“there’s so much chaos in the creative process, and if you really open yourself up to it, it is a constant reinvention.”
After nearly 30 years of artistic work together, Jamey and Ashley relate that BodyVox truly feels like both a unique endeavor and a culmination. What has accumulated and seasoned with age is the sharp insight, collective wisdom and artistic eye of the two lifelong dancers and artists. What has changed, however, is that they’ve nested. In previous incarnations of their artistic life, wildly successful shows with ISO Dance and MOMIX had them traveling 49 weeks out of the year. Now, they’ve moved into a modern studio spot in the Pearl where community and audiences come to them. Touring is still constant—but they’ve got a home to come back to.
In many ways, Portland is just what they needed to transition from a touring-heavy life to the next stage of their artistic collaboration. What Jamey and Ashley found was, in a number of ways, a dream come true: a city that allows you to raise a family, enjoy life, and pursue your artistic passions without starving. The question became, how does one balance it all? While finding the time for family, business, and dance may seem difficult, as Ashley puts it, they do the dance of life very well.
I met with both Jamey and Ashley in BodyVox’s open and airy lobby, where the lines between work, play, and dance are merrily blurred. The open studio where classes are taught looks out on the street, folks passed in and out of the front doors, dancers mingled and improvised on stage. The BodyVox founders are a dynamic duo, both finishing each other’s sentences and finding their own take on questions. The success of their work rests upon this fluid and intuitive understanding of each other.
This year is BodyVox’s 15th anniversary—how did it all start?
Ashley: Jamey and I didn’t know we would start a new dance company when we moved to Portland. We met back on the East Coast where we started a company with two other people. It was called ISO, and we were based out of New York. What we learned after years and years of being there was that the ability to fundraise and have an audience base, was really challenging. We were out here wondering what the next life of our artistic selves would be when the Portland Opera asked us to choreograph Carmina Burana in 1997. So, we gathered together a group of dancers and mounted the show. At the time, it was a low budget production—I think they meant it to be a one off—never knowing that the future of it would be the most successful opera they’d ever mounted. Through that experience, we realized there was a great group of dancers here. We loved the community and we loved the artistic scene. That launched BodyVox.
What were some ground rules you each had regarding starting another company?
Ashley: We’d had enough experience working in collaborations that it was really important that we concentrate on having a great core group, and that’s something we really uphold today. We don’t celebrate prima ballerinas; we don’t push out particular dancers as being our flashier stars. We develop individuals, and individual characters. So we’re very unique in the selection of dancers.
Jamey: We also talked very consciously about eradicating ego in the work process. We had worked in situations where strong egos would battle each other at the expense of the work. I’ve seen it all along, where the work was fought over because of ego and a personal agenda rather than the actual service of the work. So Ashley and I developed this way of recognizing what the right thing to do for the work was.
Ashley: It’s trust.
Jamey: It’s trust in each other and in the work. The beauty is the pieces will reveal to you what is the right thing—if you open yourself up to it. If you close yourself up to it, the work will move right down the block.
Ashley: We also wanted to make sure that we were constantly making new work, on a schedule that would promote touring—so we always have something new to offer either outside of Portland or inside. We wanted to create a sustainable base here that can keep coming to see us within Portland, as well as outside.
How would you describe Portland’s dance scene and where do you see yourselves in the midst of that?
Ashley: I would love to say we are Portland’s premier contemporary dance company, but there’s an amazing array of contemporary dance companies in Portland. I think the unique thing about Portland is this city has such a different energy than most other cities around the country—and we’re a good representation of that energy because we’re not like every dance company. We’ve always been slightly outside of the norm, and this is a great city in which to be that unique voice. That’s originally why we called ourselves BodyVox—we used to say “a new voice in dance.” We just don’t say “new” anymore.
Talk to us about the season.
Ashley: We called the show Fifteen, and we’re going to conceive the production as a retrospective. There’s a tremendous amount of material. We’ve mounted twelve full productions: two or three operas, five collaborative shows, four BodyVox-2 shows. So we’re going to make two programs, each one representing x amount of time (1998 to 2005, etc.), and then we’re going to make a new closer that will rest with both productions. Usually our shows tend to have a theme that overrides the whole evening—this will be more like a compilation album.
As you look back over your history of work, what do you notice about the artistic transformation over the years?
Ashley: When we started BodyVox, we’d already been working together for 14 years—next year will be our 30th anniversary collaborating together. We’d come a long way already, but we’d been working with a small core. We’d never done any work with more than six people. When we started BodyVox, we started working with more dancers, with bigger and longer productions. We got into film—as technology evolved, we evolved.
Jamey: I would say that our work has become more integrated. There’s more story that’s evident, even if it can’t be articulated verbally. Earlier, there were more effects, a lot of athletic and big movement. Now, the pieces are about more, in a way.
