Tiffany Mills Company
THE FLEA THEATER | SEPTEMBER 12-15, 2018
In 2003, Apple introduced its third generation iPod and with it, a series of silhouetted dancers. Electrified by singles like Aussie band Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” the dancers kick, twirl, and thrash their heads against color-blocked backdrops. During the thirty-second ad, not a single white earbud falls out of place.
Tiffany Mills Company’s Blue Room, which debuted at the Flea Theater this September, seizes on the thrill of a life set to sound. The performance begins with Nik Owens stepping out from the audience, plugging in a pair of headphones (now wireless, of course), pressing play, and jamming out. And for the next fifty minutes, Mills and five other dancers take movement cues from a playlist that shuffles between classical, rock, and diaphanous electronic music from composers Daniel Wohl and Angelica Negron. When one song sputters or skips and another bursts into the space, the dancers’ body language shifts. Throughout, they untangle cables and pass headphones amongst themselves in a series of sonic coronations.
There’s something canny about the energy of Blue Room—the flicker of tension between downbeats. Mills’s dancers alternately ricochet off of each other, proffer waves and kisses, and writhe in isolation. Mute the music, and you have a meditation on what happens when six bodies share a confined space. This experiment suits her dancers well; they can flex with ease, then freeze in place. They slip between everyday gestures and abstract, guttural movements. They are shapeshifters, their personalities as static and wispy as the shadowy figures in an Apple ad.
Mutability enlivens the performance—so why is Blue Room’s choreography, at times, ploddingly concrete? Moments in which the dancers mime spelunking, for instance, or striding down a sidewalk, seem aimless and flat. Whenever the dancers are forced to acknowledge their human forms, they deflate. In one extended instance, Miller pits Jordan Morley—creeping deeper into a plié, weighed down by a pile of wires at his feet—against a sportive Kenneth Olguin and Emily Pope. The duo encircles Morley, coaxing him into swinging his hips and rolling his torso. This devil-on-the-shoulder trope has the potential for high drama and technical finesse—temptation to surrender to the music licks at Morley’s heels. How will his body react?
Mills folds the answer into a sort of reductive, moral tale. Morley succumbs and slinks to the floor alongside his peers, the last dregs of a good time pumped out of them with every breath. As Owens and Mei Yamanaka approach the group, they act out disgust and disappointment—hands on their hips, they reprimand the supine dancers. This tableau resembles a portrait of parents who follow a trail of empty bottles to the basement, where their drowsy high schoolers wave a limp hello. And with it, a moment that had the potential to be charged and electric becomes didactic.
This moment skirts drama, but it captures a central aspect of the performance: there’s a difference between hearing and feeling music—why listen to anything at all if you’re not going to let it shake you to your core? And what of it if you’re judged? This dedication to commitment pervades Blue Room, and there’s something admiringly unapologetic about the performance. The Flea Theater is sparse, and the space between the performers and audiences is one cord-length away. The dancers jump into the performance from the front row of the audience, and the stage doors double as patron entrances. Despite this intimacy, the dancers are fully consumed with their relationships to one another: they trade smiles, frowns, looks of concern and longing without acknowledging the spectators. And though their choreography rarely syncs up, their disparate movements are on the same wavelength. Like in a warm-up exercise at the top of a rehearsal or a children’s game, these six dancers move according to an unspoken set of rules. Each time they steal a glance at one another or reach for an imagined object is a reminder of just how much they have spun out of an empty space.
Blue Room tends to its boundaries, too. Before the house lights dim, the dancers lay blue architectural tape along the perimeter of the stage. In the second half of the performance, they repeatedly rearrange these lines. They use tape to bisect the dance floor. They create gaps in the blue square through which the dancers spill out. They stick tape on the wall and a dancer hovers underneath it, at once looking like a child under a growth chart and a man at a dead end. This redrawing of the stage dovetails with the dancers’ sonic resets—every time an aspect of their ecosystem changes, they evolve.
Mills and her dancers deftly tinker with sound and space; they lean on one another for a moment, then turn their backs to the other bodies in the room. There is dynamism throughout the performance, but for all of its permutations, Blue Room lacks a driving force. Why the music, the tape, the grasping for the literal?
What was once novel about the silhouette Apple ads is now, nearly twenty years later, nostalgic: the slinky white earbuds, the note that devices are Mac and Windows compatible, the featured musicians—Jet, Feist—who careened into prominence through the ads, only to recede into coffee house speakers. And for all that Mills and her dancers do to enliven the stage, Blue Room feels, at times, just as transient.