Nationally renowned, Columbus-based dance artist Bebe Miller is the creator of more than 50 works and the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including four New York Dance & Performance (“Bessie”) Awards, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, and many others. A Distinguished Professor of Dance at Ohio State from 2000–2016, she was recently called “The Pathfinder” among black women postmodern choreographers by Dance Magazine. On Thursday, Miller premieres her latest work in the Performance Space, supported by a Wexner Center Artist Residency Award. She sat down a few weeks before its opening to describe how the work evolved—and how she evolved with it.
It started with “let’s make something,’” says Bebe Miller, “let’s go into the studio and see what comes up.” That was nearly two years ago, when Miller reached out to Philadelphia-based choreographer Susan Rethorst, proposing that the two of them explore the creative process together. Thus began an exchange that, for Miller, gave birth to her newest work and Artist Residency Award project, a suite of dances called In a Rhythm.
How she arrived at the final piece seems nothing short of miraculous: Miller and her seven collaborators were geographically dispersed. Most of them she had never worked with before. And, during the year-and-a-half process to make the dance—including a two-week residency at the Wexner Center in July—they met in person only a few times, seldom all together, and usually for mere days.
“Initially I thought, ‘How are we going to do this?’” Miller says. “Everyone was everywhere. There was no place.”
Video links via email helped. But to make this “virtual” dance-making endeavor work, Miller says she shifted her choreographic approach. She’d used improvisation for years in creating dances, but for In a Rhythm, she relied on it more than ever: “I decided to let the improvisational skills and practice of the dancers move the work forward. It changed things a lot, so that working three weeks, and then not working for five months, you could actually get stuff done.”
And then there was the interaction with Rethorst, drawn from their overarching creative experiment called The Making Room. In the studio together, Miller's style—her penchant for questioning and pondering—bumped up against Rethorst’s decisiveness. “I’d be asking myself ‘What is this? What is that feeling? What’s the difference between one elbow and the other’ … That’s kind of what I do.” But not Rethorst. “She’d say, ‘You do this, then you do this,’” Miller recalls. “And I thought, ‘Whoa. Well, why don’t I try this on Sue?’” The next time she met with her dancers, they developed “set” material within three days.
Other influences were at play, as well. As In a Rhythm took shape, Miller became intrigued with the work of author David Foster Wallace, particularly his harrowing short story “Incarnations of Burned Children” about a small child’s experience being scalded by boiling water. The piece is written in a flurry of words that brings that horrifying experience to life in real time. “When you find a writer like that, my first question is, ‘How does he do that? What is his syntax? What is the shape of his language?” she says. “The building blocks of his language made me think of the syntactical building blocks of our dance language. What’s next to what?”
When Miller and dancers arrived at the Wex in July, there was a sense that they had found a landing place. Their full days together felt like luxury, and they used them to get things in order. “We gathered all the things we had been working on disparately, apart from each other, and with each other, from the year before,” Miller says. They came up with an order for things—a syntax—that made sense. “It’s a huge thing to work in the space where you’ll be performing … This is the floor. This is the lighting. This is where we’re going to be.”
And, critically, it was at the Wex that they found a title for the piece—In a Rhythm—a line from a Foster Wallace work that writer Zadie Smith had evoked in a tribute to him after his death. The line made sense to Miller: “I am looking at things in a rhythm, in time,” she says.
At performances this weekend, audiences will indeed experience different rhythms. There are seven bits of music, from the funk of the Commodores to the soulful growl of Leonard Cohen; there is text and video and digital media (you’ll even hear the sound of Toni Morrison’s voice). But most delicious is the feast that is Miller’s distinct movement vocabulary—her attunement to weight, and to the exploration of bodies in motion—how they move alone and how they move together.
Don’t bother looking for story, or even meaning. Instead, tune in to “that pause between two people just before something else happens, the way it feels like they know something about each other,” Miller says. Look for subtleties, like how two bent arms might be held tightly but give way to hands that are free.
Back in the day, Miller says, she choreographed every step. But not now: “I’m interested in laying out a map that we all can follow,” she says, “and then I leave it up to [the dancers].” And there are things in In a Rhythm that she hasn’t ever done before, requiring even a veteran choreographer to go in new and sometimes unrecognizable directions.
“I find myself asking ‘What is that?’” she says. “I think ‘What is that?’ is a really great question.”
Before the performance, audiences are invited to stop by Miller’s video installation (playing immediately outside the black box) titled Moments of Looking: Seeing Inside Dancing, which sheds light on her history of making work. For more on the creative process between Miller and Rethorst, visit The Making Room, an online portal that documents their interaction with video, audio, text, and photography.