Bebe Miller | The Making Room
February 21 – 24, 2018
In the literature of David Foster Wallace, the footnotes are just as enjoyable as the body of text. The footnotes offer an earpiece to the rich internal monologue that characterizes many successful artists of all mediums. A similar idea might apply to The Making Room, a creative dance-making experience organized by the Bebe Miller Company, culminating in their performances at New York Live Arts. The Making Room brings us not only the “body of text” in the form of a live performance, but also the “footnotes” illustrating the creative process behind it. Fittingly, Bebe Miller cites David Foster Wallace as inspiration for her work, along with Gertrude Stein and Toni Morrison, specifically for their ability to “capture diverse cultural relevancies through how they structure language.”
To hear them tell it, veteran choreographers Bebe Miller and Susan Rethorst first danced together in their twenties. Four decades later, in 2016, they convened with their respective dancers, embarking on a year-long journey to each create new work in parallel, and painstakingly document their progress along the way. In this case, their “footnotes” took the form of a website, with an online portal housing the choreographers’ notes, photos, and videos. The material drew from their travels as the dancers rehearsed in various cities, including Philadelphia, Columbus, and Northampton. The website, which went live in unison with The Making Room performances at New York Live Arts, articulates its goal “as an online resource template for creative process documentation, geared for both academic and artist audiences.”
I happen to attend the show the same evening as their post-performance “Stay Late Conversation,” an informal Q&A that is facilitated by The Making Room’s project manager, Lila Hurwitz, while the dancers sprawl across the stage with a level of ease that only dancers and cats can muster. The two choreographers consider their respective approaches to the choreographic process. Rethorst’s approach is to hone in on isolated artifacts; this evening, her work is compiled from fragments of older works, taken out of context and juxtaposed against each other. For Miller, the path involves syntax and context: choosing and rearranging memories and choreographic elements to examine cultural references and relationships. These ideas are evident in the choreographers’ pieces.
First is Susan Rethorst’s Stealing from Myself, a duet set on Gabrielle Revlock and Gregory Holt. There is an air of camaraderie between the dancers, laced with friendly antagonism. The two dancers are dressed similarly, in blouses and snug patterned shorts, and are not dissimilar in stature. The movements feel larger than marking but less than full-out; there’s something fast and loose in their gestures and steps around the stage. A few piles of weathered-looking books litter the stage, but are rarely involved in the choreography, other than the occasional re-stacking. A pair of formal-looking chairs provide opportunities for interesting unison and partnering, with the dancers moving over and under them. They trace the outline of each other’s bodies, one dancer occasionally pushing the other into a new shape. The back wall of the stage acts like a home base; they both run and tag it forcefully, like siblings at play. While Stealing from Myself was born of Rethorst’s past works, it’s not obvious where one excerpt might segue into the next, or how it aligns with the periodic interjections of musical compositions by Danny Elfman. Revlock ends the piece by paging through one of the books, while Holt looks on. “The End,” says Revlock, emphatically.
Bebe Miller opens her piece, In a Rhythm, in much the same way as Rethorst closed hers, by directly addressing the audience. She stands on the stage with her six dancers, and introduces each by name: Michelle Boulé, Christal Brown, Sarah Gamblin, Angie Hauser, Bronwen MacArthur, Trebien Pollard. (Darrell Jones is absent, but credited as an originating artist.) Miller ambles into story-telling and the dancers cue their movements on the sound of her voice. Miller’s live commentary is combined with a provocative score: music ranging from Leonard Cohen to Nelly, recorded text, near-silence with the occasional tone, and a 1998 Toni Morrison interview with Charlie Rose.
There is little in the movement vocabulary that would prove unfamiliar to most modern dancers: walking and running in parallel, sweeping airborne ronde de jambs and attitudes, suspending weight and falling with counter-balancing arms. Movements occupy a lot of airspace, but they don’t cover much ground, aside from the aforementioned running. The dancers execute these movements with compelling individual style. Many are established choreographers and teachers in their own right, and their dancing has the feel of a written signature: nuances, short-cuts, and flourishes developed over years of repetition. For example, MacArthur’s movement is clean and linear, folding and unfolding, moving buoyantly forward from the pelvis. Brown’s movement, comparatively, feels like it’s more about heat and momentum, deeply grounded. Over the course of the piece, the dancers each slip off-stage to change from their soft, grayish costumes into brighter hues, only to revert to their original costumes at the end of the performance. The costumes echo the large rolls and squares of felt-like material that are unspooled across the floor and draped over the dancers; gray at first, then brighter colors.
When Miller dances, it feels like a victory lap. So much so, in fact, that the night I visit the show, an audience member yells out “Get it, Bebe,” during her solo to the Commodores’ funk classic “Brick House.” And, in the context of this evening, it seems appropriate. The Making Room so rigorously notes and celebrates the many voices and roles that have worked across time, space, and media to create this performance that the audience feels