In 2005, the future executive director of the Anchorage Concert Association, Jason Hodges, was watching a video of a man dancing with a backhoe. Hodges was just entering the world of event programming in Alaska, and he was surprised not only by the odd presentation of man and machine, but also by the fact that he began to feel sympathy for both the farm equipment and whoever was dancing with it.
The film was called "Deere John," and the man dancing with it was Jamey Hampton, who, along with his partner, Ashley Roland, founded the Portland-based dance troupe BodyVox in 1997.
The three-minute film opens with Hampton walking to work on a gloomy day. He sees a backhoe on an empty plot of land. The sunshine parts the clouds as a now-joyous Hampton dances toward the tractor. He entreats the tractor to dance, and it seems to accept. Soon, he's flying while hanging from its claw. With echoes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the story is funny, and faintly poignant when Hampton suddenly finds himself back on a gloomy street, on the way to work, the fantasy of frolicking with a tractor dead before it existed.
"You really think that tractor has a mind and there's a relationship," Hampton said in a phone interview. "It's a love story between a man and a machine. We were trying to reference Chaplin and Keaton, and that mastery of an object and a medium. They made amazing statements with machinery and environments."
Over the next decade, the piece stayed with Hodges, who aimed to include the company on the Concert Assocation's 2014-15 season.
"They can't obviously get a giant backhoe into a stage," Hodges said, "But it did present enough of an impression on me, to say, 'Wow, this is inventive, this is cool.' They're taking familiar things and pairing them with dance. We felt that with the images and with everything this group had, they would be very accessible and draw a crowd in."
The move to bring a professional dance troupe to Anchorage is rare and, some would say, long overdue. The Concert Assocation hasn't brought up a dance company since Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, which performed the first month of 2009, and since then there have only been a handful of opportunities to see performances by nationally touring dancers. Anchorage Symphony staged a "Night at the Ballet" last month with two dancers from Joffrey Ballet, Ira Glass brought up "Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host," a Celtic Irish Group came up in 2013 and there is a "Nutcracker" every year.
On Friday and Saturday, March 27 and 28, BodyVox will present "Reverie" at the Discovery Theatre. "Reverie to us meant a state of grace and beauty," said Creative Director Jamey Hampton. "This show was one we assembled post-9/11. It's evolved over the years, but basically it was us saying that in the face of all this uncertainty in the world, that our statement of choice, our weapon, if you will, was beauty. We wanted that as an antidote, or a counter-action."
"Reverie" was a production Hampton and Roland were equally engaged with. When asked about their artistic relationship, Hampton said, "The vision we have is harmonious and compatible. We both have a sense of humor, and we both kind of want the same thing from a stage production. We want something that is athletic, beautiful, positive, uplifting, mysterious, romantic, funny. We kind of have the same tastes in dance and theater."
Theater is a critical element in the works of BodyVox. While the dance can be enjoyed by itself, it's also a joy to watch each move build a story. The narratives that result are vivid, relatable and compact as the plots in a film.
"Modern Daydreams," of which "Deere John" is a part, also included "Treadmill Softly," where a man dreams of an idyllic, countryside relationship with the woman working out on a neighboring treadmill. Their latest collaboration with Mitchell Rose, "Contact," has Hampton dancing with bodies that crash into him and suddenly disappear. Assisted by summer blockbuster music, it's an eerie, tense clip. Only when Ashley Roland, his partner in real life, jumps toward him does he remain in contact with someone.
BodyVox will spend a week in Juneau before coming to Anchorage this week. In addition to the two performances at Discovery Theatre, the company will present work alongside local dance groups and host some training days. One participating group is Pulse Dance Company, founded by Stephanie Wonchala.
"We're young and limited," Wonchala said. "It's a breath of fresh air to see that other dance companies are living the dream and coming here. And working with that high caliber of performers is something we don't have much exposure to."
Wonchala added that BodyVox's performances in Alaska could be a new step for dance in Anchorage.
"In the last year, we've discussed (with the Concert Assocation) how can we keep dance thriving, how can we make it more successful and how local performing groups can both help and benefit from visiting performance groups through the ACA," Wonchala said. "With BodyVox, we're taking that first big step forward."
When: 7:30 Friday and Saturday, March 27-28
Where: Discovery Theatre, Alaska Center for the Performing Arts
?Tickets: $40.25-$53.75 at centertix.net or 907-263-ARTS
Also performing April 30 in Valdez and May 2 in Fairbanks
Alaska Dispatch Publishing