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Review: Pearl Dive Live concept comes with risks and rewards

Jamuna Chiarini considers BodyVox’s pairing of filmed dance with live performance.

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The BodyVox dance company kick up their heels in “Cold Acid Dream” from Pearl Diver Matt Groening. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

It’s a risk/reward kind of thing. Gather a bunch of talented artists from different fields, create a common goal, add a time constraint, and, hopefully, something new and wonderful will come of it. This concept is the premise of The Pearl Dive Projectan experiment by BodyVox artist/directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland that gives famous creatives at the peak of their careers in non-dance-related fields a chance to choreograph the BodyVox dancers. It is a creative conceit that the company has been conducting since 2016. 

Under normal circumstances, the company would perform the results live, but, due to the pandemic, Hampton and Roland chose to film the project last year and stream it online instead. But now that most of us are vaccinated and the mask mandates have been lifted, Hampton and Roland decided to bring everyone back into the theater with a new chapter of the project by creating live dances from the already-made films; thus, Pearl Dive Live was born. It opened on October 6 and ran through the 15th at the BodyVox Dance Center. 

The choreographers chosen for the filmed version of Pearl Dive Project and, subsequently, for Pearl Dive Live, included American dance photographer Lois Greenfield, drag performer/emcee and community activist Poison Waters, Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi, Chinese-born writer and professor Yiyun Li, and cartoonist/writer/producer and animator Matt Groening. It’s the veritable who’s who of the global art world. 

The dance company performs “River Like A Sea” from Pearl Diver Yiyun Li. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Seven dances performed by dancers Elenaluisa Alvarez, Salvatore Bonilla, Bo Brinton, Alicia Cutaia, Anna Ellis, Theresa Hanson, and Daniel Kirk formed the program. Former BodyVox company dancer Brent Lubert replaced company member Ariel Isakowitz, who was supposed to perform, but fell ill. 

Each dance opened with a short introductory film introducing the choreographers and the inspiration behind the work. The relationship between film and dance remained throughout the performance as clips of the dance films created last year sometimes played behind the live dancing. I can’t say for sure if the films I saw were just clips or the films in their entirety, because I did not previously see the filmed version of the Pearl Dive Project. What we did see onstage felt like a trip into the inner workings of filmmaking and how illusory film magic is made. 

Sometimes pairing the films with the live dancing worked, and other times it was too distracting. Especially if the two weren’t happening right in front of me in the same spot. And dance made for film is a vastly different animal than dance created for the stage. The two are incomparable. Displaying the same dance, one filmed and one live, side by side, I thought, made an unfair comparison. The imagery of the films was much stronger and more interesting to me than what I saw on stage. 

Amorphous dancers in Pearl Dive Live. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Greenfield’s interest lies in “photography’s ability to stop time and reveal what the naked eye cannot see,” she says on her website. She has been experimenting with movement and its expressive potential for over 40 years. She likes to create images “that confound and confuse the viewer.” Her dance, Photo Synthesis, played with pink and blue light and movement, using miscellaneous, beautifully reflective materials to frame or illuminate the dancer. What looked like a dancer moving at the end of a long reflective silver tunnel in the film version was actually just a rectangular piece of mylar that someone undulated around a dancer as they moved. One view was close up, and the other was far away. Both are stunning imagery, but completely different experiences from the viewer’s perspective.

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Waters made a dance in three parts, titled Too: Part I, Too: Part II, and Too: Part III, each piece appearing at the beginning, middle, and end of the program. It mimicked a loud, boisterous night preparing and performing at Darcelle XV Showplace, where Waters is a co-hostess. The filmed version follows the BodyVox dancers down into the brightly lit basement of Darcelle’s dressing room, filled with glittery dresses and feather boas, where they get dressed in high glamour for the show. The live performance switches back and forth between film and live theatre, making it sometimes seem like the dancers are walking right out of the film onto the stage. The dance is purposefully over-the-top comedic and campy, packed with big hair and big attitudes. The storyline sometimes seems to be about a close-knit dancing family that gets catty as each one tries to steal the spotlight from the others. As the main queen, Waters always solves the problem, puts everything back in order, and lets them know who the real star is.

