The Bebe Miller Company performed "In a Rhythm" this weekend at the Dance Center of Columbia College and I can’t get it out of my mind.
The piece began casually, with the house lights still up when the dancers filed on to the white marley stage. Bebe Miller greeted the audience and introduced each of the dancers before “getting started.” Her voice was friendly and conversational but held the room with a certain command. She continued on, giving us an idea of what we were about to see, and the dancers behind her started to shift. They stayed in the same general positions, but the tone of their bodies sank deeply inward until they became supple statues in tableau. The effect of this shift was similar to adjusting the lens on a pair of binoculars; I zoomed in, got quiet, and started watching intently.
Miller sat down to outline the origins of her inquiry, describing an encounter with a powerful short story by David Foster Wallace—whose mention in performance always makes me cringe; brilliant as he may be, I’m not sure he would make it out of our current #metoo movement unscathed—, a fascination with Astrid Lorange’s approach to the writings of Gertrude Stein, and a re-visiting of Toni Morrison’s more poignant interviews, specifically a 1998 exchange with Charlie Rose (more on that later). For Miller, the synthesis of these three sources is syntax. In the program notes she writes “To me, all three writers capture diverse cultural relevancies through how they structure language: their syntax, and their precise tone, brings meaning.” This got her thinking about the syntax of movement and the ways in which meaning is derived from the activity and organization of bodies in context, space, and time.
While she was speaking, the dancers—Michelle Boulé, Christal Brown, Sarah Gamblin, Angie Hauser, Bronwen MacArthur, and Trebien Pollard—began to articulate luscious strands of choreography. Equally magnificent sweeping across the stage as they were standing still, it was clear that this was a group of experts; their years of experience having chiseled movement down to its barest essentials, leaving only the beautiful accuracy of physical truths.
Integral to the dancing was an improvisational quality that maintained throughout. It was clear that there were essential movement qualities that were directed from Miller to these hyper-intelligent practitioners, but every performer had their own interpretation of that direction; each dancer speaking their own dialect of a common language. The performers frequently danced solo material side by side with one another creating an “alone-together” type-of feel. But “alone” didn’t mean lonely in this case, it meant individual. And as the ensemble danced, they watched each other. They scanned the landscape of the floor to catch the wave of each other’s impulses. Their bodies riffed off and talked over one another in what seemed like an endlessly engaging conversation.
There were also breathtaking moments of unison and set composition when, all of a sudden, a group of dancers froze in the middle of their respective material and slid the picture of their grouping upstage (or downstage) leaving one dancer alone in the forefront. This kind of change in perspective happened a handful of times in "In a Rhythm" and it never ceased to thrill. Again, like the focusing of a lens, the manipulation of depth altered our relationship to time, space, and context. It’s a simple compositional trick really, yet the choice of its placement and repetition within the work is uniquely and utterly specific to Miller’s pulse as a choreographer. The superb lighting design by Stan Pressner also enhanced these moments of spatial contrast by providing the perfect contour to the dancers’ form. His was an example of dance lighting at its best: an art form of its own in support of a nuanced understanding of the choreographer’s intent.
Not just a feast of exquisite dancing, the work also contained significant commentary. Specifically, a duet between Pollard and Brown set to the soundtrack of the aforementioned interview between Toni Morrison and Charlie Rose, in which Rose presses Morrison to explain why she took offense to someone asking if she would ever stop writing about Black people. This dialog is fascinating and disturbing on its own, but coupled with an intricate duet in which the dancers alternate between listening, fidgeting, feeling, playing, and erupting in and out of their chairs, we are able to witness the effects of these painful conversations on real-life human bodies. Miller also spoke of her ability to instantly recall the Jet Magazine image of Emmett Till in his casket and about having to leave a screening of the film “My Nephew Emmett” due to the almost immediate anxiety it provoked.
These cultural references, with their accompanying trauma, were not presented as “the point” of "In a Rhythm," rather they were offered as additional layers of an individual’s or a group’s experiential history. Miller explained, “Everything is here. Everything is available. What’s left is choice.” Meaning everything that we absorb in our lives is accessible material. Nothing should be discounted. What we do with it, how we move with it, and how we approach its syntax, is up to us.
For those curious about this work and the dance-making process in general, check out Miller’s companion project, “The Making Room” (www.TheMakingRoom.org) for an in-depth look at the creation process.