Carlyn Hudson wants you to have a good night, and her new show, running this Saturday at BodyVox Dance Center, is designed to help you do just that. The pieces in the Portland-based dancer-choreographer’s new program Some Are Silver seamlessly weave together contemporary dance, ballet, and vaudevillian comedy. And the program itself meshes new and old, offering the premieres of three works–The Royal Fireworks!, Façade in B Flat Minor, and I May Be Wrong–alongside six older works.
Hudson is a native New Yorker with a lifelong love for ballet. However after starting training late, at age 13, and witnessing the cutthroat competition of the ballet world, she realized that she wanted more creative control over her output. “My long obsession with ballet gave me the training I needed to articulate ideas using dance as my language,” said Hudson when I spoke with her prior to the show. Perhaps the hyper-perfectionism of ballet helped her find the voice she used to create Some Are Silver. Though it includes classical ballet technique, the program has a more forgiving view of failure: its lighthearted antics and vaudevillian sensibility provide a laugh for the audience and make the performers relatable and likeable.
To give the content some context, consider the period in which vaudeville flourished in the U.S. It was the turn of the last century: The Wright Brothers had just successfully taken flight, the first World Series was played, the women’s suffrage movement was gaining significant traction, Henry Ford started his motor company, and in theaters across the country, thousands flocked to vaudeville shows. Stringing together comedians, actors, ventriloquists, acrobats, and essentially anyone who could keep the audience’s attention with some slapstick humor, vaudeville provided an escape from a rapidly changing industrialized landscape. An evening of shows typically consisted of 10 to 15 unrelated acts whose sole purpose was to entertain.
Hudson’s choreography dances around these parameters: sometimes it’s blatantly comedic, at other times built from from the more ambiguous movement of contemporary dance. The Royal Fireworks!, the new work that opens the show, is a short, silly creation featuring a cast of six dancers (including Hudson herself) who spend the duration of the piece hopping, crawling, and sliding around the space, all while sporting Tudor-style ruffs on their necks and wrists. In Make Like Birds (And get the flock out of there), the full cast reconvenes wearing bird beaks strapped to their noses. The enthusiasm the dancers bring to the show’s escalating goofiness is matched by their precise movement and well-rehearsed character portrayals. Hudson and fellow dancers Elle Crowley, Anna Marra, Amelia Unsicker, Mari Kai Juras, Kara Girod, and Briley Jozwiak perform as a cohesive unit, paying close attention to every cunning detail crafted into the work.
Another highlight is Hole, a solo work in which Hudson, standing in the center of the space, begins by making a simple, circular shape with her hands (a shape that morphs over time) and vocalizing the word “hole.” The solo is a series of physical and characteristic transformations, all performed in complete silence. What Hudson told me about The Royal Fireworks! (“This was one of those pieces that decides what it wants to be about on its own”) seems also to apply to Hole, as each new phrase reshapes the direction of the piece. Although Hudson doesn’t look a day over 20, she seems to have been perfecting the art of mime for decades. Hole is primarily a gestural piece: in fact, her feet don’t move as she switches from pretending to sing to rocking a baby to wrangling with her ear wax to impersonating a rag doll.
Façade in B Flat Minor closes out the program with a quirky study of “getting it wrong,” according to Hudson. Set to Mozart’s Serenade for 13 Winds, the work explores the awkward and charming moments when our private selves slip into public spaces. The dancers–Crowley, Mara, Unsicker, and Juras–take turns falling out of sync with the group. There are moments of disarray, when the dancers seem to forget they are being watched and slink off into their own worlds. Hudson’s skillful use of space and formations is prominent, but what’s even more impressive is her ability to throw away order mid-phrase for the sake of the theme. These patterns in space tend to end in set formations, reminiscent of a tableau–or a strict ballet class. At regular intervals, however, Crowley’s character melts away from the otherwise perfectly still pose, eyes wandering around the space as if she has arrived in another dimension. Her hilariously subtle facial expressions, paired with her long lines, exaggerate the distance she has strayed from the group and underscore the concept of “getting it wrong” so appealingly that audiences can’t help but enjoy her failure to get it right.
Each of the works in Some Are Silver are stamped with Hudson’s distinct humor, crisp technique, and delightfully simple content. Her old and new works fit together seamlessly. When I asked her about the program’s title, she reminded me of the poem it was drawn from, which I learned back in kindergarten: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other is gold.” Some Are Silver travels through time, finding kinship among vaudeville, ballet and contemporary dance, while weaving together Hudson’s own quirky choreographic journey.
Some Are Silver runs 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave. https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3591811