Dance review: ‘Body Opera Files’ from Skid Row

BodyVox reprises and expands a 2009 dance to good effect

Eric Skinner in "Baby Plays Around"/Photo David Krebs

Eric Skinner in “Baby Plays Around”/Photo David Krebs

By JAMUNA CHIARINI

BodyVox’s “Body Opera Files” opened last week, featuring 17 dance vignettes performed by Bodyvox and BodyVox-2 dancers, alongside members of a live band and four amazing singers. The show is built on 2009’s “Foot Opera Files,” expanding beyond that show’s Tom Waits material, but retaining its general “life on skid row” feel. And by continuing to use trained opera singers to perform the songs, the stories get the same boost toward the “mythic” that they did in 2009.

The production moved from BodyVox’s home studio to the NW Industrial Warehouse, a gigantic warehouse space used to house the floats for Portland’s Rose Parade that has a gritty, back alley, speakeasy underground/black market feeling to it. As intended, the warehouse also gave the production multiple, multi-level performance spaces and gave the audience a more immediate experience of the dances.

The performance began in a side section of the warehouse in front of an industrial size garage door. Jamey Hampton, company co-artistic director, begins the “dance” as he changes out 1950’s family vacation reels on an old projector and writes notes on cards and hands them out randomly to audience members. There is a loud banging on the garage door; it slowly opens to reveal the many pairs of dancer legs to hoots and hollers from the crowd. And then a big explosive dance erupts, introducing the characters and their relationships in this tight space surrounded by the audience. A boxer character (Jonathan Krebs) emerges hopping around and punching the air. As the dance ends he leads the dancers single file through the crowd, and we follow them to the stage area where the five-piece band and the singers are waiting, and we take our assigned seats.

From there the show takes off at full speed, unveiling the individual stories of the characters in movement and song.

***

BodyVox's "Bottom of the World'"Jim Lykins

BodyVox’s “Bottom of the World'”Jim Lykins

The dances were varied: big musical theater-styled numbers featuring the entire cast, sexy duets, jazzy trios, quartets, quintets, solos, and in BodyVox style, lots of props—a bed frame, a 2×4, watering cans, and a luggage cart—all in service to the soulful songs of Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sam Phillips.

My favorite dance in the program was a solo choreographed and performed by Erik Skinner called “Baby Plays Around,” an Elvis Costello song sung here by Dru Rutledge. Skinner employed a smooth ballroom dance-style, partnered (or propped) by a railroad luggage cart on wheels—leaning on it, standing on it, lying on it and then stopping on a dime and spinning it in a circle with one foot anchored to the floor and then sending it off in a new direction and doing it all over again. Magically, the cart never crashed into the audience, always running out of steam just before the first row. It was amazing how symbiotic man and machine were, especially given how clunky the machine was. We were spellbound.

I also enjoyed Skinner and Daniel Kirk in the duet “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” choreographed by Kirk to the Tom Waits song, sung by Hannah Penn and Rutledge. A touching and tender duet, this is the sort of piece generally danced by a man and a woman, and perhaps we give it closer attention danced by men.

Eric Skinner and Jonathan Krebs in "Let Him Dangle"/David Krebs

Eric Skinner and Jonathan Krebs in “Let Him Dangle”/David Krebs

Another great piece was “Let Him Dangle,” written by Elvis Costello, sung by Brendan Tuohy, choreographed by Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland, and performed by Jonathan Krebs. Krebs enters pulling a huge bundle of ship-sized ropes like he’s pulling in a giant ocean liner to prove his strength. The ropes are attached to three other people, and as they enter, the stage transforms into a boxing ring. The story unfolds: a boxer at the top of his career, murders someone, falls from glory and is hung. As the dance ends Krebs is engulfed in the rope and is dragged off to the gallows. Completely absorbing and moving.

***

The dances that featured the men seemed more creative and complex than those for the women or duet dances. At times the movement for the female dancers felt very canned and restrictive, and I really wanted to see them break free, but they rarely did.

Similarly, the warehouse space seemed to offer greater possibilities for experimentation, especially to redefine or abolish the traditional barriers that separate audience and performer.

“Body Opera Files”: Iconic characters, contemporary ballet with musical theatre stylings infused with a spectrum of human emotions, and nothing too complex or opaque to understand. It was a simply enjoyable evening.

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