BEBE MILLER COMPANY
Landing/Place (in progress)
Nov 2425, 2003 / Sullivant Theatre / Columbus, Ohio
Review by EDWARD LUNA
Bebe Miller's work has long been characterized by its intimacy; a human element that is often lacking in the cool or cacophonous aesthetics of the postmodern dance era. Longtime fans may therefore be surprised by her company's latest work-in-progress, entitled Landing/Place, which makes use of some of the same technologies that have lent postmodern dance its air of ironic detachment and conceptual messiness.
Conceived in collaboration with The Ohio State Universities Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD), the piece uses as its launching pad a trip Miller took to the African country of Eritrea, on the Horn of Africa. Beginning with an evocation of the trip in an onstage monologue by Miller herself, the piece then gives in to a more internal dynamic. A wooden birdhouse is visible in the center of the stage, placed on a short wooden pedestal. On the right of the stage, a laptop and other electronic gear is seen, sleeping. On the front of the stage, just to the left of center, hangs a long, obtrusive rectangular screen which is semi-opaque. Throughout the piece, this screen is used to project a number of images based on data which was captured from Miller and her dancers. Other, more cinematic images are seen in a smaller projection on the right section of the stage's back wall.
Amid this array of distractions, a dance piece takes shape. A brief description of the first several minutes of the piece will serve to illustrate the many directions the piece wants to go.
Miller's monologue consists of some thoughts gathered from her Eritrean journal, relating a story about trying to find a certain place. Her delivery is carefully paced, but sometimes difficult to hear. It seems that the strict meaning of the words is less important than her presence, much like the effect of an "establishing shot" in film: creating a time and space and emotional dimension to the piece.
After her departure stage left, Angie Hauser, a fair-skinned redhead, scurries out to the birdhouse set on the center stage floor. Clad in black dress and red sweater, she crouches and guards the birdhouse possessively. Darrell Jones, a slightly built, light-skinned black dancer, soon joins her. They perform a sort of nervous courtship during which he takes off her sweater. She appears to be hesitant, but eventually gives in. Meanwhile, the first of many sparse projections is seen on the large front screen, consisting of a field of shivering dots that we eventually come to see as a human shape.
The musician, Albert Mathias, comes onstage, wearing black. He sits at the laptop and begins playing a subtle droning sound. Eventually, Mathias cues a distorted text of an arrogant woman discussing her experiences in mistranslation. This gives way to another text, spoken in German.
Soon, the duo is joined by a blonde-haired Kathleen Hermesdorf, who enters quickly, executing sharp, off-balanced movements. Longtime company member David Thompson also joins, moving more smoothly and sequentially while clad in a striped shirt (making him look somewhat like a sailor or caricature).
The four dancers nestle hips together in a single clump and then lunge forwards and backwards repetitively, in a motif which will be seen throughout the piece. Near the end of their "step dance," the fifth and final dancer, dark-haired Kathleen Fisher, enters dramatically from the right. After performing her entering phrase, the other group stepping disputes, forcing her to do the shuffle on her own.
The projections are mostly discreet, and often appear independent of the dance. On the large, long front screen are the images built by animator Vita Berezina-Blackburn from ACCAD's motion-capture data. What at first may appear to be stars or motes of dust hovering in front of the scene, occasionally come together into human-like shapes made of dots. While these "dot people" are a familiar image to anyone versed in the motion-capture process (where dancers wear ping-pong-like markers that assist in transferring movement data into the computer), we may wonder if what we are looking at is a human body at all. With the help of Marlon Barrios-Solano, the figures are manipulated in various ways. Sometimes, they are viewed from above and below. At other times they are stretched, distorted, and blurred into impossible shapes. Most hauntingly, the dots are sometimes replaced by other data. Near the end of the piece, for example, the dots become profiles of birds in flight, making a human outline appear to be a formation of migrating birds. In another moment, a projection of birdhouses swaying slightly on the tops of long poles is later revealed to be based on the captured data of dancers simply standing and shifting their weight.
The back projections, designed by Maya Ciarrocci, consist mostly of images of people, including recurring images of black girls and street scenes which fade in and out subtly.
Mathias' music veers from atmospheric to highly rhythmic, and the score is peppered with longer sections of recorded music. A long "lemon eating" section is performed to an unidentified piece of popular World music. In another, Mathias samples the melancholy opening chord from Radiohead's "Pyramid Song." His integration into the piece is welcome and surprising. Sometimes he remains on the periphery; other times he joins the dancers in movement. He does not always appear comfortable in his movement, in part because he is dressed too much like a backstage crewmember (perhaps a subtle color or costume element would help) but the fact that he appears "up to" the challenge is interesting.
Another notable element (already alluded to) includes the use of lemons. In one early section, Hauser discolored a handful of lemons buried under the birdhouse. She defiantly chops them up and hands them to the rest of the dancers, who gleefully suck on the slices while shimmering their hips back and forth. Later, the pedestal upon which the birdhouse rests is lifted, to reveal another dozen lemons. The final image of the piece, in fact, involve Darell Jones sitting next to Mathias and casually rolling the lemons onto the stage as the lights slowly fade down to black.
What does the Landing/Place add up to at this point? Clearly, it is difficult to discuss a "work in progress," but there are a number of obvious concerns being dealt with here. For one, like the subject of her last two major works, Going to the Wall (1998) and Verge (2001), human relationships are of central importance. There are a number of sections that deal with the relationships between dancers, and unlike a great deal of postmodern dance works, these relationships are unmistakably human, not merely ironic, formal, or spatial. Miller's employment of Talvin Wilks as dramaturg is an indication that there is some kind of narrative being worked out here, but at this point it is difficult to understand what that might be. Unlike Verge, we have no text to help us along.
Also, the dancers often appear to relate to the (non-computerized) video projections; connoting loss, the passage of time, foreignness, and distance. Their relation to the motion-capture projections are less clear, however, as the sheer size and placement of the projections tends to dwarf the dancers, despite their relative sparseness. Perhaps Miller is trying to articulate something about the "loss" of information inherent to the motion-capture process, where only a limited number of articulations may be transferred to the computer.
Overall, the piece seems a little too "sectional," and unclear about its own choreographic "throughline." There is a familial vibe between the dancers, but too often they are cornered by the choreographer into isolationist landscapes. One such moment involves Hermesdorf standing behind the front screen, with stark Gary lighting and projections of water on both screens. Yet we do not given much indication of why she is "left" here so alone, and how the rest of her "family" might relate to this isolation.
The set also deserves some attention. There are many moments when there appears to be too much going on. This in and of itself is not a problem, as it asks viewers to develop a wider field of vision. However, this is difficult when we are faced with a very obtrusive screen with technological images being projected on it. It remains sadly true that given the choice between the familiar (a televised image) and the unfamiliar (a composed body moving through space), the audience's eye is often drawn to the same old, projected stuff.
An interesting side effect of this screen, however, is that images are often doubled or even tripled, as the screen is just opaque enough to be seen, not only on the back wall behind the screen, but also on the dancers' bodies. Perhaps there is a way to integrate this "accident" into the piece, thereby integrating the large screen as well.
There is no doubt that Miller's latest is already an ambitious, impressive work with something to say. It remains to be seen what precisely it is trying to say. At the very least, Miller seems happy to be playing with so much material, which spills off the stage both confidently and awkwardly. With its many crisscrossing concerns for humanity, togetherness, loss, isolation, embodiment, disembodiment, technology, travel, taste, and time, something intriguing and enriching is well on the way to reaching fruition.