"I've always wanted to be a dancer," says Byron Beck, the 53-year-old Portland blogger and former Willamette Week editor famous for his "Queer Window" column.
"Never a choreographer," he says, "because that shit is hard."
But Beck just choreographed an original work for one of Portland's top dance companies, BodyVox. He is one of 11 "creatives" whom BodyVox commissioned for Pearl Dive Project, which might be the most experimental show in the 18-year-old company's history.
Pink Martini singer China Forbes also signed on for the project, along with Dharma Bums frontman Jeremy Wilson and Clark James, a director for M&Ms and Nike ads. Other guest choreographers range from Colombian landscape architects to a New York pianist and the conductor of Vienna's Tonkünstler Orchestra.
For the first time, BodyVox asked experts from other industries to choreograph new works, which will premiere in Pearl Dive Project this month. "It's a scary fucking thing," says Beck. "They've never done this before."
Sourcing nontraditional talent was long overdue, according to BoxyVox artistic director Jamey Hampton. "Everywhere you look in this country, every company has the same formula," Hampton says. "Everyone is hiring people from Europe or South America. We thought, what could we do that's challenging to the company, the dancers, the whole formula we have?"
Anthony Hopkins and Joni Mitchell sprung to Hampton's mind. "The theory is that creativity knows no bounds. Hopkins is an amazing painter," he says, "Joni Mitchell doesn't even call herself a musician anymore, she calls herself a painter."
For a Portland headhunter, BodyVox went straight to Beck. "I'm a walking Rolodex," Beck says of how he helped Hampton brainstorm a list of around 60 potential talents. "Byron knows literally everybody in town," says Hampton. Simpsons creator Matt Groening slipped through their fingers, but Hampton is hopeful for next year.
Overly ambitious stunts from this year's choreographers might make the company think twice about reprising the experiment, though. Beck wanted his dancer to smoke profusely onstage, creating an opaque, carcinogenic cloud to project images on.
For Beck, choreographing is not unlike breaking news about Justin Bieber. "I had to look at this project like a journalist," he says. "I won't tell you who it was—not me—but when I was at The O, one writer interviewing Storm Large cried through the whole interview. As a journalist, that's really fucked up. You can't do that. I have this bad habit of being starstruck, too. I had to let go of that to work with Ashley [Roland, BodyVox artistic co-director]."
Forbes wanted one male dancer to perform while all the others hung off his limbs. "China was like, 'Can't everyone climb up and hang on him?'" Hampton says, "There are nine of us. That would mean one guy standing with about 1,200 pounds on him."
Abstract performances loaded with multimedia and effects are expected from BodyVox, which projected live video feeds from hidden cameras in last year's opening show, Green Screen. Even so, Pearl Dive is a wild card for the company.
"It might be a piece of shit," says Byron, "but I don't think the dancers would let that happen. This is not 'Dancing With the Fucking Stars.'"
see it: Pearl Dive Project is at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave., bodyvox.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturday, April 7-23. No 2 pm show Saturday April 9. $25.