What in modern life is more deeply and thrillingly superficial than the movies, which seem so realistic and profound yet are merely light and shadow dancing on a flat surface? They transfix us, transport us, edify and irritate us with their virtual nothingness. Movies are dream-extensions of our imaginations, realer than reality yet always also something less: playthings of our lizard nerves and Paleolithic minds. A movie is a seducer, an illogical charmer, and we slip into and out of its embrace with easy abandon: love us again, like you did before.
The Cutting Room, the newest evening-length dance performance from BodyVox, is a charming reminder that at the movies, story and reason take a back seat to ritual and emotion. Most of what’s important in a movie is subterranean, felt and understood almost without thinking. As much as we might complain that a plot is predictable or a motivation doesn’t make sense, plot and motivation aren’t really all that important to a movie’s success: movement and the ability to mesmerize are. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali only made explicit the surrealism that Hollywood journeymen casually practice every day.
BodyVox is an ideal dance company to dive into the dreamworld of the movies. It’s always used a lot of filmwork in its shows, mostly short sly films by the witty Mitchell Rose but also some by cofounder Jamey Hampton, who happens, with his long loose limbs and rubbery face, to be an excellent comic film performer. And BodyVox shares the sort of idealistic ebullience that the movies thrive on, even if Hollywood sprinkles most of its award-season glitter on earnestly serious projects. Deep down, BodyVox and the movies share a belief that the importance of being earnest is vastly overstated. Even Oscar Wilde undercut the notion in his own play, which is, if anything, earnestly devoted to the cleansing comic value of the deeply superficial. The adage “Dying’s easy, comedy’s hard” could be a BodyVox calling-card, and the difficulty springs not just from technique but also from the labor of achieving a transcendent lightness of being against the cosmic odds.
What The Cutting Room achieves is to distill the essence of movie storytelling without weighting it down with any actual story. And it has fun doing it. It’s a situational comedy, a comedy of mood and ritual trappings. “Stella!” a voice cries; or, “I’ll have what she’s having”; or “I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen”; and we all know what the scene is and where, in Hollywood dreamland, we are. It’s as comfortable and comforting as reciting The Lord’s Prayer. Hampton and his cofounding partner Ashley Roland have snipped out the plots and left the feeling of film in a well-chosen variety pack of genres, from documentary and romantic comedy to Bollywood and sci-fi. Each has its conventions and tropes, and The Cutting Room brings those background elements to the forefront, eliminating the mere facts of the matter as inconsequential.
When it comes to plotting, The Cutting Room cuts to the chase: Jonathan Krebs as a heavy in an exercise suit, chasing a suit-and-tied Hampton through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, up the down staircase and every which way but loose. A chase scene is the ultimate thrill gizmo in modern moviemaking, and at one point The Cutting Room actually cuts to a chase within a chase, Krebs dogging Hampton through an entire scene about movie chases. How meta!
We don’t know why this chase is going on – it has something to do with a botched handoff of a film canister – only that it is. It’s quintessential existential, like Steve McQueen careering down the twisting streets of San Francisco: that’s all we really need to know. And the chase, with its occasional catchings-up and scuffles, races across both film and stage, protagonist and antagonist breaking through the screen along a transgressional path that Woody Allen and others have prepared.
Thanks in part to some cleverly mobile walls (technical director is James Mapes) it’s like one reality opening to another, then slipping back again. On screen, Rose and Hampton and cameraman Nick Magaurn use all sorts of editing tricks, averting moments of disaster by simply making one of the combatants disappear, as the clichéd yet in this case extremely accurate phrase has it, “into thin air.” On stage, as Krebs and Hampton slip and stumble around the very real bodies of the other 10 performers, the visual fluidity becomes grounded in physical reality.
I like the blend of age and youth in the current iteration of the BodyVox company, which ranges from veterans such as Roland, Hampton, Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk to younger dancers such as Anna Marra and Holly Shaw. The 12-person ensemble for this show also includes Krebs, Jeff George, Zachary Carroll, Heather Jackson, Josh Murry and Katie Staszkow. True to the BodyVox approach, the performers aren’t just adept at dance technique: they’re also excellent mimics and more than passable actors. In the opening section lampooning classical story ballet, the intention is clearly comic and the technique is close enough to make it work. It’s not in drag, but the Trocks, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, come to mind.
The ensemble, aided a good deal by Roland’s witty costumes and Gene Dent’s lighting design, carries responsibility for establishing the flavor of each genre, and carries it off well, from the ballroom verve of romantic comedy to the bright smiles and supple hand gestures of Bollywood and the high-kicking Broadway-cum-Hee Haw hijinks of the concluding “Americana” section. In each case story is nothing, texture is all. Watching the scenes unreel, we begin to realize how much of what we know about any given movie is less about its screenplay than about the stylistic traditions of its genre. As Gene Kelly might say, That’s Entertainment.
For a century now, movies and dance have been having a grand affair. We rarely see it as explicitly stated as this (although in their own ways choreographers as stylistically varied as Twyla Tharp, George Balanchine and Oregon Ballet Theatre‘s Christopher Stowell, with his Cole Porter-themed Eyes on You, have played similar territory with stage and screen), but the tie that BodyVox makes between dance and the movies is much more than mere whimsy. Like film, dance can have a narrative component but it’s essentially a nonliterary art form, relying on distillation and suggestion rather than explication. Even in the classical dances we call “story ballets” the essence isn’t in the story but in the visual texture. Like music, dance is in the moment. And dance and music are as closely linked as film and music. The Dying Swan isn’t The Dying Swan without Saint-Saëns’ cello solo from The Carnival of the Animals. In the same way, the expertly chosen recorded music for The Cutting Room (it ranges from Mozart and Puccini to Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Thomas Newman and Ralph Stanley) both defines and drives the thrill of the chase.
Like the movies, it’s kind of a dream. The seduction continues through May 19 at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 Southwest 17th Avenue.