BEBE MILLER TRACING HISTORY
AUGUST 23 - SEPTEMBER 29, 2012
“She is a seer, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, an eyewitness as well as a visionary, whose observation bores through the skin to reveal the heart.” — Suzanne Carbonneau on Bebe Miller
Photo: Johan Elbers Dancer: Bebe Miller
introduction: Jerry Dannemiller
INTRODUCTION Dance and cultural historian Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, in her book The Black Dancing Body, talks of the lineage of African folktales, specifically the idea of “dilemma” tales that “illustrate a principle of contrariety, open-endedness, or living with opposition, without the necessity of resolution or closure.” Such tales stand as a polar opposite to the convenient beginning-middle-end construction inherent in the performance traditions of Western Europe. Said another way, it’s about the process, not the product; about the doing, not the done; together we can build something stronger than certainly one of us can; and the creation of work that poses questions rather than answers them is central and necessary. If any one concept serves as a touchstone for Bebe Miller: Tracing History, the “dilemma” tale might come closest. This exhibition, much like the artist on which it is focused, presents the ideas of open-endedness and questionasking: it doesn’t attempt to identify a linear path or agreed-upon outcome for Bebe Miller’s career in dance thus far. It certainly lives with contrariety—the intentional and random, the analog and digital, the overt and the abstract, the polished and the raw. And what if we just kept saying “what if”? The items here, the trappings of a career in dance—videos, conversations, photos, faded press reviews, a large floor that almost didn’t fit, costumes, drops, and yes, a bird house—make a case, as benign as they may collectively appear on these walls and pedestals. That being that these “things” of educator, dancer, choreographer, and Bessie and Doris Duke Award winner Bebe Miller are as relevant and worthy of display in a gallery as what has taken place on various proscenium stages and black boxes around the globe. Who’s to say they are less glamorous? True, it can’t all be about process. The gears of a career would grind to a halt without the end-product, be it Verge, Going to the Wall, Landing/Place, The Hendrix Project, or countless other statements Bebe Miller and her company have made in almost three decades. What you’re experiencing in Tracing History, what we’ve selected from a long-term storage warehouse, borrowed from Bebe’s attic or from a box of deteriorating videotape, gives literal space and figurative breathing room to the idea that her work is about the doing, not the done. The process leading up to the stage. What happens while you’re living your life. The obvious hope is that Tracing History, and the sum total of its contents, can also serve as an introductory seminar (or refresher course, given your history), for the Bebe Miller Company’s next performance, A History (which will have its world premiere at the Wexner Center for the Arts at the end of this exhibition, and tour thereafter). You may not see a step-by-step lineage in every stage movement of A History, but, as an audience member, you’ll ideally have a better understanding of all that goes into the process of dance making, and Bebe’s particular method of creating a physical language for the human condition.
Photo: Johan Elbers Dancer: Bebe Miller
Many people have made large contributions in the service of this exhibition that deserve special mention: Steve Jones, Jack Jackson, Sherri Geldin, Mark Van Fleet, Ann Bremner, Patrick Weber, Dave Dickas, Karen Simonian, Jennifer Wray, Matt Reber, Erica Anderson, Adam Tracht, and especially Director of Performing Arts Charles R. Helm at the Wexner Center for the Arts; Nena Couch and Emily Davis from the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute of The Ohio State University Libraries; Victoria Ellwood at Ohio State’s College of the Arts; Susan Petry at Ohio State’s Department of Dance; faculty and cohorts at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University; Leigh Lotocki, Liz Celeste, Valarie Williams, Scott Neal, Zoey Boyles and Kelly McNicholas at Ohio State’s Urban Arts Space; and Brian Devine, Erin Carlisle-Norton, Nicole Garlando, Ryan Osborn, Lily Skove, Michael Mazzola, and Talvin Wilks from the Bebe Miller Company. Peter Taub, Director of Performance Programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, served as project advisor under the auspices of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance. Video artist Maya Ciarrocchi, whose incisive work fills one room of this exhibition, was a wise and accommodating collaborator. Additional thanks are due also to the exhibition’s generous sponsors including Ohio State’s Department of Dance, The New England Foundation for the Arts’ Contemporary Art Centers Network, Vital Companies, Time Warner Cable, the Columbus Food League, and Donewaiting.com. Above all, I offer my thanks and appreciation to Bebe Miller, whose creativity, assurance, and grace throughout this process provided a consistent guiding hand. Jerry Dannemiller, Columbus, July 2012.
