In Body Worlds 3, a revealing exhibit now showing on the east side of town, the human form is a rigid and raw tangle of sinew, organs and bone. But in Show Me the Body, a new contemporary-dance work from longtime Portland choreographer Tere Mathern, it's something even more intimate and flowing: physical proof of the self.
Mathern's Body was born from the Latin legal term habeas corpus, as it was being discussed during an NPR report. Mathern was struck by its literal translation as a command ("show me the body") and the many ways that could be applied to regular life.
"As dancers, we're using our bodies all the time," says the middle-aged Mathern, who has danced for over two decades with everyone in Portland from Minh Tran to Mary Oslund. "It was intriguing to me how that phrase related to movement and to the body as evidence of the person."
She and collaborator Tim DuRoche (the show's composer/music man DuRoche will be joined by an ensemble featuring saxophonists Reed Wallsmith of Blue Cranes and the Decemberists' Joe Cunningham, and contrabassist Bob Jones of the Evolutionary Jass Band) began playing around with different kinds of bodies and their meanings: human bodies, bodies of humanity, bodies of land and water, even the body politic.
What emerged, says Mathern, was a more overtly physical work than she has done in years. It starts with a guerrilla theater-style prelude that begins somewhere outside of the studio theater and is meant to get viewers to think about their own movement in various settings. The body language in "Body"—pockets of stillness broken by staggered duets, trios or full-ensemble dancing—speaks to how people move differently alone than they do in pairs or groups, how they move in relation to their surroundings and who they might be at any given time.
In a recent rehearsal for the show, dancers Jim McGinn (muscular, shaved-headed), Jae Diego (lithe, compact) and Robyn Conroy (tall, curly-haired) offered a study in sheer physical contrast as they worked out a three-person lift that rolled across McGinn's back. Partnering—which involves tossing and catching, falling and saving—is weighted with tension.
"There's a struggle with the body, which comes out in some of the more intense duets, where we're throwing each other around in a physical way," Mathern said. She also invokes the struggle of immobility: These days, habeas corpus is most often cited in connection with political detainees. And while Body is not a political piece per se, it does suggest that, much like the human form, our social anatomy as a whole is affected by its individual parts.