Daily Stream: Bebe Miller dances at home

Mary Abowd, Associate Editor

May 19, 2020

Dancer and choreographer Bebe Miller performs a movement work in her home, captured on a phone attached to her foot, which turns the view of the room sideways

Enjoy a new work from home and Q&A with the past Wex Artist Residency Award recipient and founder of the acclaimed Bebe Miller Company.

Even after the coronavirus drove us into quarantine, Bebe Miller, a Professor Emerita in the Department of Dance at Ohio State, has continued to make—and think about—art. Her short dance film Buffalo Plaid, created during the stay-at-home period, is the result of a class Miller took this past semester, in retirement, with dance department colleague and longtime friend Mitchell Rose

Named for the shirt she was wearing that morning (because who feels like changing clothes these days?), the two-minute piece is a response to Rose’s prompt to his students who were suddenly forced home mid-semester: attach a camera to your body and make a “selfie movie.” 

“I think this is a great time to be curious and to find ways of expressing that and sharing that,” Miller says. “I think this is a time to work for our humanity.” 

Watch Buffalo Plaid on Vimeo.

Below is an edited conversation with Miller about “making” at home in a time of Covid-19 and her hopes despite our uncertain future. 

"My homebound dancing mostly takes place lying on my living room rug listening to music."

The making of Buffalo Plaid came at such a disturbing and disruptive moment. Both teachers and students had to adapt pretty quickly. 

After spring break, things changed radically. Suddenly, we were indoors. We had started out the class [Dance Film I] with access to equipment, like a tripod, but for many students that was no longer available. Mitchell’s thought was, well, pretty much everybody at home has a camera because they have a phone.

What did you do with his “make a selfie” prompt? 

I put the camera in my lap. I put it on my foot. I carried it. I looked at it. I talked to it. I’m loving the shift from the body to the image, where timing, dynamics, sound, all of that, is still involved. This is where my creative energy is going right now. 

What about the different objects you used in the film—the plaid shirt, the flying rope, views of your home space. Were those intentional or random? 

The plaid shirt would be the one that I was wearing that morning. The piece was due that day, and I went, like, “eh.” My husband is a sailor and we had a box of rope from his boat. I saw the rope and thought, OK, this is not an object that I normally deal with, so what can this do? Looking up at my kitchen ceiling, I discovered a whole constellation of information I hadn’t noticed before. It was really delightful. The film was shot in 20 minutes, then I spent two hours editing it. 

The hands of dancer and choreographer Bebe Miller holding a thick, loose piece of rope

Talk about the shift from dance to film. 

Something I’ve really taken away from this course and from Mitchell is that film has its own logic, which is different than dance logic. We’ve worked together in the past, but now I’m doing the shooting. I don’t have sound in mind (which is pretty much the same as how I work as a choreographer). I don’t have a screenplay. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like. And so, in Buffalo Plaid I’m looking at the camera—the audience—but with no sense of what the totality is going to be. What comes together in editing is similar to what comes together in editing in choreography, in terms of sensing what comes next. The biggest difference is that the video segments have all been filmed, and the “film logic," the order and tone I see in these bits of completed actions, happens in the editing. I’m sitting in front of my computer rather than responding to something that’s happening in front of me. With choreography there’s a liveness to what our input is, how the dancers and I are responding to each other, and what I’m noticing on a given day, how I’m reading the weight of a gesture or the tone of relationship. With both, I’m following a timeline or following a dynamic or sensing what might come next, but the tools feel very different with film. I’m responding to something that, once it’s complete, will remain what it is, every time I see it, its “logic” intact, for better or worse. 

It’s interesting to hear that you can be holed up at home and still feel like you have everything you need to create something.

Yeah, and I have to say I feel so incredibly fortunate because there are so many people who are holed up at home in danger, without enough resources. The luxury, the freedom, to imagine and be safe is huge. And, yes, I’ve learned that we have so much right here. Lesson as a teacher, lesson as a choreographer, lesson as a maker: we have so many tools available to us. It’s up to us how we choose to put them together. It’s all here, including our memory of things, our memory of a piece of music and how that made us feel, our memory of something we’ve seen before. I think in this time we are reflecting backward as well as forward into our future. 

What would you say your biggest challenge has been these days? 

This is my dance-artist citizen speaking. The biggest challenge is coming to terms with what we’re all faced with globally, and that it’s personal. It’s deeply personal because we’re connected humans. There are great days in and amongst that. I’m cooking, I’m sewing, I’m getting a lot of stuff done, but there’s something about coming to terms with the balance of our daily-ness, which includes something that we have no experience with. It’s kind of amazing—and sobering. I know we’re all learning from this; I just don’t know what the result is yet. 

What’s giving you joy in the midst of it all?

Friends and connections are giving me joy. There are a lot of my old friends who are coming into view, suddenly. And, actually, a friend did pass away recently (Nancy Stark Smith, one of the founders of Contact Improvisation, who died May 1), and a number of us got together on Zoom to have our own memorial. So just that, the remarkable presence of all these people that I care about and know and have not seen…Someone mentioned that Nancy has been ‘taken out of her future.’ She is gone from future in a way that was not expected, and I’m just kind of hearing that in relationship to so many things about how our daily lives are moving forward. Our future is not what we anticipated. We’re all taken out of the future that we had imagined, and here we are trying to figure out what to do with it. 

Are you engaged with other dancers, doing choreography remotely?

I’m in a planning process with my dear friend and collaborator Angie Hauser in a project we’re calling "Solo/Duo Dancing" that will be choreographic, mentoring other choreographers, both emerging and older dance artists, both here in Columbus and maybe in other locales. So, for me, it’s looking at what can I capture and articulate of our past creative practice in order to pass it on to someone else. Rather than thinking of that as a particular piece of choreography, it’s more of an approach and a means of being in relationship. So, we are generating, we aren’t just practicing. But we are generating a practice, if that makes sense. Right now, this is what I have available. The work doesn’t stop, the thinking doesn’t stop. The mode changes. 

What do you envision for the project—once we’re able to gather in person again? 

On a simple level, what we envision is being in a room with maybe four, maybe six, dance artists who have come together with their own sense of process and practice and that there is an opportunity for me to organize the exchange of information coming from our practice and share it with others who might incorporate it into their own practice. So, being in a room with creative people is the big gift at the center. There will be new work that will be created out of it. But I am stepping away from having the Bebe Miller Company make it. It’s almost like new work that is generated with these other artists and passed on to them to do with as they like. 

Do you get outdoors much? What are you noticing about how people are moving through public space? 

I get out every day for walks. I’ve noticed a difference particularly in the last couple of weeks in folks’ physical attitude while outdoors. I feel we’ve cooled a bit in our need to recognize each other. And now, when we see people without masks, we hold back more than we did. There’s a sheen of taking care of ourselves that has a physical shape to it. How we hold our bodies. There’s more of a tendency to turn away to avoid ‘virus spew.’ Combined with not seeing smiles, there’s less of a ‘we’re in this together’ vibe, more of a soldiering onward, alone, attitude. That said, we go over to Park of Roses fairly often. There are people out picnicking, there are dogs, there are bicycles. The need to live. You know, spring! This is what we’ve been waiting for. The chance to be outside, the chance to gather, even at a distance, is still dear to us.