Top Photo: Lois Greenfield Dancer: Bebe Miller Bottom Photo: Lois Greenfield Dancers: Scott Smith, Earnie Stevenson
it a quilt? Is it a house?
I came across this note in a journal from twenty years ago, a question to myself about the form of the work we were creating at that time: Nothing Can Happen Only Once, which premiered at the Wexner Center for the Arts in the spring of 1992. I remember how I puzzled through decisions about the ordering of moments, wondering if the return of a certain dancer/action/event was soon enough to be noticed (a canon!), textured enough to be felt (a quilt!), or oddly enclosed and familiar (a house!) It’s a pretty good representation of what’s been my job for the last thirty years: searching for metaphor, finding form, and then seeing how it moves. I have a great deal of faith in the moving body as a record of thought and experience. As a choreographer I’m interested in the “story-ness” of the dynamics of the body in action and anticipation, how the space between people effects us as viewers. I grew up in the 1950’s, attuned to watching, often from the sidelines, how people moved through the world. I am still fascinated by the details of bodies moving mindfully. It is time—and timing—that phrases this movement into dance, but it’s the body—the person—that carries the culture, the risk of connection, and the visceral possibility of meaning. The fact that I’ve worked in rooms with remarkable people has not only been a major instigator behind what I do, it’s been the fundamental reason for doing what I do. I’ve been lucky to witness people solving problems through time, energy, and risky space, problems that seem unsolvable, untranslatable:
how does a particularly ephemeral experience connect one person to another? Why does one action seem to matter and another one does not? Why do I lean back here, and get a bit anxious there? What could possibly be next? I’ve puzzled through these questions in the company of friends and collaborators and have witnessed countless small miracles and many, many jokes; dancing can be very funny and is often ridiculous on the way to something else. I’ve found notes from twenty years ago that point out how I’ve either been remarkably consistent, or pretty forgetful of past epiphanies, or easily distracted. A list from 1992 reads:
Magic Power Geyser under pressure Mystery History of music Keggers 8-track tape players The Hobbit
On the next page are notes about neuroscience and collective memories, and a note telling myself to
“WATCH IT! Don’t just go on and on.… HOWEVER, the overall quilt of memories does have to hold together.…” This exhibition contains both the evidence of a creative practice and a record of keeping on keepin’ on. We’re making it up as we go along. Listening as an articulation. “Articulation as an assertive act,” theater director Anne Bogart wrote; “artists make new myths by which we embody our experience in life, providing the new boundaries of ethics and values.”¹ I think we make story-ness; we create a way of connecting the moments that, for whatever reason, seem necessary. We are constantly adding to the present information in respect to the present information, to solve the next problem, the one that wasn’t there before. When I’m choreographing I’m aiming to build sequences of kinetic events—dancing—that, through the arrangement of quiet and cantankerous moments,
keep us simultaneously in the present and in touch with what is provoked. The works represented here range from small, early dances to those with more history and resources behind them, but, truth be told, each one was a puzzle that I couldn’t completely solve. However, as they’ve collected through time, I recognize patterns in ways of making and thinking, and here and there the hoped-for leap into a phrasing (of making and thinking) I don’t recognize: something new.
“One bit after the other, arriving with part of the body and noting that arrival, then shifting awareness to a trailing hand or surface that’s still on its way to somewhere else. My focus shifts, taking in details, which of course leads me to another imagined reference. Imagined or remembered, or an imagined remembrance.…” But that trailing hand is so curious! I think it points out that whatever effort or presence of mind it took to get to where I “got” there’s a larger perspective that is still on the move. Often I’ve arrived at some unfamiliar balance of structure gone awry, or a small, incremental reading of sensation, to focus on either what’s next or where I’ve been or (my favorite) somewhere else entirely, just for a second before I lose Now.
Welcome to the journey.
