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.
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.
Chamber Music Northwest’s artistic contribution to the partnership underscores the “chamber” part of the equation: the music is performed in piano-only versions, with Melvin Chen producing a propulsive, rhythmic, sharply struck and deeply dramatic rendition of the Prokofiev score and then collaborating with Hilda Huang on a much more flowing, dreamy, elegantly rippling four-hand version of the Mendelssohn, on occasion with a Shakespearean character peering over their shoulders or casually tapping one of them on the head. In both cases, the scaled-back performances are appropriate to the pieces, meshing well with the intimate BodyVox space and providing the dancers with the sort of in-the-moment accompaniment that taped music, no matter how fine the performance, can’t duplicate.
Many arresting images adorn the stage in BodyVox’s Romeo and Juliet, which is choreographed by company founders and artistic directors Ashley Roland and Jamey Hampton. The mood is dark, with vivid flashes of light for scenes such as R&J’s courtship and tryst and the fatal three-way revenge spree among Tybalt (Daniel Kirk), Mercutio (Anna Marra) and Romeo (Brent Luebbert). I was particularly taken by the way the nine-dancer cast created architectural shapes and elevations, lifting Juliet (Katie Scherman) skyward into an imagined balcony and creating a living slab for the doomed lovers’ bier. And there are sharp performances, among them Roland’s as Juliet’s conspiring Nurse, Hampton’s as a hyperactive Friar Laurence, and Alicia Cutaia’s as an imperious and fatefully insistent Lady Capulet.
There are, I think, some problems in trying to tell the entire tale, even in compressed form, an approach that forces more narrative than impression. The opening scene comes across as mainly purposeless wandering, a few overly anguished expressions stand in for moments of intense drama, and, in general, the piece has an overly illustrative sense of movement, always a danger in a dance that also tells a familiar story. Where the dance works best is in its suggestive moments and its scenes focused more on creative movement than literal storytelling. Still, that insistent piano keeps pushing things forward with an urgency that suggests the passion of the play.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which comes after intermission, is more naturally in BodyVox’s wheelhouse, and the dancers seem looser, freer, and generally more invigorated in it. The mood’s vastly more playful, from the music to the movement to the story, with a comic pithiness that matches BodyVox’s own essentially optimistic and comic spirit. The dance has an endearingly goofy lightness of being that showcases BodyVox’s great gift of presenting serious emotional and cultural matters in buoyant comic tones.
This dance, too, is choreographed by Hampton and Roland, and aided by some puckish projected narratives and flickering lighting effects (Mark LaPierre’s lighting design for the entire evening is smartly conceived and carried out) they give it the feel of an early silent-movie comedy. This works well in part because Hampton, who dances the role of the willful matchmaker Theseus, is a master of the sort of miming that the great silent comedians transformed into such startling movie magic. The younger dancers who have joined BodyVox in the past few seasons have reinvigorated the company, but in matters mimetic and dance-theatrical, Roland and Hampton, with their backgrounds in Pilobolus, MOMIX, and ISO Dance, still set the style.
Roland has long been known as a witty and inventive costumer, and her creations for Midsummer bubble appealingly over the top. The dance dabbles in a bit of comic gender-bending, with the young romantic heroes Demetrius and Lysander played in pants roles by Cutaia and Scherman, respectively, and their heroine counterparts by the heavily made-up and lavishly gowned BodyVox veterans Eric Skinner (Helena) and Daniel Kirk (Hermia), à la Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. It’s indulgent, and coarse, and, in the spirit of Shakespeare’s high-and-low comedies, robustly entertaining. Scott Stampone flutters heavily about the stage as the comically efficient magical fixer Puck; Gabi Weinert is a mustard-toned Butterfly; Dar Vejon Jones dances the fairy king, Oberon; Marra is the ravishing fairy queen, Titania, the unwitting butt of a rollicking interspecies joke; and Luebbert, in a total flip-flop from his role as dashing Romeo, is that symbolic butt in the flesh, the braying ass Bottom.
BodyVox’s Midsummer is a light and gusty romp, capturing the mood of the play without being overly tied to the plot. Adding to the genuine charm is the felicity of the four-hand piano accompaniment, which Chen and Huang deliver with clear and present freshness. They’re a good match. Chen is a longstanding national soloist who is also deputy dean of the Yale School of Music; Chuang, a rising young performer and Bach specialist who is a Chamber Music Northwest Protégé Project Artist, is just 20 but has been busily racking up plaudits and awards across Europe and the United States since she was 11. Sometimes four hands are better (or at least more entertaining) than two.
Chamber Music Northwest and BodyVox’s eight-performance run of Death and Delight continues through July 23 at BodyVox Dance Center. Ticket and schedule information are here.