BodyVox dives for pearls

It's a high-risk gamble: Can a group of non-choreographers create a compelling evening of dance? BodyVox decides to find out.

Creativity is a mysterious beast. We try to lasso it and stick it in separate corrals: Writers here. Painters here. Composers here. Actors here. Dancers here. Git along, little dogies, but stay in place. Except creativity can also be a stubborn beast, with a will of its own, and sometimes it just doesn’t cotton to corrals.

That’s the underlying texture of the Pearl Dive Project, BodyVox’s series of short pieces choreographed by people who aren’t choreographers or even dancers, but who’ve distinguished themselves in other creative fields. How might their experiences as novelist, chef, painter, art director, photographer, or filmmaker translate when working with skilled moving bodies in a rehearsal hall and on a stage? What does creativity have in common across disciplines, and how is it specific to a single form of expression?

Brent Luebbert, not quite dead in Sherrie Wolf’s “Elegy.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

The idea’s novel, and risky, and also, in a way, simply a reflection of reality. Creativity does spill over. Victor Hugo and August Strindberg were great writers, and also visual artists of note. Comic actor Jim Carrey paints, provocatively. Albert Einstein played classical violin, by most accounts very well. Even politicians get into the act. Winston Churchill was an amateur painter. Harry Truman played piano. Bill Clinton plays the saxophone. George W. Bush paints.

BodyVox’s newest Pearl Dive Project, which opened Thursday evening and continues at BodyVox Dance Center through April 20, brings together six novice choreographers and a crowd. The unchoreographers are painter Sherrie Wolf, photographer Susan Seubert, filmmaker Matt Mahurin, chef and restaurant impresario John Gorham, Nike art director Ryan Noon, and science-fiction novelist Daniel H. Wilson. The crowd is just that: a group of Portlanders who broke into their own personal dances at previous performances while BodyVox cameras were rolling, and whose moves were then translated into a performance piece by the company.

This is obviously an experiment – a dive into the unknown – and the water can be a little choppy here and there. But there’s also some very good work. And the structure of the evening makes the experiment constantly appealing to watch. BodyVox co-director Jamey Hampton is an affable master of ceremonies, and each segment (except Mahurin’s, which uses film effectively on its own) is preceded by a short film of the guest choreographer meeting with the company and discussing ideas. That gives some structure and insight into what everyone was thinking, and a view into the beginning of the collaboration.

Jillian St. Germain emerges from behind the giant doll in Matt Mahurin’s “Power.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

More than one guest admits on film to a case of nerves: What do they know about choreography? Maybe not much. But the meeting of the minds reveals the difference between creativity, which is a way of thinking, and technique, which is a learned skill. And because the “tools” the novice dancemakers are using – the minds and bodies of the dancers – are themselves creative, a painter, for instance, can describe a certain mood or action and the dancers possess the skills to interpret how that mood or action might move. Ideas are roughed out, recalibrated, shaped. In a sense, the most valuable tool in the creative toolbox is the ability and willingness to collaborate.

In any creative discipline, shaping and editing are crucial, and nobody does that better on this program than Mahurin, whose résumé includes topical political illustrations for leading newspapers and magazines, documentary photographic essays on such subjects as prison systems and mental hospitals, and music videos for the likes of Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, David Byrne, Tom Waits, and Sting. His piece, Power, is lean and tight and knows every step of the way where it’s going and what it wants to achieve. He’s pared the performance down to a single dancer, Jillian St. Germain, who represents the thoughts and actions of dozens of women exploring their experiences with gender expectations and their path to finding power on their own. St. Germain fits the demands compellingly, combining dignity, strength, swiftness, flexibility, and resolve. Mahurin understands the power of a dramatic visual moment: The dance begins with a huge doll sitting center stage, apparently abandoned; shadow fingers shine through the doll’s face, then St. Germain, rising, emerges from behind. Power is rhythmic and musical without actually having any music: instead it has a constant flow of conversation from women and girls, responding on tape to interview questions and creating a sense of import, from thoughts on toys to reminders of cultural insults and transgressions: “I moved on her like a b …” The live action is expertly interspersed with film clips, and a cool sharp intelligence pushes the performance urgently forward. You could call this dance theater or performance art or plain old dance or anything you like. It’s distinctly and cohesively itself, and would stand out on most any stage.

Javan Mngrezzo, down and maybe out in Susan Seubert’s “Grief.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

It’s no big surprise that the two visual artists, Seubert and Wolf, also have an innate feel for the visual impact of a performance. A little more surprising, and probably coincidental, is that both pieces deal with death and grieving. A body figures in each, and the possibility, or at least hope, of rejuvenation. (If you ever discover yourself dead or in a coma, I highly recommend, after seeing Seubert’s Grief, spinning a song or two by the Staple Singers on your virtual turntable.)