Bebe Miller, Columbus, July 2012
1. Bogart, Anne. A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre. ( © 2001, Routledge )
Photo: Virginia Liberatore Dancer: Bebe Miller
Bebe Miller World-Maker: M. Candace Feck
would tilt beyond the brink of extinction. A wealth of varied artifacts comprises This subject fervor for also and adorns exhibition. Film footage, Always tocreative mysteryprocess and mystique, wealththis of varied artifacts comprises from the love of dancing itselfto a interview clips and rehearsal notes, photos thearises notion of artistic process has risen and adorns this exhibition. Film footage, and the passion for making as singularin and programs, of costumes, prominent, almost preeminent, position interview clipsexamples and rehearsal notes, enterprises:creative dancersendeavors, live to move, and music, of notation, timelines contemporary particularly photosfragments and programs, examples of and other material objects give witness, spilling the studio remains the This primary in works of performance. mayhaven be the costumes, music, fragments of notation, and intersecting — now converging, now for their activity, the business time result, in part, of thewhile disproportionate timelines and other material objects of choreography, writ large, might to bethe contradicting — collectively opening wide it takes to make a work as compared give witness, spilling and intersecting considered art of the visitor’s window on thecontradicting working life moments of itsthe visible lifemoving — not dancers. uncommonly, — now converging, now To be a preoccupation with of accomplished artist.wide The the words that a ratio of sure, something like a year in theprocess studio — an collectively opening visitor’s also emanates from that requisite follow attempt to add to this topography by to a single week-end of live performances. It window on the working life of an wrestling with something more unseen, more element of presence necessitated by is axiomatic by now to assert that if dancers accomplished artist. The words that ineffable: the process ofto Miller’s dance-making andthe act of dancing:did one must attend choreographers not enjoy theirwith long follow attempt to add this topography an intensity of focus to eachthe moment, — practices sensibilities of making and doing, artform by those wrestling with and something moreand habits periods producing an all-absorbing form of labor of mind that yield up suchthe a collection. would tilt beyond the brink of extinction. This unseen, more ineffable: process of that contains its own satisfactions. fervor for creative process also arises from Miller’s dance-making — those practices Always subject toand mystery andofmystique, the love of dancing itself and the passion for and sensibilities habits mind that the notion of artistic process In teaching contemporary dance history making as singular enterprises: dancers live yield up such a collection. has risen to a over the years, I have remains come tothe recognize prominent, almost preeminent, position in to move, and the studio primary a particularly intractable in thatof contemporary creative endeavors, particularly haven for their activity, whileparadox the business those who understand the arduous, often in works of performance. This may be the choreography, writ large, might be considered of arrivingToatbe completed result, in part, of the disproportionate time theunruly art of process moving dancers. sure, a it takes to make a work as compared to the works of performance tend to emanates appreciate preoccupation with process also moments of its visible life — not uncommonly, from them There is life of and juice and thatbetter. requisite element presence jazz and alchemy andofmagic in the a ratio of something like a year in the studio necessitated by the act dancing: one must making is sometimes exuded but to a single week-end of live performances. It attend withthat an intensity of focus to each often eluded by the moments is axiomatic by now to assert that if dancers moment, producing an resulting all-absorbing form of and choreographers did not enjoy their long labor of performance. Quite those that contains its owncontrarily, satisfactions. who view only the product — that is to periods of making and doing, the artform
say, the very ones who comprise the intended audiences for performed work — are apt to see and understand them somewhat less. Further blurring the picture, no two artists work alike, and the same one operates differently over time, accruing new skills, gathering new ideas and spawning new methods, so that the task of cataloging or accounting for these activities is a daunting project. Meanwhile, received wisdom about the choreographic process abounds, most commonly anchored in some vision that features the choreographer appearing in the studio with the dance more or less mentally intact. In this paradigm, prescribed movement phrases are doled out for the dancers to reproduce, and the piece assembles itself bit by bit until completion: one might call this the Voilà! method of dance-making. Though variations on this model persist, it is considerably less common in contemporary practice, where devised methods are more prevalent. Miller herself stopped bringing pre-determined phrase material into the studio sometime in the 1990s, instead arriving with seedlings of ideas that are shared with the performers through a variety of means, and to which they respond by generating
physical material. A more rhizomatic and organic means of composing a dance, this approach demands both patience and finesse, as the choreographer coaxes the work into being, keeping an ever-watchful eye on the balance between nurturing and pruning the dancers’ contributions. This is not to suggest that what goes on between the walls of the studio is hocuspocus. The process entails rich and taxing work, governed in large measure by the choreographer’s own working practices and attitudes. Here she arrives, armed with ideas both specific and slippery, which over time become incarnated by these laborers who agree to share her space and time. Here, she alights like a hawk, staring and squinting at all that passes before her, noticing and pouncing on what most captures her attention. Here, phrases are made and varied, specific movement lexicons are evoked and articulated, Photo: Nathaniel Tileston Dancer: Bebe Miller, in the ‘Condor Material,’ Nina Wiener and Dancers, 1978
Bebe Miller World-Maker: M. Candace Feck
