There is a moment in the Pearl Dive Project when Ashley Roland, BodyVox’s co-artistic director, tries to convey the hallucinogenic wonderment of a dance piece called Photo Synthesis.
“You can flip through the pages of a photography book,” she explains, “but in this case, it’s like going into the photography book and journeying through all these different moments and these different visions for dance.”
Roland’s words could be a manifesto for BodyVox’s mission during the pandemic. For the past year, the contemporary dance company has been fusing dance and film to create performances that make you feel like you’re falling through your screen and onto a stage—whether you’re watching dancers frolicking in a diner or masquerading as a flock of sheep.
The 2021 edition of the Pearl Dive Project is filled with visceral, enveloping imagery and unites BodyVox with collaborators ranging from legendary dance photographer Lois Greenfield, who conceived Photo Synthesis, to Simpsons creator Matt Groening. With two episodes available and three more on the way, the project is off to a ravishing start—and continues the company’s tradition of shattering dance orthodoxy.
The Pearl Dive Project invites guest artists who have never choreographed to collaborate on a piece with Roland and Jamey Hampton, the company’s other co-artistic director (the project also offers audiences a peek behind the scenes at BodyVox). Greenfield’s decadeslong coverage of experimental dance for The Village Voice makes her a somewhat obvious recruit, but Photo Synthesis has a wild expressionism that makes it seem as if she’s discovering the possibilities of dance anew.
Like the BodyVox classic In the Garden of Synesthesia, Photo Synthesis is more about patterns and light than presence and physicality. When two dancers bend sheets of reflective material together to create what looks like a gigantic kaleidoscope, you don’t focus on their bodies. You focus on the way they use their bodies to shape images.
The second episode was inspired by the life of its mastermind, Poison Waters, the co-hostess of Darcelle XV Showplace. Part of Waters’ piece, Too..., was filmed at Darcelle’s, but it doesn’t start there. It begins with an aggressive sequence in a bleak, cavernous room where the dancers wear athletic wear and slap their hands against their legs.
Roughness gives way to glamour at Darcelle’s, where the dancers don shimmery dresses. The choreography at the nightclub is graceful—shoulders smoothly roll to the serene sounds of Diana Ross’ “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?)”—but it also sets up an epilogue that beautifully combines the intensity of the piece’s beginning with the elegance of its middle.
Photo Synthesis and Too… lean into the language of cinema. Hampton, who is also a cinematographer, uses agile camerawork to make sure that we both witness and feel each movement. When a dancer dashes through a curtain of beads, the camera swiftly follows, offering the kind of dizzying vantage point that’s only possible in film—allowing the Pearl Dive Project to escape the visual ennui that can afflict virtual performances.
BodyVox will continue to blend disparate influences with upcoming episodes of the Pearl Dive Project. This Thursday, audiences can stream the company’s collaboration with Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi—and later this summer, pieces by Groening and writer Yiyun Li will premiere.
Some audiences might wonder why visionaries like Roland and Hampton need a squadron of high-profile guest stars. Maybe they don’t, but the question of who gets to choreograph matters. Roland and Hampton dared to imagine that some unusual suspects could imagine something that they couldn’t—and the results speak for themselves.
To see dancers draped in shiny bags that make them look like graceful, metallic boulders in Photo Synthesis is to see some of BodyVox’s most strange and striking work—and therein lies the power of the Pearl Dive Project. While you don’t always know exactly what you’re watching, you don’t have to. Being wowed is enough.
SEE IT: Episodes 1 and 2 of the Pearl Dive Project stream at bodyvox.com/performance/pearl-dive-project-2021. Episode 3 debuts Thursday, May 27. Tickets are $15 per installment or you can access all five for $50.