Who Could Ask For Anything More?

bebe miller company, in a rhythm @ the dance center of columbia college, saturday, 7 april 2018.

Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what?
— Gene McDaniels

Despite its title, In a Rhythm found choreographer Bebe Miller perhaps most curious about getting a little out of sync—or maybe, better said, not worrying if there was a tight thematic groove or not in her evening-length work. After all, there can be rhythm too in the stutter step and the out of phase, the loosely linked and the seemingly incongruent, the jarring collision and the off-kilter combination. Possibly better and realer rhythms. Weird angles make for interesting shapes. Through-lines emerge from the most unlikely conjunctions and associations. We humans are made to articulate. We connect and correlate. And with just a little bit of structure, we can also live with plenty of incoherence, carrying on just fine when the dots don’t quite connect. We walk on guilded splinters, find ways to navigate mysteries. We grasp that there may be no deeper significance to the basic fact of being, but we usually like to spin things together anyway into tales and narratives. There are terrors to confront, but there are also pleasures. They don’t have to add up perfectly to mean something. And sometimes the urge to make them mean one thing makes a lie out of the times when the amorphous multiplicity of meaning is the most precise perception of all.

Bebe Miller and dancers, from In a Rhythm.

The challenge that Miller sets up for herself, her dancers, and her audience is how to discern that rhythm beyond the rhythm of conventional tempos, shapes, and forms. For there’s a good argument to make that this formlessness is the most elemental rhythm of all. The question becomes how to choreograph and dance through these more irregular, lurking pulsations. What shape do you use to explore shapelessness, what structures have room for serendipities, what kinds of “syntaxes,” as Miller calls them, can allow for expansively receiving all that life brings your way? How do you access the indeterminacies therein and cogently stage a more relaxed approach to the dynamic between the meaningful and meaningless? Do you have to tighten up and attend more closely to the chaos or do you just relax into the mess of possibilities? Can we see many meanings float by without demanding that they stand still or do we need to freeze-frame them into singularities?

Bebe Miller Company, In a Rhythm. Photographer: Robert Altman.

In Miller’s hands, choreography and dance become the means for exploring these questions as part of the “endlessly variegated” qualities of “everyday experience,” phrases she quotes in her program note. They come from a study of Gertrude Stein by the literary critic Astrid Lorange. As the reference suggests, writing—and language in general—figures heavily in the piece, with Miller presiding as a kind of master of ceremonies speaking to the audience or reading from things like an excerpt from a grant application. So too, the everyday is essential. The informal tone begins at the outset. There is no dramatic darkening of the house lights or musical prologue. Instead, the dancers merely walk out on the sparse stage with the house lights up and Miller introduces her ensemble, a group of magnificent performers: Angie Hauser, Michelle Boulé, Christal Brown (full disclosure: a colleague of mine at Middlebury College), Sarah Gamblin, Bronwen MacArthur, and Trebien Pollard (Darrell Jones, while not performing in this iteration of In a Rhythm, has been another important participant in its making).

Miller then previews all the references that the piece will contain, from a David Foster Wallace short story heard on an audiobook while driving in Washington State to part of a Toni Morrison interview to a wide range of music from Mike Vargas, Pamela Z, Steve Gadd, Leonard Cohen, The Commodores, Donny Hathaway, and Nelly. As she talks one high-pitched piano note begins to ring out, occasionally and irregularly. It sounds something like the ping one hears when a text message arrives. It has no obvious relationship to what Miller is describing (her experience of hearing David Foster Wallace’s short story “Incarnations of Burned Children”) until Miller pauses and remarks, “Did you hear that note?” After another moment, she looks up,and says “OK?” as if to signal that the lack of clear relationship is precisely the point. The dancers begin to move.

At first, gestures tilt toward abstraction, as if each limb and muscle was conceptualizing its own place autonomously in relation to the other parts of the body and the spaces through which the bodies will move. The dancers march forward and back, then over time they begin to break out into solos and sometimes collide in moments of interaction. There are rolls of felt that unfurl like red carpets to nowhere, and some become fabric to stomp on and gather up. A few pieces even eventually snap over the dancers’ torsos, like the parangolés of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica.