sequencing is tried and adapted, edited and discarded. It is an endeavor that requires fierce acts of seeing and listening, as the collaborating dancers try to make movement-sense of the choreographer’s intentions and she in turn amplifies the process with infusions of new or clarifying information. Like the reciprocity of a deep conversation among friends, the dancer speaks and the choreographer listens and gives back what she hears, shading the dialogue with new ideas to which the dancer attends and responds, and the process continues. It is a mutual undertaking that requires finely honed sensibilities, one that tends to produce heady and empowering experiences among its participants. What ensues is a slow and ultimately communal process of morphing the dance, complete with multiple stops and starts, reversals, revelations, and a pile of clippings left on the studio’s cutting room floor. It takes years to become an accomplished artist, time to become comfortable with the not-knowing that is necessary when entering the sanctuary of the studio, to trust one’s own craft enough to invite others to come along. In addition to the emphasis on process, Miller’s work engages several other concerns that thread through much of contemporary dance-making, including a preference for fragmented or nonlinear form, a commitment to the uses of improvisation, a bias toward ensembles that reflect a diverse rather than homogeneous slice of humanity, and an abiding belief in the collaborative effort. It is a fact that she has made few solos over the course of her long career; she has stated unequivocally that she established the Bebe Miller Company in 1985 because she did not wish to continue working alone. For her, dance is by, for and about community, and as her work has matured, she has refined her methods and skills into a subtle and idiosyncratic means for working with the casts she assembles, dancers who consistently extol the time they invest with her in their mutual making. Miller has cultivated a deft touch for this kind of work, nurturing a family sensibility rather than ruling her domain with a heavy hand. A temporary but intimate tribe of the studio is formed, grown, evolved, and its members show themselves to be committed citizens.
What she does insist upon is that it is the work, not the individual artists, that remains their primary and fully shared concern. Since dance-making is the nucleus around which they convene, she asks: “Can it have more of this?” “Less of that?” “What does it need?” “What can you offer to the work?” This requires a game and wellattuned cast, for whom the process can be trying — but somehow, some way, through good will, a shared spirit of deep play and an insistence upon their collective indispensability to the process, the dance not only gets made but something about the history of its making gets woven into the central meaning of the piece. Miller’s press materials habitually refer to her penchant for making dances that explore and reveal the human condition; I submit that it is the very human conditions of the studio that yield and refract those particular sensibilities. Along the way, communities are formed and discrete worlds established.
In choosing to refer to Miller as a maker of worlds, I mean to encompass both this hidden world of the studio as well as an essential quality of what are, to my mind, her most compelling works. The point is that between the opening and closing frames of these dances, Miller constructs an enigmatic world that lures me in, establishes just enough familiarity to keep me curious and engaged, holds me fast, and then releases me, smitten with the nagging wish that I could linger or return. I am drawn into these time-bound worlds whose precise landscapes I have not before encountered but whose contours I seem to recognize. She demarcates a singular kind of place, populated by its own indigenous inhabitants, and each of these small universes engenders in me a sense of yearning and a desire for belonging that I have come to acknowledge as the offspring of her world-making. Miller got her earliest glimpses of worlds in the making at the Henry Street Settlement from that master of total theatre, Alwin Nikolais, whose creative process she witnessed as a small child from her perch on Murray Louis’ lap. Other mentors came forward: Nina Weiner and Dana Reitz, Phyllis Lamhut, Vickie Blaine, Susan Rethorst and Tere O’Connor, among many important colleagues. Equally significant have been those collaborators with whom she has so closely worked, including a litany of dancers spanning the early days with Nikki Castro and Renée Lemieux to her present day partners Darrell Jones and Angie Hauser. She may have assimilated her most significant primer in the techniques of world-making, however, from her mother, Hazel Lee Clark Miller, from whom she learned to follow her inclinations and trust her own decisions, without belaboring the obstacles. Born in Mississippi, Hazel Clark had migrated to New York in the 1940s to engage in her own form of world-making. Here she became a nurse and bore three children, whom she exposed to experiences not common among their friends and neighbors in the Red Hook projects. Her daughter, an early and devout book worm, inhaled vast quantities of fiction and learned much about the world by exhausting the collection at her small neighborhood library, lessons that were expanded by regular excursions quietly engineered by Hazel to such places as Henry Street, the symphony, ballet lessons, and summers at Bearnstow camp in Maine, on the banks of Parker Pond. Coming of age as an African American school girl in the era immediately following Brown vs. Board of Education, Miller learned fundamental techniques of performance by figuring out the politics of looking: when and where and, perhaps most importantly, how to be visible and invisible. One came to know as if by osmosis when one was being watched, and precisely how to perform at each turn — an all-important skill-set for an artist who would come to excel in the craft of noticing and ordering such behaviors. This faceting of points of view, a kind of duet between subjectivity and objectivity that lies at the heart of dance as an artform, fed Miller’s artistic imagination. She learned to play habitually with the angles of observation — calibrating exactly which side and how much of a situation she might wish to reveal or conceal, and then weighing whether there might be yet another aspect to consider.
