Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland met when they were dancing in the Pilobolus spin-off company, Momix (Hampton had previously been a Pilobolite). Together they founded ISO Dance and then, relocating to Portland, started the 10-member BodyVox in 1997. As you’d expect, athleticism, wit, and whimsy mold the works their engaging dancers perform, but—at least in the company’s new Civilization Unplugged—little of the shape-shifting and occasional noirish tone that marks Pilobolus.
Civilization Unplugged is an 80-minute suite. The title and printed explanations suggest that Roland and Hampton shaped material around the notion of a technological progress in reverse—that is, a retreat from a mechanized society to a simpler, more natural world. The piece, however, gives the impression that the husband-and-wife team simply concocted a theme that would connect eight ideas that interested them, not necessarily in the order you might expect. And “technology” in the form of background video remains a constant.
The clever opening, “Riven,” says not just “we are mechanized to the hilt,” but “we are a machine” (albeit a bouncy, wiggly one). The next piece, Company dancer Eric Skinner’s “Streaming,” to a score by Aphex Twin, is initially backed by images of open laptops and sounds of struck keys, and the four red-clad dancers (Laura Haney, Christina Betts, Daniel Kirk, and Zachary Carroll) do stream past, forming crosscurrents and unison designs for our visual downloading.
However, civilization soon comes to mean accepted behavior rather than advanced technology. In Roland’s “Reservations,” Lane Hunter has a comically excessive (if G-rated) love affair with the side of the proscenium arch, and the Roland-Hampton “Hoppers’ Dinner” depicts a total breakdown of restaurant decorum, with Hunter as the frazzled waiter and Betts, Kirk, Skinner, and Jennifer Hileman as diners whose dizzying machinations with chairs, table, tablecloth, and other items escalates into precise frenzy, while Tom Waits growls on tape. Although, like many of the works, “Reservations” goes on longer than seems necessary, it’s lots of fun—the most imaginative comedy of the evening.
“Suite: Leave the Light On” is itself a mixture of elements, with floaty clouds and moon on the cyc, picking and fiddling music by Edgar Meyer (later by Bela Fleck), and sweet dancing by the company—the women wearing ruffled dresses over pants. The strongest section is a duet for Roland and Hampton. Every time they kiss, a little flower weighted by a beanbag plops down from the skies. An advertisement for abstinence over birth control?
In the second part of the program, we return to technology, but now it’s gone awry. Onstage dancers invite us to pull out our cell phones and call them, which produces a cacophony of cordial connections. This leads into Mitchell Rose’s video piece, Learn to Phone Phony, starring the company members in a comical, if over-extended, manual on the uses of pretending to make or receive fake calls.
I’m not sure what we get in the final five-part “More Quickening Than Light”. This is not any resolution of the technology issue or a vision of the simple life (ironically it seems to me to be more about the end of language and the triumph of computerized wizardry). On the back wall, words as well as clouds fly by, too rapidly to read, forming patterns and exploding against an invisible barrier. We see the clock running out. Dancers sing out “I love you.” One incandescent image is worth the whole piece: two men rushing across the stage holding a woman high while she takes huge, exultant strides on air.