Seubert has a busy and globe-trotting career as a photojournalist for National Geographic Traveler and other publications. Her fine-art photographic career is more introspective and pensive, as evidenced in her 2017 exhibit at Froelick Gallery about suicide, Not a Day Goes By, and her upcoming show A Typology of Lament, opening April 16 at Froelick. Grief seems to call on some of the same ideas. The colors are dark, with projected images of thin white-fabric shrouds sometimes floating down, like the handkerchiefs in A Typology of Lament. Movements are sharp and dramatic, a little like Martha Graham (Javan Mngrezzo, a newcomer to the BodyVox company this season and a welcome addition, is the not-entirely-unmoving body over which the grieving takes place), and Seubert shows a keen understanding of how music and movement work together for dramatic (and sometimes piercing) effect.

Brent Luebbert unleashed in Sherrie Wolf’s “Elegy.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

The stiff in Wolf’s eventually much lighter Elegy is Brent Luebbert, who, as things turn out, is one of the spryest and suavest stiffs you’re ever likely to see. Laid out on a pallet in the beginning, he’s the dark center of a ritual of mourning that transforms into something of a jubilee, with Leubbert shedding his dark death suit behind a chorus line of umbrellas and reemerging all in white – light, lithe, and lively. It’s all a bit like Magritte’s bowler-hatted gent in his painting The Son of Man, minus the apple floating in front of his nose. Wolf, too, works in layers in her paintings, which often overlay lush flowers or fruits on art-historical backgrounds – a dance between old and new. Elegy, which begins in mourning and ends in unfettered glee, is a dance between death and life. And with a varied musical accompaniment that sometimes seems to roam the hills and hollows of yore, it’s got an odd and appealingly elemental double vision.

Futuristic dancers, dressed in red: Daniel H. Wilson’s “First Contact.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Wilson, whose dance First Contact is a bright and sharply shaped vision of future tense, is a former robotics and artificial intelligence scientist who for the past 15 years has been writing futuristic science fiction novels, including the best-seller Robopocalypse. (His next book, due out in November, is a stand-alone sequel to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.) First Contact is, natch, a sci-fi vision, with a stage full of dancers in dark glasses and red tights (all of the evening’s splendid costumes are by BodyVox co-director Ashley Roland) playing out a ritual of uniformity and rebellion. A woman gives hand signals, and the other dancers respond in unison – except, eventually, one, whose defiance prompts an episode of anarchy (or at the least, libertarianism) before things snap back into shape. It’s all quite sharp and B movie and fun.

Gorham operates a string of popular Portland restaurants, including Toro Bravo and Tasty n Daughters, and the stimulation for his piece Run with the Bulls is the half-crazed dance of a day in a restaurant, from the chef’s early arrival to the head-banging controlled anarchy in the kitchen to the sonata of bliss at the table, where customers are swept off their feet. It’s a little shambly but amusing: dances with mops (which also serve as mounds of pasta), a diner conscripted from the crowd, a soundtrack that runs from high-energy DJ Spooky in the rush of the kitchen to some nice nostalgic Benny Goodman in the dining room.

The dance of the mops in John Gorham’s “Run with the Bulls.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

The title of Noon’s Open Practice (After Matt Olson) is fitting: It opens the program, and its subject is rehearsals and warm-ups, the casual yet purposeful motions that dancers go through as they prepare. It’s appropriate, because his own career is about creative preparations: He directs a “makerspace” and school at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, and teaches in the MFA Applied Craft + Design program at Pacific Northwest College of Art. The movements in Open Practice absolutely mimic what you might see in a studio, but they’d benefit from tighter editing: Less would be more.

The program closes with Portland Crowd Source, and it’s a bit of a goof – a company-shaped piece of jaunty happiness based on videotaped dance moves by ordinary Portlanders. The moves tend to be big and broad and a little self-conscious, but the movers seem altogether delighted to be caught in the act. Bicycles eventually show up, with dancers in jock straps pedaling jauntily into the sunset: Well, why not? And a good, creative, uncorraled time is had by all.

Are these creative nouveau dancemakers, in the end, “choreographers”? If you mean, did they create and impart the specific body-memory movements that make up the dances, probably not: The dancers themselves, working on cues, were at least co-creators on that. If you mean, did they conceive a narrative or situation and give it shape, and bring their vision to fruition as overseers of an experience in motion, yes: they choreographed. They stretched. They, and the audience, take the risk. In the end, we’re all diving for pearls. And isn’t that the point?

Daniel Kirk rides off into the sunset. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

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Pearl Dive Project continues through April 20 at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.

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