Photo: Lois Greenfield Dancer: Bebe Miller
Bebe Miller: World-Maker: M. Candace Feck
These gradations of awareness have served her well as the resources of a working choreographer: one who knows how to look from many perspectives at the same phenomenon, how to pay attention to what’s going on in the room, how to read time, space, weight, energy and relationships, and how to seize upon a detail and not let it go until she has plumbed it for everything it might yield. By her own admission, Miller tends to move myopically toward what interests her, deferring consequences and setting aside conclusions during the long and sometimes meandering investigative process. There’s a “detailthing” that she embraces to the point where she willingly suspends sight of the big picture. She has also developed an instinct for pushing that detail further and further, like olives through the cycles of a press. Again, she attributes this inclination, in part, to her mother’s faithful habit of providing choice, and her own persistent response of veering toward her interests within those parameters. It does not seem unreasonable to posit that Miller’s confirmed embrace of improvisational practice finds its genesis within these same childhood experiences. In a movement context, to improvise is to absorb, to act, to sense, to notice, and to adapt to physical ideas in real time. Indeed, to maintain a rich practice of artistic improvisation is to become an expert at decisionmaking within limits, decisions that are not exclusively governed by imposed formulas but are tempered by the more implicit channels of associative thinking. Improvisational values necessitate alertness, spontaneity, presentness and selfconfidence, and they have a way of inflecting participatory behavior. Because it is setting her dancers free to react to their own instincts that draws Miller’s eye, ascribing value to what Because it is setting her dancers free each individual might bring to the group, the results to react to their own instincts that produce ensemble work that draws Miller’s eye, ascribing value to privileges distinctiveness what each individual might bring to the over uniformity. In this way, her composed worlds group, the results produce ensemble depend on mutual respect work that privileges distinctiveness and are deeply democratic in the most fundamental over uniformity. sense of the word. Moreover, for Miller and other contemporary artists, improvisation has a habit of spilling into a way of living as well as working. Exercised persistently, it serves to keep the attention to process alive, allowing for the unknown to present itself and to reveal what is needed by the project at hand, choreographic or otherwise. As Louis Pasteur once observed, “chance favors the prepared mind.” Strictly speaking, there are no accidents in an improvisational world of working: everything is potentially usable, transformable. When the economic moment came, for example, that obliged Miller to adapt her regular two-hour rehearsal periods to less frequent four-hour sessions, she discovered to her delight that this improvised alteration opened up deeper and more productive periods of investigation and play. Life itself might be construed as a long series of improvisations and compositions. William McDonough has pointed out that “design is the primary signal of human intention.” Designing, responding and composing, by this measure, describe the human condition. We devise and accumulate and gauge; we react and sift and sequence; we layer and organize and reorganize: dances are distilled iterations of these kinds of everyday ordering activities. Consider Erving Goffman, who speaks of the way we compose ourselves for presentation in everyday life, or Judith Butler, who characterizes gender as a continual rehearsal and performance, a composition of stylized acts. In selecting from our available choices, we compose ourselves.
