Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

BodyVox at 26: Once more, with friends

The innovative Portland dance company enters a new season in a spirit of collaboration, civic renewal, and fresh ideas.

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BodyVox dancers in an October 2022 “Pearl Dive” performance choreographed by Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons” and “Life in Hell.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Like Tiny Tim, the Portland dance company BodyVox is tiptoeing. Not through the tulips, but through the rocky terrain of the cultural and economic realities of the 2020s. “I’m looking at this systemic fragility,” says Jamey Hampton, who founded BodyVox a quarter-century ago with his wife and fellow dancer and choreographer Ashley Roland. “How to deal? Be financially responsible, and be involved with our community.”

Both are keys to the company’s coming year, which looks very much like “old” BodyVox, and also like BodyVox in a new direction.

On Thursday, September 21, the company kicks off its 26th season with a two-show, single-night offering called Season Sampler, which is exactly that – but a sampler of much more than its own new season. BodyVox will be hosting Chamber Music Northwest, Open Space, the Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, and its own dancers in a variety show at its home space, BodyVox Dance Center, in Northwest Portland. “Building on the belief that a vital performing arts scene is critical for the health and recovery of our city, ‘Season Sampler’ puts five performing arts organizations onstage together for one night only, performing excerpts of their upcoming seasons as a preview for audiences,” the company says in its season announcement. The show will be free, but requires reservations, and the seats have been filled.

Company dancers in “Deep Wading,” from the BodyVox show “Figments.” Photo: Randall L. Milstein

This sort of collaboration is built into BodyVox’s DNA. Roland and Hampton formed the company in 1997 after putting together a successful dance collaboration with Portland Opera for its pairing of the short works Pagliacci and Carmina Burana. And, through its innovative series of Pearl Dive shows, it’s given a platform to creative people – writers, visual artists, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, more – who are not dancers or choreographers to work with the company’s performers and create their own dances. The results have been often fascinating explorations of the adaptability of creativity.

There’ll be no Pearl Dive as part of the 2023-24 season. Nor will there be a new version of BloodyVox, the fall/Halloween season show that BodyVox has produced for several seasons. Both are complex and not inexpensive undertakings, and although the company changes them, often radically, from year to year, Hampton says that audiences seem to think if they’ve seen them once, they’ve seen them. The new approach, he said, will be not to do them annually, but to give a little breathing room between productions so they’ll draw audiences back again. Serious Cupcakes, the series of shows featuring choreography by current and former company members, also will take a break.

Balancing artistic innovation with fiscal caution is a tricky task, but one that Hampton believes is both possible and necessary as cultural organizations emerge from three years of pandemic interruptions and, in Portland, as in several other American cities, a struggling downtown, a crisis of homelessness, and open hard-drug use in public spaces. If the arts are looked on in political and civic circles as one way to combat the urban decay and bring people back into the central city, arts groups have to be savvy and collaborative as they emerge from their own hard times.

Taking the dance out for a walk: BodyVox dancer Theresa Hansen on the Broadway Bridge, from the company’s “Bridges of Portland” photo series. Photo: Michael Shay

That’s part of the impetus behind the season-opening Season Sampler, which BodyVox has created in an effort to boost the different arts organizations’ positions within their own communities and help rebuild a healthier cultural landscape in Portland. “Lifting all boats in the harbor, if you will,” Hampton says. “We believe the arts will play a primary role in the reemergence of our downtown as a vibrant economic and cultural center. And the arts are currently in the ring with Sugar Ray, getting pummeled in the seventh round.” 

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

BodyVox got used to making adjustments through the pandemic. It kept paying dancers and providing health benefits, pivoting from a full slate of live performances to shooting and editing five dance films themselves for the Pearl Dive series and two full-length films with Portland filmmaker Rob Uehlin, while also taking part in two rounds of the federal Covid-era Paycheck Protection Plan.

Meanwhile, the company’s touring business dried up as performing spaces around the world were shut down. While touring wasn’t a huge money-maker, it always covered its costs, Hampton says – and it provided valuable increased income for performers and support staff. Now, he adds, groups are “waiting in line” while the touring business works to get back to full speed.

A certain amount of pluck and willingness to defy expectations is helpful in hard times. In his early years as a dancer, Hampton says with a laugh, “I was a weed growing through pavement.” The growing can be tough, if necessary, and can require a bit of pruning. BodyVox will use just four dancers this fall, saving money as it avoids major productions of its own. “We’re using the fall kind of as research [period],” Hampton says. “In January we’ll come back as seven or eight dancers.”

Dance of the mops in John Gorham’s 2019 “Run with the Bulls.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

What about becoming involved with the community? BodyVox is approaching it in a variety of ways, including how it uses its own space. It’s opened its doors to more people, adding two new studios, new classes, and renting its space to other companies to put on their own shows. And it’s expanded into a large section of its building that previously had another tenant. “We’re turning the whole main body of that downstairs into, let’s say, an after-school hang,” Hampton says. “We see it as kind of an outgrowth of our JAG [Junior Artist Generator] program,” but for kids who like dance but “maybe don’t want to be pre-professional.”

In the meantime, it’ll be presenting independent shows in its home space, beginning with You Can’t Be Serious?, a new work written and performed by the talented dancer and story-spinner Andrea Parson, November 9-11. At the other end of the season BodyVox will host And Everybody Hertz, a new work from choreographer Derion Loman and Third Angle New Music Ensemble, May 16-18.

JAG, BodyVox’s junior company, will get in on the collaboration, too, performing September 30 with Northwest Children’s Theatre at the theater company’s downtown home, the Judy Kafoury Center for Youth Arts; performing its own Winter Showcase December 8 at BodyVox; and with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony May 30-31, also at BodyVox.

In the early months of 2024, BodyVox will move into full-fledged, large-scale performances with a pair of productions that promise a flavor of the company’s inventively off-kilter approach to dance and life.

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Flights, February 1-10, features choreography by Roland and Hampton and pairs BodyVox dances with Oregon wines. The company’s description declares, in deep and toney wine-talk: “From exuberantly rich to mysterious and cloaked, the evening unfolds with a blending of the senses and an aura of discovery.” Adding a touch of Vegas to the Oregon vineyards, the show will also feature music and character performance by the primo Liberace impersonator David Saffert.

And the season will conclude April 19-21 at Beaverton’s Patricia Reser Center for the Arts with another grand collaboration, Beautiful Everything, with Chamber Music Northwest and the lively chamber ensemble Imani Winds – BodyVox’s third collaboration with Imani Winds and eighth with Chamber Music Northwest. As the season announcement puts it: “An antidote to strife, ugliness, violence and polarization, Beautiful Everything celebrates the negotiation of struggle in the pursuit of a common sense of awe and beauty. It is a story of evolution and the unified beauty of a shared human experience.”

Sounds collaborative, and hopeful, and celebratory of a reemergence, after long struggle, into a new and better reality. After all, what are friends for?

Pedal power: Daniel Kirk, associate artistic director and longtime company dancer, rides off into the sunset in a 2019 BodyVox performance. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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