Eventually, the movement starts at times to take on strong allegorical content in the male-female dynamics between Pollard and a number of the female dancers; but just as often things remain very materially grounded, movement qua movement: a contrast of flowing and tensile tempos; arms in a V raised above shoulders; backward somersaults and sideways jitters; movement phrases jumping from one dancer to another; waves of energy running head to toe up and down the spine, iterated and reiterate; the durational experience of watching one dancer just stand and look back, stage center, with slow, almost imperceptible changes in facial expression.

There are so many little delicious isolated ideas and movements in In a Rhythm that one struggles to index them all, and one of Miller’s goals seems to be precisely to let go of or leave aside the project of making the work completely legible.

There’s that pinging piano note again.

Things get more referential during three sections that feature longer excerpts of pop songs. It’s intriguing that these each turn to questions of race in America. Maybe race calls up different needs for referentiality given its intensely social and political dimensions? As a topic, it does not rest as easily in a Zen approach to the passing stream of consciousness that defines being attentive in the modern world? But to insist that it might is part of the power of In a Rhythm. The first song is Nelly’s “Country Grammar (Hot Shit),” a clever choice for a dance work exploring syntaxes of meaning given its title. During the song, suddenly the dancers take us to the land of hip-hop dance movement, with all kinds of gestures and performance energies that feel transformed out of the club and the music video to contemporary dance. Reference appears, in this case to black modes of popular culture. Another moment that feels more referential is the section performed to the slow blues by Donny Hathaway’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” which concentrates on gender dynamics and seems at times to suggest a romantic story of some sort in its solos and duets. A third is the Commodores’ “Brick House,” whose party groove gets unceremoniously interrupted, almost comically so, by silence.

There is that piano note ping again.

In these sections, one wonders if issues of race won’t let the body be. With its projections of the cultural and political onto the biological, and with the incredible forms that people have created in spite of, and often in response to, the pains and pressures of racial oppression and injustice, the concept of race and its history demand something more than just letting multiplicities co-exist in abstract assemblages. But Miller has an answer for this too. Drawing on a rightfully testy response by Toni Morrison to Charlie Rose when he asked her if she could imagine writing novels and stories about characters who were not African American, Miller resists letting race define her work absolutely. She tell her own tale of encountering the infamous photograph of Emmett Till’s casket as a child and the family context in which she did as well as needing to leave a film about the image years later. She notices that she has the capacity to move from this powerful photograph to the edge of trauma to her own family memories without getting trapped by the photo’s iconicity, or its terror; for Miller, a sense of black heritage is very much in her work—deeply so—but she does not wish to essentialize it. If anything she seems to call for locating heritage in historical forces without becoming constrained by fixed notions of race and the stories we want to—feel impelled to—tell about it. She wants to find a connective groove but not get stuck in a rut in In a Rhythm.

Soon enough, Miller is remembering attending summer camp in Maine, where her mother, who came North from Mississippi as part of the Great Migration, worked as a nurse. We find ourselves with the dancers in the woods, crickets and birds chirping, Miller talking about learning the names of all the trees and learning how to dance like the shapes of clouds. The point of this juxtaposition could be that for Miller, this too is a place also core to who she is even if it signals an entirely different cultural space than hip-hop moves to a song by Nelly. Country grammar indeed.

Overall, the capacity to rearrange details, is, for Miller, what counts. In this way In a Rhythm reminds me of Bill T. Jones’s recent experiments in the work Story/Time, which also features the choreographer as a kind of spoken-word guide. Jones moves through chance-operation compositional tactics borrowed from composer John Cage to loosen his work from any fixed moorings. His work, too, addresses his own heritage, but broadens it and reshuffles how we understand it within a broader range of experiences. As with Jones, Miller too gives her movement breathing room. Not everything must be perfectly under control and coordinated. It doesn’t all have to fit together. It can be wilder associatively, like life itself. Miller wants us to see where seemingly random details might take us: do they form relations? Do they connect? Or can we live with one detail, one moment, one movement, just following the next willy-nilly? Why did her mind go from one memory to another? How did the bodies of her dancers get from this place to that?  “Everything is here,” Miller says at the end of the work, “Everything is available.” And maybe that’s the great liberation of movement: it doesn’t need to mean anything. It just is and it just does. And that means everything.

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