In the artistic process, fixing the choices that shape a completed composition â€” arriving at the physical form that stubbornly remains after all the dreaming and the investigation and the work are over â€” is sometimes the most difficult task. Miller often settles on the final forms for her works within the very last days of rehearsal, and the principles that govern her are bred from some incalculable synthesis of instinctive and formal considerations. In general, her body of work tends to resist linear narrative yet contain the human story; it is recursive without being repetitive; it is arresting to the eye but also to the heart. She studies the ways that her dancers process information rather than limiting herself to what they can do technically, and she builds formal structures around that physical capital. Visceral details accrue significance as they accumulate, creating form â€” worlds in the making. A choreographer is a composer of the substance and nuance of human movement, and she composes a world into being. Bebe Miller, both for her dancers and for her viewers, is such a world-maker. When the process concludes successfully, we enter her terrain, we feel our way around, we become immersed in something urgent or mysterious, playful or somber. Ultimately, it is ourselves we meet in these worlds full of tenderness and daring, suppleness and strength, humor and risk, grounded acts and rousing achievement. We depart, our senses heightened, our skin enlivened, our minds refreshed and energized.
Photo: Herb Migdoll Dancers from left: Renee Lemieux, Bebe Miller, Elizabeth Caron, Jeremy Weichsel, Nikki Castro
M. Candace Feck, Columbus, June 2012
Dialogues in the Flesh: Suzanne Carbonneau
“Dialogues in the Flesh”: The Choreography of Bebe Miller
ebe Miller’s choreography is suffused with mystery, serenely so. In her dances, meaning is a mirage, vanishing just as we begin to grasp it, and then tantalizing us to follow it into the distance where it shimmers and beckons us on. In attempting to come to grips with the most profound questions of existence, Miller reminds us that finding answers is a process rather than an arrival, and that we can never be sure of our journey’s end. This refusal of platitude marks Miller as an artist who has spent a lifetime immersed in a close examination of the human condition. And in this she is an acute observer. In both her nuanced and detailed choreography and in her own remarkable dancing, there is a state of alertness, the ears pricked up, the antennae out. There she is, watching for those moments of felicity and beauty that can’t be anticipated. There she is, noting those silences and evasions that might slip by unheeded without constant vigilance. She is a seer, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, an eyewitness as well as a visionary, whose observation bores through the skin to reveal the heart. Miller proposes the dance space as a metaphorical arena of human interaction. Not for her E.M. Forster’s injunction, “Only connect.” For this choreographer, there is no “only” about it. She recognizes that connection is, in fact, the most formidable act that people are ever called upon to perform. Her choreography resonates with the sublimity of what it means to make contact with others, but simultaneously acknowledges the near-impossibility of achieving it. She understands that human connection is the ultimate Sisyphean challenge, the thing that we spend our whole lives trying fruitlessly but enduringly to perfect. But typically for Miller, who does not shy away from revealing the contrariness of the human heart, the desperation of our hunger to know one another is matched equally by our mortal fear of what it would mean to do so. Miller’s dances are exemplars of the postmodern condition that presupposes uncertainty. Always, there is the acknowledgment of point-of-view—that your world (composed of the sum of your background and experiences) is not mine. It is from this philosophical stance that Miller issues the most extraordinarily compassionate of challenges: to risk becoming someone else. Her dances are calls to courage in facing one of the most difficult journeys imaginable: our forays into the territory of the Other, the true heart of darkness. How far can we truly go into the terra incognita of another’s identity? In her artmaking, Miller demands of herself, as does the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison in her essay “Black Matters,” the ability to “imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar,” and in doing so to have “a willingness to project consciously into
Left Page Photo: Beatriz Schiller Dancers: Frances Craig, Melissa Wynn, Sarah Gamblin, Cheng-Chieh Yu
Top Photo: Beatriz Schiller Dancers: Darrell Jones, Cheng-Chieh Yu
Bottom: Photo: Lois Greenfield Dancers: Elizabeth Caron, Nikki Castro, Earnie Stevenson, Scott Smith, Bebe Miller, Renee Lemieux, Phillip Adams
the danger zones such others may represent....” That is, the artist must not only be willing to look into places that most people recoil from out of fear of otherness, but also to live there. To embrace otherness in such a way that one’s own identity is altered. But if we exist in different worlds, how are we to know each other? One way, of course, is through our shared sensation of the body. We all know what it means to feel the lungs filling with breath, to be aware of blood coursing through our veins, to know the euphoria of a leap, the pain of endurance. Our shared experiences inside of our skins cannot be denied even by those who would separate us by social and cultural markers. Where other postmodernists have chosen to explore issues of connection and otherness through language and philosophical discourse, Miller has posited the body as an alternative site for productive inquiry, with subtle and perceptive results. Working as she does from a baseline of what unites us, it is all the more manifest when Miller locates just where our differences begin. While Miller is most often categorized as a postmodern abstractionist, her work is, in fact, deeply political. Miller’s choreography addresses the conditions of a postrevolutionary world: after the initial battles in this country over civil rights, feminism and gay liberation have been fought, what are we left to negotiate in our daily lives? A lot, Miller insists.
