When Wild Man premiered in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 1991 American Choreographers Showcase, I thought it was a knockout. Created by Jamey Hampton in collaboration with Portland painter Michele Russo, with music by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, it was laced with wit provided by Russo’s set pieces. Russo’s paintings of hats, faces, and skulls in his boldly outlined style were as much a part of Hampton’s choreography as Isamu Noguchi’s sets were for Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart. I was present in the studio when Hampton was creating the piece, as was Russo, and Carol Hampton, Hampton’s mother. At that rehearsal, Hampton told the dancers that the piece had no story, “but it’s an homage to the creative spirit, the spirit that makes you able to break boundaries.”
Hampton was billed at the time as an “emerging” choreographer, which he wasn’t. As a member of Pilobolus, and then Momix, he had been choreographing for close to fifteen years. For Ballet Oregon, which had originally commissioned Wild Man, he had made Kara’s Litost, an eloquent, tender duet in 1982 for Donald Logan and Deborah Wolfe. Wild Man, too, contains some quiet tenderness, which balances some hard-driving physicality – abandoned, headlong movement that was extremely challenging for OBT’s classically trained dancers.
Not, however, for the dynamic sextet that is BodyVox-2 – Jeff George, Samuel Hobbs, Anna Marra, Josh Murry, Holly Shaw, and Katie Staszkow – on whom Hampton has revived the piece. Wild Man‘s latest incarnation opened a week ago Thursday, just in time to be wiped out by the Great Blizzard of 2014, at least for two performances. I made it, along with 200 other people, the second Thursday, and had the profound pleasure of witnessing a performance that engaged both the mind and the heart.
From the manipulation of those two-dimensional set pieces (at one point the dancers run around the stage, carrying them like shields over their faces, looking like hats with legs), to the flying lifts, to the tender whispering gestures in some intimate duets, these dancers’ talent and artistry and commitment to the work made the 23-year-old piece look as if Hampton had just made it. He had initially made it for eight dancers, but has recast it for six, and it seems to me the lighting — at one point a hellish red — is more intense than it was originally.
Wild Man begins deliciously, with a dancer, in this case Hobbs, lying across toy railway tracks in front of a miniature moving train. He survives the impact, and rises to his feet to dance an incredibly fluid solo, which sets the organically driven tone. As the piece builds, the dancers performing solos, duets, trios — a trio performed by Hobbs, Murry and George remains explosively compelling over more than two decades — I start to think of it as a danced account of an artist’s life from the playroom (not the cradle), to the grave: at one point the stylized skulls are grouped together like tombstones in a graveyard, from which the dancers emerge like ghosts or vampires. Wild Man ends with the fearless, and innocent, abandon of youth.
Of the six solos that comprised the first half of the program, I most enjoyed Anne Mueller’s Variations in a Vacuum 2, made for Hobbs, and accompanied by a recording of David Bowie’s Space Oddity performed by Chris Hadfield on board the International Space Station. Hobbs, a former track athlete, made the shift from sports to art in 2004 at Western Oregon University, which has a good dance program. He’s an extremely interesting dancer, with the boneless quality he showed in Wild Man, but also an ability to isolate his joints that made me want to see him in Bebe Miller’s work. Music, choreography, the film projection of a starry night, made this the most theatrically integrated of the solos.
I’ve missed most of Eowyn Emerald’s performances, so was very glad to have the opportunity to see the honky-tonk tinged solo she made on Staszkow to jazz by Duke Ellington. It’s a sophisticated number, very different from the other solos, and Staszkow was clearly having the time of her life performing it, seducing the audience in the process. That was also true of Anna Marra in Laura Haney’s Clarity, to music by Geoffrey Castle that sounded like Irish fiddling. Marra’s delight in dancing was palpable and infectious, her connection with the audience a pleasure to see.
Hampton’s solo for George, which opened the first half, could be characterized as artistic hip hop, as he interacts with himself on film, deploying his long limbs to cover the stage: like his BV2 colleague,s he’s an incredibly generous performer. His movement is open, his turning and phrasing to music by Califone precise and unselfconscious. He, too, connects with the audience, at one point a bit confrontationally: he’s a hell of a mover, and he knows it.
Eric Skinner’s What If…? for Murry begins with music I found repellent (score is by Kid 606, and easy listening it’s not), with this incredible dancer moving explosively all over the space. Mercifully, the sound quiets down, shifting to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and Murry performs a moody dance that ends with him curled, in a spotlight, in the fetal position. The movement is balletic, elegant, occasionally bombastic showcasing Murry’s technical and emotional virtuosity.
The first half ends in a broadly comic mood with the wonderful Shaw dancing in Ashley Roland’s There? There, with a bright pink teddy bear strapped to her back. There was audience participation. Shaw picked a woman who could really move, and the two of them brought down the house.
The show repeats Friday night and Saturday afternoon, February 14-15. For tickets, go to www.bodyvox.com