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Dance review: Putting the Body in BodyVox

"Serious Cupcakes" is one of the contemporary dance company’s most physically adventurous shows.

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At the beginning of BodyVox’s soaring and sumptuous new show Serious Cupcakes, co-artistic director Jamey Hampton calls out, “Enjoy…your…cupcakes!” It’s a moment that reveals the soul of the performance—which, title notwithstanding, is not cupcakes.

As Hampton speaks, he lies on the stage, flattening his body against the floor like a serpent submerged in the grass. It’s one of many instances in which Serious Cupcakes contorts the human body into a beautifully unusual shape that pushes against the boundaries of muscle and bone.

This is nothing new for BodyVox. The contemporary dance company, which is captained by Hampton and Ashley Roland, has often tested the physical limits of its dancers. Yet even longtime BodyVox nerds may be awed by Serious Cupcakes, which challenges performers to sculpt themselves into living embodiments of two themes: confinement and freedom.

The strenuous physicalities of “Serious Cupcakes.” Photo: Michael Shay, Polara Studio

Serious Cupcakes, which continues Thursdays-Saturdays through Dec. 11 at BodyVox Dance center, is a crowd-pleasing extravaganza that unites multiple generations of BodyVox visionaries. Each of the performance’s eight parts was created by a different choreographer, ranging from founding BodyVox member Daniel Kirk to Éowyn Emerald, the Canadian-born creative genius behind the Scotland-based company Éowyn Emerald & Dancers.

Emerald’s piece, Trinary, is a remarkable fusion of costuming and choreography. The dancers start out wearing gray jumpsuits—which make them look like gas station attendants—and move in a robotic fashion that makes them look like figures in a series of still images. It’s arguably an image of workers imprisoned by the drudgery of physical labor.

Trinary abruptly alters course when the dancers tear off their jumpsuits, revealing clingy and colorful costumes. The style of the choreography also changes, with the deliberately stilted rhythm of the piece’s beginning giving way to flowing, fluid grace. It’s the climax of a journey to self-possession that, in many ways, sums up Serious Cupcakes.

A similar saga unfolds in The Movement is the Message, which was choreographed by Jenelle Gaerian and directed by Skye Stouber and Mako Barmon. This time, the tension between confinement and freedom is symbolized not by the relationship between the dancers and what they wear, but by a mass of screens that becomes both a prison and a path forward.

The Movement is the Message features three massive panels onto which images are projected. Onscreen, we see dancers in sunglasses, but also film fragments that are gone before you can get a good look at them (I’m pretty sure I spotted Ryan Gosling’s eye in Blade Runner 2049, and some celestial flourishes from Terrence Malick’s sweeping spiritual odyssey The Tree of Life).

In an accompanying behind-the-scenes video, Stouber explains that a knee injury that limited his dancing abilities inspired him to pursue multimedia choreography. The three panels could be seen as a representation of his experience—the experience of an artist locked out of their body and trapped in a spiral of endless visuals that nevertheless promise escape.

There are moments when Serious Cupcakes revels in a less wistful form of escapism. The best part of the program is Dream Ascending, which was choreographed and performed by Daniel Kirk and features the finest aerial work I’ve seen at BodyVox since I watched Jillian St. Germain undulating inside a transparent half-sphere hanging from the heavens.

Kirk says that Dream Ascending was inspired by dreams he’s had of flying. Only he can know how accurately the piece captures those visions, but as he vaulted through the air on a trapeze, there was no denying that he had the elegance of a swan and the strength of an eagle.

The most extraordinary moment in Dream Ascending comes when Kirk lands and glides across the floor. There is nothing sudden about his descent; his feet touch down so softly and smoothly that he looks like an astronaut making contact with the powdery surface of the moon. Like everything in Serious Cupcakes, his choreography is classic BodyVox—a celebration of the human body that somehow transcends it.

***

Tickets and scheduling information: https://www.bodyvox.com/performance/serious-cupcakes.

About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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