Over the past twenty years, her dances have chronicled how the personal exists within the political. Indeed, this subtextual theme was made explicit in her 1998 evening-length work, Going to the Wall, whose voiceover text acknowledged that “large places [are] made up of tiny things.” Racism and sexism and homophobia exist not only as inscribed in law and custom, her dances aver, but in the most minute and mundane daily interaction, whether that be a sidelong glance, a change of direction, or a recoil from a touch. How are we, she asks, to inscribe our uniqueness in a world that renders our inherence invisible with alarmingly clumsy and chillingly reductive labels?
Dialogues in the Flesh: Suzanne Carbonneau
Miller’s next work Verge (2000) grew out of her shared process in creating Going to the Wall with her company members and with dramaturg Talvin Wilks. Having worked with these collaborators for two years on a dance that used autobiography and group interaction as the basis for exploring issues of identity, Miller discovered in these working methods a mother lode of material concerning the individual’s relationship to the group, and how culture and custom shape attitudes and belief systems. And it is this process that Miller has continued to mine for insights about the act of touch. Verge is an atlas of the kinetic landscape, where Miller posits the body as the ultimate negotiator of difference. Body against body, skin against skin, the meaning of touch is both intuitive and constructed by culture, and it can magnify or erase issues of difference. “Dialogues in the flesh,” Miller called touch in Going to the Wall. While we tend to think of communication as a verbal enterprise in our culture, in Verge Miller explores how eloquently our bodies converse, as well as how many opportunities touch presents for uncertainty and misunderstanding. But again, Miller refuses to deify hard-won illuminations into definitive answers. In fact, as with all of Miller’s dances, while she exposes the jerry-rigged scaffolding of our belief systems, she will not pretend that she has discovered alternative theologies to placate our desires for certainty.
Verge had originally been called Map of the Body, and in her newest work, Landing/ Place, Miller expands her topographical explorations. She is a conquistador in reverse, adventuring not to impose herself on others, but to find herself—in every sense of that term—in unfamiliar places. Working again with dramaturg Talvin Wilks, Miller returns to her concerns with how identity is constructed and how the sense of self shifts as we experience change. What does place have to do with who we are? If place defines us, what happens when we change location? How do we know who we are when we don’t know where we are? To be dislocated is to be out of articulation, and this can happen to the mind and spirit, as well as to the body. In Landing/Place, Miller is interested in charting who we are as we stand on shaky ground, dislodged from our certainties about ourselves and others. To be a seeker, Miller knows, is a condition of permanence. Definitive answers are a sop for those who, exhausted or frightened by the journey, have chosen to cease exploration. So finally Miller leaves us to chase our hallucinations in the desert. In seeing enigma as a blessing rather than a quandary, however, she acknowledges the realities of being human: how, even as we construct intellectual and moral systems that posit the world in stark divides, it is not that way at all. For Miller understands that while the human heart is unfathomable, it is unapologetically and gloriously so. © 1995 Suzanne Carbonneau, reprinted with permission.
Left Page Photo: Beatriz Schiller Dancer: Bebe Miller This Page Photo: Erik Palmer Dancers: Darrell Jones, Ted Johnson
Traversing A History:: Talvin Wilks
Traversing A History: There were early conversations with the Bebe Miller Company members that detailed what A History would be, early descriptive language from Bebe poured forth – “A History will simultaneously exist as an archive and installation…” “A History is an interactive, dynamic exposure of how we do what we do…” “A History is an archeological inquiry into our continuously evolving manner of asking questions…” “A History is a retelling of creative process…” “A History becomes its own live archive as the artists re-map, dance and manifest thematic traces of their collaboration over time…” “A History will excavate the contextual layers of imagery and media in this lineage of work…” “A History will strip away the contextual layers of imagery and media to delve into the fundamental kinesthetic exchange between two artists…” These are the fundamental guideposts to understanding what A History is striving to be, an access portal - part archeological, part experiential. Very early on in the process of making A History there was a movement exploration called, A Walk in the Woods. This was a section that involved a staged dialogue between Dance Scholar, M. Candace Feck, Choreographer/Director, Bebe Miller and myself as Dramaturg. It was an attempt to bring a type of live engagement into the room, an access conversation that explored the question of asking questions. What are the questions to ask, what history is being traced? The making of A History is very similar to most development processes in the Bebe Miller Company history, a series of questions, a search for language. As a dramaturg, I am always capturing language, what is being talked about, debated, determined, language is key to our movement based process. There is a particular journey through text that begins with Going to the Wall and travels through the next three premieres, Verge, Landing/Place and Necessary Beauty. A History is a culminating exploration of this journey. Language is key to understanding the terrains of exploration.
