “S.O.S.” was the best piece on the program when it premiered at the Schnitz nine years ago in a BodyVox/Third Angle collaboration called “Water Bodies.” The same is true of the company’s current collaboration with Chamber Music Northwest, “In Motion,” which opened Thursday night on the cramped stage of St. Mary’s Academy. (It repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.)

Hampton’s eloquent, innovative, understated choreography; the score – a compilation of Sarah Adams’ hymn “Nearer My God to Thee,” Gavin Bryars’ minimalist music, and Sibelius’s “Valse Triste” –  the simple costumes, lighting design and film projections all come together in a piece that pays tribute to what we know about the heroism of the crew, the passengers and, above all, the musicians, who stayed on deck playing the hymn as the allegedly unsinkable Titanic went down in April of 1912.

“S.O.S” begins with Eric Skinner, Daniel Kirk, Jonathan Krebs and Josh Murry, wearing overcoats over union suits, pushing a platform containing harpist Bridget Kibbey and her instrument across the stage to the musicians’ corner, while she plays, a metaphor for that heroic string quartet of over a century ago.  They are joined by that lovely dancer, Anna Marra, and Katie Staszkow, who are dressed in simple, elegant satiny nightgowns.  Together they kneel, listen, look up at a film projection of icy seas. They move together as if in a lifeboat. There is a glorious duet for parting lovers. And all of this is executed with skill, taste and subtlety.  “S.O.S”  is an elegy, making its point without melodrama or Hollywood special effects, celebrating the endurance of the human spirit, and the solace that artists can, and do, provide in moments of crisis.

Imani Winds' Valerie Thompson and dancers. Photo: David Krebs

Imani Winds’ Valerie Coleman and dancers. Photo: David Krebs

Skinner’s “Serein,” which also premiered on that White Bird-commissioned “Water Bodies” program, closed the first half of an evening that began with a lovely rendition of the introduction and allegro movements of an unnamed composition by Maurice Ravel by violinists Ani Kavafian and Yura Lee, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Fred Sherry, harpist Bridget Kibbey, flautist Valerie Coleman and clarinetist Mariam Adam. “Serein” is essentially a ballet, with no point shoes in sight, and in it Skinner makes more use of fifth position than he ever had to do in his years of dancing with Oregon Ballet Theatre in the Canfield years. The Bartok score, replete with folk rhythms and a faintly Middle Eastern tone, was brilliantly played by Kavafian and Lee, and Skinner’s own solo was performed with the same joie de la danse that Jerome Robbins created in his “Dances at a Gathering.”  If the piece looked a little cluttered, a little busy, that may well be attributable to the small size of the stage.

As usual in a BodyVox concert, a couple of Mitchell Rose films were thrown into the mix.  “Treadmill Dreams,” in the first half, with Hampton and Roland on a bicycle, not only echoes the lighthearted interval in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” when the bandits and their moll celebrate their ill-gotten gains, it also reminds us that we can see, if we’re so disposed, some bicycles at the Portland Art Museum. The second film, “Unleashed” – one of the first BodyVox did with Rose, and featuring comic mayhem in a large office filled with cubicles – made me think of what the Oregonian newsroom might be looking like these days, except what’s happened there is definitely not funny.

Hampton’s ties to this city are deep and profound. He knows its history well, and in the sole new work on the program he and Ashley Roland paid tribute, comically, to a piece of visual performance art that – long before the “young creatives” came to town – proclaimed Portland’s weirdness to the rest of the country.  “Ex Posers” takes off on Bud Clark’s “Expose Yourself to Art” poster, the seedy overcoat replaced by white terry cloth robes, worn by the 10 company members, including Roland and Hampton, the two artistic directors. It begins by interacting directly with the divine members of the Imani Winds, who provided the music for the second half of the concert. Hampton and Skinner, backs to the audience, faced the musicians, spreading their bathrobes wide. Much cavorting with the robes open and closed takes place, too much actually, and while the d’Rivera and Piazolla score was spectacularly well played, a couple of Clark’s signature “whoop whoops” emitted by the dancers would have made the piece much more amusing.

“Foreign Tails” and “Reverie,” old repertory pieces – the former dating from Roland and Hampton’s Momix days, the latter a “let’s create beauty” reaction to 9/11 – were also performed, their respective scores beautifully played by the musicians, especially the Debussy that accompanies “Foreign Tails.”   I’m bound to say the audience, basically the music-lovers who subscribe to Chamber Music Northwest, loved them.

What I loved, will always love, is “S.O.S.” and the energy-charged musical interludes provided in the second half by Imani Winds: Valerie Coleman, flute; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe; Mariam Adam, clarinet, Monica Ellis, bassoon; and Jeff Scott, horn.

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Final performances are at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 29, and 4 p.m. Sunday, June 30. Ticket information is here.

Backs turned in "Ex Posers." Photo: David Krebs

Backs turned in “Ex Posers.” Photo: David Krebs

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