Dancers spin in a dreamlike, monochromatic world in “Fuori Fuoco” from Pearl Diver Ludovico Einaudi. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

In Einaudi’s film and live dance, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony played in the background as blurred images of spinning dancers against a white background created the look of an impressionist painting. The men wore long black trench coats and underclothes, and the women wore long-sleeved skater-style dresses with gradations of white to blue. They danced, dreamlike, against a snowy white background, sometimes in between rows of scraggly leafless trees. 

Li’s serene work encompassed the concepts of Buddhism, including non-violence, karma, and reincarnation. The dancers dressed in moonlight-like white unitards, quietly moved synchronously in and out, sometimes creating interconnected shapes like the yin-yang symbol. 

The dance company has some wild fun in “Cold Acid Dream” from Pearl Diver Matt Groening. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Groening’s dance was wacky and zany, as you would expect. It was an odd combination of chaotic slapstick dancing country western music and upending our perceptions through a live-action film filmed by Hampton on the side of the stage, which was projected in front of us. 

Before this particular performance, I could not bring myself to see the Pearl Dive Project because a few things about the concept bothered me. 

I know it’s hard to get people into theatre seats to see dance performances, but attaching famous names to the performance to draw people in makes it feel disingenuous. I am almost one hundred percent sure that Hampton, Roland, and the dancers are responsible for creating the movement material, not the guest artists, which means the guest artists are not choreographers, but collaborators. And choreographers collaborate with other kinds of artists all the time, so this idea is neither new nor innovative. 

Undulating mylar and a mobile camera plays with the viewer’s perspective of the dancer in “Photo Synthesis” from Pearl Diver Lois Greenfield. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Why isn’t BodyVox giving funding and opportunity to actual dance choreographers from around the world who have spent their lives perfecting their craft and growing the field of dance? Considering that paid work for dancers and choreographers is scarce, and most live below the poverty line, hiring non-dancers and choreographers to make dances just feels inequitable. 

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I noticed that some of the dancers who performed in the films and weren’t part of the live performance were not credited in the program. Leaving them out seems an egregious mistake considering they were probably instrumental in creating some of the movement ideas we saw performed live on stage; the live dancing was recreated from the filmed version. At the front of the program, it states that “all movement was generated by Jamey Hampton, Ashley Roland, and the BodyVox dancers under the artistic direction of the individual Pearl Dive choreographers.” 

Aside from my protests, it was an exhilarating program chock full of arresting visuals, creative ideas, and fabulous dancing. Maybe a tad too long and a bit too much crammed into one show for me, but my stamina for sitting and stimuli isn’t what it used to be pre-pandemic. Regardless, everyone on stage and off appeared to be having fun, which feels essential right now. The audience around me loved it so much that they were hootin’ and hollerin’ in response to the dances like we were at a sporting event, which was great! It’s time to move on from the stuffy theatre etiquette of the past.

Suppose you missed the show and are interested in seeing the dances in their entirety. In that case, I recommend renting and watching the filmed version of Pearl Dive Live, which is available on the BodyVox website. I will be doing the same. 

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Jamuna Chiarini is a dance artist, producer, curator, and writer, who produces DanceWatch Weekly for Oregon ArtsWatch. Originally from Berkeley, Calif., she studied dance at The School of The Hartford Ballet and Florida State University. She has also trained in Bharatanatyam and is currently studying Odissi. She has performed professionally throughout the United States as a dancer, singer, and actor for dance companies, operas, and in musical theatre productions. Choreography credits include ballets for operas and Kalamandir Dance Company. She received a Regional Arts & Culture Council project grant to create a 30-minute trio called “The Kitchen Sink,” which was performed in November 2017, and was invited to be part of Shawl-Anderson’s Dance Up Close/East Bay in Berkeley, Calif. Jamuna was a scholarship recipient to the Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute, “Undoing Racism,” and was a two-year member of CORPUS, a mentoring program directed by Linda K. Johnson. As a producer, she is the co-founder of Co/Mission in Portland, Ore., with Suzanne Chi, a performance project that shifts the paradigm of who initiates the creation process of new choreography by bringing the artistic vision into the hands of the dance performer. She is also the founder of The Outlet Dance Project in Hamilton, N.J.

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