Photo: Tom Brazil Dancers: Bebe Miller, Ralph Lemon
A Walk in the Woods (Making Meaning…) As part of this exploration I often introduce language systems into the dance making process. The most apparent example is the sestina exploration in Verge, my second collaboration with the company. The text created for Verge is an actual collection of words, language captured from the process of making, subtle observations collected in the off moments, from corner conversations, loose asides, non-sequiturs, here was the essence of the way we work in the room - “Ted, come closer you feel so far away,” becomes the foundation of a mantra that permeates the movement and builds suspense. Ultimately, in A History, text is used as a type of hyper-reality, sometimes inserted, projected and interjected into scenes. The sources are from various interviews, conversations, journal reflections and past texts generated from previous shows – our history. The intention is to create self-reflecting loops of meaning, textual histories, that are strung throughout, purposely absurd, at times nonsensical, but hopefully, revealing layers of thought, concept and process. In this regard, the exhibit, Tracing History, is a perfect extension of this experience and an essential part of our understanding of the work. It is interesting to wonder how text or the idea of text can best exist in an exhibition, traversing the history of dance. As one walks through the various collected artifacts, I hope that you will also discover the embedded text encoded throughout the landscape of the creative process of the Bebe Miller Company. It is the naming of things that often catapults a movement phrase into meaning. A travel through this exhibition will give you a sense of that experience - the process of text generation, grabbing snippets, sound bites, blending them together to make meaning.
Talvin Wilks, Dramaturg, Bebe Miller Company, New York City, July 2012
On View Thursday, August 23, 2012− Saturday, September 29, 2012
Related Events Performance Bebe Miller Company A History Wexner Center Artist Residency Award Project World Premiere Wexner Center for the Arts Thursday, September 27− Saturday, September 29, 2012, 8:00PM Sunday, September 30, 2012, 2:00PM Black Box on Mershon Stage Tickets at tickets.wexarts.org
Gallery Talk and Tour with Jerry Dannemiller, M. Candace Feck, Bebe Miller and Robert Flynt Thursday, September 13, 4:00PM Urban Arts Space free admission
Artist’s Salon with Bebe Miller Company Saturday, September 22, 5:00PM Urban Arts Space
The exhibition Bebe Miller: Tracing History is made possible at OSU Urban Arts Space with support from Ohio State’s Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, as well as Ohio State’s Arts Initiative. Additional support is provided by the Wexner Center for the Arts’ Performing Arts program. The exhibition Bebe Miller: Tracing History is made possible by the Contemporary Art Centers (CAC) network, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), with major support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. CAC is comprised of leading art centers and brings together performing arts curators to support collaboration and work across disciplines, and is an initiative of NEFA's National Dance Project. Wexner Center for the Arts’ Performing Arts program is a member of CAC. Bebe Miller: Tracing History is curated by Jerry Dannemiller, Wexner Center for the Arts, a project developed at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) program at Wesleyan University. Peter Taub, Director of Performance Programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, served as ICPP project advisor. Curatorial assistance is provided by Emily S. Davis in Ohio State’s Department of Theatre and Erin Carlisle Norton in Ohio State’s Department of Dance. The Tracing History e-book is co-produced by Bebe Miller Company and the Wexner Center for the Arts, assisted by Erica Anderson and Adam Tracht. Gallery talks, lectures, and e-book development are supported by the Urban Arts Space, Time Warner Cable, VitalFilm Works, Columbus Food League, donewaiting.com, and Ohio State’s Department of Dance.
A guide through Bebe Miller's career and the exhibition Tracing History at Urban Arts Space