When the dance and movement troupe Pilobolus comes to the Newmark Theatre Thursday through Saturday to kick off the White Bird dance season with its two-hour extravaganza Come to your senses, you’ll see a little bit of Portland dance history in the act – and, a week later, a little bit of Pilobolus history when BodyVox kicks off its new season with the latest version of its popular Halloween comedy horror show, BloodyVox.
Jamey Hampton is the connecting tissue. He and his wife, Ashley Roland, founded BodyVox in Portland twenty years ago, after putting together a successful dance collaboration with Portland Opera for its pairing of Pagliacci and Carmina Burana. But twenty years before that, Hampton was performing with Pilobolus and the original group of artists who famously formed the company at Dartmouth College, the Ivy League school in small-town Hanover, New Hampshire.
What Pilobolus was doing at the time was something new – not so much contemporary dance as choreographed athleticism, with an overlay of visual spectacle and playful anthropomorphism. (The company name comes from a fungus co-founder Jonathan Wolken’s father was studying that, as Wikipedia puts it, “grows on cow dung and propels itself with extraordinary strength, speed and accuracy.”) Pilobolus has evolved a lot over the years, and changed personnel, but a lot of its original vision remains in the current company.
I caught Hampton on the phone the other day while he was noodling on his guitar (he plays regularly in local roots-rock band The Brothers Jam) and waiting for his son to finish a piano lesson, to ask him about those early days with Pilobolus and what influence his experiences there have had on BodyVox. The story goes back a long time.
“They graduated in the spring of ’72. ’Seventy-one and ’72,” Hampton, who grew up in Portland, said of the original Pilobolus group. “I entered Dartmouth the fall of ’72.” That freshman year he had to sign up for a P.E. class. “My dad always said I should try tennis,” he recalled. “But I had a girlfriend at Lincoln High who said, ‘You ought to take a dance class. You’d be good at it.’”
So he did – from Alison Becker Chase, who had taught all of the Pilobolus performers when they were still at Dartmouth. It was the last class she taught there before quitting to join the company herself. “I got really hooked,” Hampton said. “It was like an epiphany. She didn’t teach people to dance. She taught people to find the dance within them.”
That was a good thing, because the original Pilobians were more athletes than dancers: pole vaulters, cross-country runners, fencers. Hampton, who rowed and skied, figured he fit right in. The athleticism had a huge effect on what Pilobolus did. “No one had ever seen anyone do anything like that: three guys hanging on to each other to form an amoeba, shapes shifting organically, deeply athletic and powerful,” Hampton recalled. “And they told me the reason they did that – which they freely admitted in interviews – was that they couldn’t dance without holding on to each other.”
Hampton wanted badly to join the company. “The way I got in was, I bugged them constantly,” he said, laughing. Even at that, it took a while. Eventually Hampton started dancing and touring with Tandy Beal, an inventive dancemaker who incorporated circus skills into her performances, spent 10 years as artistic director of San Francisco’s innovative and altogether wonderful Pickle Family Circus, and still leads her own Tandy Beal & Company. While Beal’s company was in Ames, Iowa, Hampton picked up the phone, called Pilobolus again, and told them he was in great shape, dancing constantly, and ready to go, so how about it?
It took a few more months. Finally, “I got a phone call and they said, ‘We’re in Japan and Jonathan (Wolken) just twisted his ankle. And we have to be on the Johnny Carson show in four days in L.A. Can you meet us there?’” Hampton wound up performing with Pilobolus for about four and a half years, beginning in 1977 and officially becoming a company member in ’78. “Our first tour we went to the Indian Subcontinent, Turkey, Afghanistan. It was crazy. It was amazing.” Hampton became sort of the swing guy in a tight-knit group that at least theoretically worked collaboratively: “There were six artistic directors. They were all generals and no privates. I was the only private.”
Still, it was a good and exciting life. About halfway through his run things began to shift. Moses Pendleton started peeling off and doing MOMIX, which began as a side project, with Alison Chase. Others had other projects. Eventually Hampton left and returned to Portland, then went back and danced again in MOMIX for about a half-dozen years. It was there that he met Roland, another MOMIX dancer, and they wound up moving back to Portland for good, starting BodyVox (which also frequently tours) and a family.
BodyVox has its own look and feel and sensibility, a kind of quirky optimism that revels in the absurd and is much more dancerly than Pilobolus or MOMIX or the all-in-the-Pilobolus-family ISO, a splinter group in which Roland and Hampton performed after leaving MOMIX. “(Daniel) Ezralow, Hampton, Roland and (Morleigh) Steinberg are all hot stuff, and they can dance,” Lewis Segal wrote in a 1988 review of ISO for the Los Angeles Times. “They could probably ride a camel through the eye of a needle, but they can’t make us believe Peter Pan died for our sins. Somehow, a leap of faith just isn’t in their vocabulary.” The Peter Pan reference is intriguing, though inscrutable: Pan never performed with any of the Pilobolus-family companies, and seems still to be alive, along with many fairies, if you clap hard enough.
As independent as the companies are, a certain amount of Pilobolus still runs in Hampton’s, and therefore BodyVox’s, veins. What does he bring with him from those days? “What comes to mind – two things,” Hampton replied. “One is, remain open-minded and let your imagination fly without barriers, so you can be inventive. The other: Let yourself consider the impractical and the impossible. And then if there’s a light there, see what you can do to get to it.”
Pilobolus’s performances for White Bird will be its first in Portland in seven years, but longtime fans should find the approach and atmosphere familiar. It’s a repertory show of five pieces, two (Eye Opening and Warp & Weft) from this year, one (Branches) from last year, one (Symbiosis) from 2001, and one (Gnomen) from 1997. White Bird calls it “a multisensory experience, featuring live performances of onstage Pilobolus works alongside transmedia digital creations,” and touts the show’s “connection between the human body and the analog world around us.”
In the meantime, something of Pilobolus – the openness, the willingness to stretch, to flirt with the impractical and impossible – lives on at BodyVox. “That Pilobolus thing, it is there every day I walk into the studio. Every time,” Hampton said. And what about BloodyVox, which opens on Thursday, October 11 at the BodyVox Dance Center and is called, this time around, BloodyVox: Deadline October? “We’ve got a new opener for it. We’re in the middle of it now. It’s called Victorian Secret.”
Hampton paused, just slightly embarrassed but not too much, and laughed. “I don’t know, man. It came to us. And we couldn’t say no.”
Pilobolus performs Come to your senses on the White Bird dance series Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 4-6, in the Newmark Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket and schedule information here.
BodyVox performs BloodyVox: Deadline October Oct. 11-20 at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 N.W. 17th Ave., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.