Ashley: Our style has also evolved as a company. A lot of our dancers came from the Oregon Ballet Theatre, and so they came in with classical training that was very steeped and engrained in their whole core, both emotionally and physically. In terms of performance, they came from a more pantomime background, where the drama implied comes less from a deep emotional core than from a layered-on effect. Now, we ask all of our dancers to go to very different places, and we’ve all become much better actors as a result. I think our shows are getting better and better—and I’m not boasting about that, I’m really proud.
As artists collaborating for so long, how do you maintain your creative spark?
Ashley: It’s a baffling question, actually. Our experience is we’ll be thrown into a situation where we’ll come up with a name of a show and there it is—boom—it’s out there. And then you have to do something. You have to completely open yourself up to the moment, and with the slightest impulse you really just have to trust the process. If you get really scared and say you can’t do it, you won’t do it.
Jamey: The beauty of the work is that at any given time you can feel like you have some degree of control and mastery and then also that there’s so much chaos in the creative process, and if you really open yourself up to it, it is a constant reinvention. So you have the tools to solve problems because you’ve done it so much, so less often are you in a creative cul-de-sac, but you also have this ability to launch off into the unknown and know that you have the ability to solve the problem. It’s sort of like advanced math.
Portland is full of couples running creative small businesses. How do you balance your art, your family and your business?
Ashley: I think it takes a lot of creativity. Moms are really creative—
Jamey: and dads just take the recycling out.
Ashley: When we get up in the morning, it’s like a show—whoever shows up first makes the coffee, the next one makes the sandwiches. We’re always improvising.
Ashley: We do the dance of life pretty well.
Did you have any goals when you first started?
Ashley: Can I tell a Ted Turner story? He said his dad had goals: to be a millionaire, to own a big estate and a yacht. And by the time he was 50, he had gotten his million, bought a big tract of land, and owned a large boat. He had met his goals, and he ended up taking his life. Turner kind of related the two, explaining how his father no longer had much to work for. It’s a really sobering concept, and the point is that the goal is to keep growing, or face stagnation. For us artistically, all we want is to keep leaning and growing.
When you look back, whether or not you had intended it, what have you realized you accomplished?
Ashley: One of the things we put out about five years ago was, “We’d really like to have our own building…” And here we are.
Jamey: We wanted to play more of a community role. To give classes. And that took years to manifest—three years of looking around, then it took a year to piece the deal together, then it took two more years to design it and build it. So really it was five-year project.
Let’s talk a bit about the teaching element of your work.
Ashley: Our classes range from hip-hop to beginning ballet, as well as GlobalVox and Stackrobats, our fusion of acro and dance. We try very hard to let the other dance organizations do what they do best—they do a classical ballet curriculum over there and they do that very well. What we offer is focused around what we do best, which is great for us, and the community.
How can dance create community?
Jamey: Well, it’s an inspiration for everybody. The less that you’re in some silo away from everybody, the more the doors are open and you’re teaching and holding galas and parties and doing shows and events, and the more the place and your work become vibrant. The energy going in and out the door is really important. In terms of our direct role in our community, dance is what we have to offer toward those ends. We have the ability to draw a group of people together. So if someone is doing a gala or a benefit and BodyVox can show up and make it a cool event so that someone will write a check, then that’s what we can do.
You guys have had a Herculean amount of growth in the past 15 years—how did you do it?
Jamey: We applied very simple standard business practices to our early shows. We made spreadsheets and did cost analysis of what the shows would cost to make—what we needed, what we could afford—and from there we backed up how much we could pay people, how long we could work on this. We balanced our books every single year. And then we said, okay, where can we go to get funding? Because originally it was all earned income. The company grew by 200 percent every year since we started.
Ashley: We also had some really fortunate things happen in the community. The same year that we incorporated was the same year that White Bird did as well. We were the first company they presented. So along with the Opera, they really helped launch us.
What are some other good practices you incorporated into your company?
Jamey: I watched a lot of guys I danced with leave those companies to work for other companies or themselves. A lot of them do that. Ashley and I thought—let’s just encourage other people to do their own work while they work for us. So if our dancers want to do their own show, we say do it. We’ll put it on the schedule. We’ve maintained a strong core as a result of that.
Ashley: We also have a holistic approach as artists—we have different people teach our classes every day. So we have a couple ballet classes a week. Sometimes, even BodyVox-2 teaches. There’s not just one person teaching, so we all learn a well-rounded technique.
Jamey: Everybody that’s working in this company is fully present and is always growing as an artist and as a person. And that’s what makes the place really successful—empowering the guy who designs the posters and letting him make it in his own vision.
Ashley: It always ends up better. If you force it, it doesn’t work.
Where are you going in next 15 years? Is this going to continue?
Jamey: We’re going up three floors! I think we’re passing along a trajectory where every project is very compelling to us. And our goal, I guess, is to stay on that trajectory, where you’re finding new ways to create new dances and new partnerships. That’s what’s really exciting—along with the community coming through the door a lot more. We’re happy to know that we make Portland a more interesting place. That’s really satisfying.