Must be something in the water over on Northwest Northrup Street: BodyVox keeps drinking from the well of chance, and emerging spritzy and refreshed.
When last we checked in on the Portland contemporary dance company, back in December, it was doing a show called The Spin: spin a giant wheel, à la Wheel of Fortune, land on a pie-slice printed with the name of a piece from the company’s repertory, and the dancers would perform it. Each night’s show was different, depending on the luck of the spin, and that was part of the fun.
On Thursday night, with the opening of Pearl Dive Project, the risks got even riskier. The point of the show, which continues through April 23, is to see what emerges when creative nondancers try their hand at creating dance. This is choreography by people who don’t do choreography. With one exception, the featured dancemakers don’t even have backgrounds in dance, though several are fans who’ve seen a lot of it from the seats. The idea: what if you take a group of creative people in other fields and ask them to apply their skills and intuitions to the world of dance? Can they do it? What sorts of images and movements might they create?
It’s chancy, and not just for the dance company, but also for the neo-dancemakers: stretching out of your comfort zone in public can be a brave and scary thing to do. Almost all choreographers are or have been dancers. They work with the bodies and skills of the dancers who are doing their pieces, but also with their own muscle memories, the accumulated physical knowledge of how and why bodies move, and how far they can be stretched. Choreography, like dancing itself, requires skills that are learned and mastered. On the other hand, creativity in a basic sense crosses disciplines, allowing a musician, for instance, to understand at an elemental level what a visual artist is getting at. It’s this deeper well that Pearl Dive Project sets out to explore.
The results, as you might expect, are mixed, but always fascinating: I found myself enjoying the evening, as an experiment, very much. No brilliant works emerge, but several genuinely interesting ones do. And brilliance isn’t really the point: what’s lost in polish, specificity, and the technical assurance of experience is gained in the excitement of discovery.
Creativity does bleed across borders, and skills learned in one discipline can apply to another. The three members of the landscape design firm Place Studio (J.P. Paul, Zeljka Carol Kekez, Mauricio Villarreal) bring the sharp mathematics of spatial arrangement (a crucial aspect of choreography) and their love of Ducati high-end racing motorcycles to the droll Shadowline, which opens with six dancers arranged in a clump of arms and legs and torsos to resemble a revving motorcycle. Things take off from there. Clark James, an FX and animation veteran whose credits range from An American Werewolf in Paris and Grimm to the Cartoon Network’s kids show Firehouse Tales, created, as you might anticipate from an animator, the evening’s most precise and meticulous piece, the duet A Curious Thing Happens When Androids Fall in Love, performed with witty sensibility by Brent Luebbert and Katie Scherman.
You might start doing a little creative cross-fertilization of your own as you’re watching Pearl Dive Project. Ideas can get jumbled in your mind: does knowing what a choreographer’s ordinary discipline is influence what you think you’re seeing? If you’re familiar with Malia Jensen’s sly and sometimes tragic sculptures of animals and other things, for instance, does her clumping of performers in her wryly named Cascadia Seduction Zone come to seem like the roughing-out of three-dimensional shapes? Do the movements and sleek arena poses in Pink Martini singer China Forbes’s Transformed strike you as emulating the shifts in a good pop song?
Most of the works in Pearl Dive Project tend to be light-hearted, which makes sense: when you’re learning a new discipline, your first instinct isn’t usually to dive immediately into the depths. Besides, BodyVox’s own ethos is rooted in a native optimism, so even when its work explores deeper emotions it’s rooted in a context. It also makes sense that most of these pieces come across as dance theater, more concerned with storytelling than technical bravura. The young Brooklyn pianist and composer Daniel Schlosberg, who’s collaborated with Chamber Music Northwest regulars David Shifrin, Peter Wiley, and Ani Kavafian as well as many others, displays a light and charming theatrical touch with his piece So Dreamy, which floats from idyllic group grapples to bowling scenes (with playfully illuminated props) to intimations of fertility.
Musician Jeremy Wilson (the Dharma Bums, Pilot) is the one choreographer who professes a background in dance: from 8 to 14, he says, he was a serious ballet student. His work A Softer Calling reflects some of that, along with an obviously deep understanding of the movements and stylizations of the musical stage. And journalist/blogger Byron Beck’s opening The Warm Up, a solo (mostly) for BodyVox cofounder Ashley Roland, finds its inspiration in two places: in Roland herself (“Ballet is woman,” as Balanchine was fond of saying, although that’s not strictly true), and in the remarkable series of photos of Roland by the legendary performance photographer Lois Greenfield: you can see prints from the series in the hallway between the BodyVox lobby and performing space. The Warm Up includes a surprise visitor and a feat of strength that give it a nice closing kick.
The program’s most serious piece is One World, Apart, by Carlos and Raffaela Kalmar – he’s the music director of the Oregon Symphony, she’s a violinist. The dance grows from their experiences in Europe, watching the Middle Eastern refugee crisis unfold, and it divides the stage between a pair of haves and a crowd of have-nots, struggling to be noticed and to bridge the great divide. It’s expressionistic, and highly theatrical, and it gives a weight to the entire evening.
As usual at BodyVox, technical standards are high. Costumes (Roland and the Portland-based apparel company Nau) are entertaining and inventive (James’s androids are, well, androidical), lighting by Mark LaPierre is smart, and the music’s well-chosen. My own taste leans toward the piano/bass driven jazz of Mary Lou Williams for Jensen’s Cascadia Seduction Zone and the jagged, nervously insistent score by contemporary Australian composer Carl Vine that propels One World, Apart. But the whole program has inventive music worth dancing, and listening, to, from Forbes’s choice of David Bowie (“ch-ch-ch-changes”) to Wilson and Schlosberg’s own music for their pieces.
Still, if the evening’s eight dances were simply presented without comment, in the mode of an “ordinary” dance concert, something vital would be missing. What truly makes this program work is the context it provides, which puts the focus squarely on the experiment rather than the result. Co-founder Jamey Hampton acts as a warm and amusing master of ceremonies, and the program brilliantly introduces each segment with a short video interview in the studio with the choreographer. The novice dancemakers explain both their own creative background and how they’re approaching the project. The videos are humanizing, and insightful, and give a sense of what a collaborative undertaking dance can be.
The choreographers are getting to know the dancers, and their capabilities, and, it’s easy to imagine, the ways the performers can help make the project work: as the choreographers present their ideas to the dancers, the dancers can show them how the ideas can be shaped and even extended into the language of dance. Pearl Dive Project opens new creative possibilities for its artists, which in a time of rapidly shifting conceptual boundaries is a good and important thing. At least as interestingly, it gives its audience a taste of the creative process in the works. Risky, but worth it.