Bebe Miller Company: 'If you stay with it, you find it'
BECKET — Syntax isn't a word you hear much outside of English class. And, aside from in some literacy circles, talking about sentence structure is more likely to spawn a yawn than excitement, let alone movement.
But the syntax of three literary figures — Gertrude Stein, Toni Morrison and David Foster Wallace — is inspiring Bebe Miller Company's latest dance, "In a Rhythm." Miller, six other dancers and a production crew worked on the piece while they were in residence at Jacob's Pillow Dance for just over a week at the beginning of November (Nov. 4-12, though most dancers arrived on Nov. 5). The company's residency is one of 12 at Jacob's Pillow this season.
"This isn't a piece about Wallace or Morrison or Stein it's just — it really informed me," Miller said during a lunch break on a frigid Friday inside Doris Duke Theatre, coats stacked on seats.
The company, which was formed in 1985 as a touring group based in New York City but now consists of dancers from around the U.S., will premiere "In a Rhythm" on Nov. 30 at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Venues in Seattle and Chicago will also host performances in 2018. Before arriving in Becket, the company had last worked on the dance during a residency at the Wexner Center in July.
"We want to leave here knowing what the shape of the piece is from beginning to end, which we kind of had a sense of, although I made some major changes from the last time we did it," Miller said, noting that she had to replace dancer Darrell Jones (tending to a personal matter) with Christal Brown.
The idea for the dance came when Miller read Astrid Lorange's "How Reading is Written: A Brief Index to Gertrude Stein." She began drawing parallels between her work and Stein's prose and verse. Miller said that while some describe the famous author's language structure as "opaque," she feels that portrayal is imprecise.
"It's not meant to obscure meaning, but ... if you stay with it, you find it. And I thought, 'Oh, that's just what dance does. If you stay with it, you find it,'" the choreographer recalled.
Miller was also reading some of Wallace's work around that time.
"He had a way of shaping information and capturing a very contemporary voice and slaying you if he wanted to or if the story wanted to," she said. The way Wallace ordered meaning struck her. "I kind of went, 'Oh, we order meaning, too.' We have a syntax in movement, if not in the phrase itself. ... Over the course of [our] work, meaningfulness is delivered," she said.
An avid reader, Miller mixed in some Morrison, too.
"You get who she's talking through, and it's their story without having to say these are black people or white people. ... It's in the matter itself," she said.
With two days remaining in residence at Jacob's Pillow, the group was close to meeting Miller's initial goal, but still working through, fittingly, the dance's order. Miller was also honing the dancers' positioning and technique. At one point in the black box theater, three dancers moved downstage-right, their bodies perpendicular to the bleachers and their elbows occasionally pulled up and behind them.
"Christal, drop the arm before you get there," Miller called to Brown during one sequence.
A gray rug was rolled diagonally across the stage. The only male dancer, Trebien Pollard, wore a piece of the same material around his neck, a hole for his head cut out.
"There was a certain point where you could've walked forward sooner," Miller told him later.
The dancers also worked on a section that involved each taking a solo turn. "Brick House" by The Commodores resounded for part of this period. "Country Grammar" by Nelly and other background music had played earlier. Valerie Oliveiro was controlling the tunes from behind a white events table in the front row. She was one of nine people in the stands watching the proceedings, including production and lighting designer Stan Pressner and members of Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts, a nonprofit sponsoring the residency.
These visiting stints at performing arts centers are a vital part of Miller's methodology. She said they offer opportunities for dancers to rehearse set parts while improvising, as well. Production staff members get to tinker with music, lighting and costumes. And the choreographer gets to work with dancers whom she may know, but have never instructed. Camaraderie is key.
"I cooked a frittata in Derby House [for the dancers]," Miller said of one example during this residency.
Building chemistry is more challenging when residencies are in major metropolitan areas, such as New York City, where dancers may battle public transportation and leave for restaurant jobs at night.
"Wedged in is very different than lived in," Miller said.
Before the residency began, Miller gave her six fellow dancers homework. They were to read Wallace's "Incarnations of Burned Child" and "Forever Overhead." The texts' subject matter wasn't influential, but Wallace's syntax was, according to dancer Angie Hauser.
"It's an underpinning," said Hauser, the chair of the department of dance at Smith College and a member of Bebe Miller Company for 17 years.
Miller was pleased with how her group had handled their assignment — and the week.
"I think we'll be ready [for the premiere]," she said.
Hauser was more holistic.
"Sometimes, I think of the performance as just one day in the process," she said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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