at the Dance Center of Columbia College

March 8-10

Bebe Miller’s position as an African American choreographer of modern dance is far from assured, despite her company’s appearance in the Dance Center’s series on the African American tradition in modern dance. She doesn’t deal overtly with the black cultural experience, doesn’t draw particularly on Afro-Caribbean dance traditions. But she does her own distinctive work, and that should be sufficient. To paraphrase Henry James: the house of dance has not one window, but a million. Bebe Miller has a fine prospect from hers.

Miller works in what some now call the post-postmodern tradition–movement is tied, sometimes in obscure ways, to emotion but not to narrative. Other young choreographers also cited as practitioners of this art include Stephanie Skura and Stephen Petronio (both white) and Ralph Lemon (black). But Miller asks of her dancers a higher degree of precision than is common among these choreographers, so that the way a foot flicks or kneads the floor is not lost on us. Miller shows a greater interest in emotional issues than Skura, but her approach is more analytical than Lemon’s. Rather than try to produce emotion, she seems to trace with a delicate, thoughtful finger its formal lines, almost experimentally. If we do this, she seems to say, perhaps the feeling produced will be that.

All three works on the Dance Center program are from 1989. Miller danced Rain, a curious solo featuring a large patch of sod. Rain appears to be a fertility dance–the dancer’s legs are often spread, and sometimes she peers between them as if wondering what she’s giving birth to. But oddly, she dances only rarely on the grass. Starting at a distance from it, she approaches the sod slowly, meticulously, and with undulating steps, places half her foot on it, then moves away again quickly. Later she runs hard and carelessly over the grass–but just once. Eventually she lies on it and rolls her face in it, but then she tumbles away. At the end only one foot remains on the sod, its bare sole turned toward us. Her contacts with this patch of nature are spare but laden.

Rain shows a rich, subtle sense of texture. It relies on the viewer’s tactile and kinesthetic imagination: we must juxtapose, for example, the sensations of running barefoot over grass and over a hard floor. Even the dancer’s costume–velvet, in a deep shade of red–offers a chromatic and textural contrast with the grass. The music, Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5, gives us a woman’s voice in a silky, ribbonlike flow. Rain seems a womanly dance, and we come away from it feeling that Miller is a womanly dancer, with stamina and delicacy.

Allies and Thick Sleep both examine how human connections are made and broken, but Allies in a serious and Thick Sleep in a comic vein. Thick Sleep looks at the strange logic of dreams, where people shift identities, come together and part, in ways that seem both inexorable and ludicrous. The colorful costumes, by Amy Downs, mingle the circus and the bordello; the original music, by Lenny Pickett, evokes a carnival.

The dancing is anything but thick: movements are quick and light and seem almost accidental. One movement may follow another with a certain physical logic, but the emotional logic remains dark. A dancer seats herself, for example, on the rump of a crouching dancer; he stands up, and she slides off. But though his sudden move has given her a little extra impetus, she walks away unfazed. Leaps and catches seem to take the dancers themselves by surprise. They mime feats possible only in dreams: a dancer “retrieves” her breasts after they seem to fly off; one dancer “removes” another’s face, and she snatches it back; dancers seem to pull long strings from their navels like yarn from a skein.

Thick Sleep becomes more dramatic as it goes on, but the drama is obscure. Two dancers observing a third open their mouths in big Os–is it in horror, or wild amusement? A man shows two women something he’s carrying on the platter of his two palms; they collapse from the waist in disgust. People turn away from one another with that mysterious sense of shame we have in dreams, and antagonistic groups form in dreamland parodies of the rival gangs in West Side Story. The music signals a point of high drama, but the dancer who’s center stage seems to have forgotten why the moment is crucial. The audience is apt to feel too that we’re chasing after a meaning that just eludes us.

Thick Sleep is phantasmagorical, but Allies strongly suggests that our waking life is in the same state of flux. Once again human relations are the subject, but the connections seem consciously made. As the dancers form and dissolve one physical alliance after another, we’re made aware of our desperation to establish friends, lovers, our place in a group. The rules in this game are so elaborate and yet mundane that they’re difficult to see–unless an unusual insistence forces us to look.

Allies opens with the dancers entering one by one and exchanging tense stares. Some principle of attraction and repulsion seems at work, for one man might draw the three women, and a second scatter them. Suddenly the music begins, the light changes, and all six start dancing. The shift from burdened looks, naturalistic gestures, and isolated phrases to “pure” dance is a relief–it almost seems Miller has intended an escape from emotion. But then she takes apart the dance conventions we take for granted, showing us that they’re not only formal devices but have emotional consequences.

Partnering, for instance, establishes emotional connection. In Allies a dancer sometimes forces an alliance with another by falling, leaping, or hanging from that other–by requiring support. Unison movement similarly creates, often abruptly, a sense that the dancers are in sympathy, maybe because there’s a natural impulse to mimic those one loves. Even something as basic as the use of floor space can establish or dissolve relationship. We tend to assume, for example, that dancers who are physically clustered also have an emotional solidarity. Conversely a dancer isolated in space appears an emotional free agent–a wild card, with a distinct potential to disrupt. Even extending an arm into space, isolating the limb, may signal the dancer’s readiness for a new alliance. However, physical proximity can also destroy connection. In one case two dancers attempting to embrace instead repulse one another, their heads and arms flung back violently.

The principles of alliance may be abstract, but the alliances themselves are not. Each connection, however fleeting, has its own character. A woman is embraced by a man who, in wrapping his arms around her, covers her face with a forearm, and it looks cruel. Moments later she walks away with a different man, and their arms around each other’s waists express an easy equality. The one extended duet, for a man and woman, establishes an eccentric but tender relation: the man holds the woman jackknifed, her head down, and rests his cheek on her bottom.

Miller’s false steps–for instance, a dancer drawing a finger coyly, tritely down another’s arm–are few. Her dancers–Elizabeth Caron, Nikki Castro, Renee Lemieux, Scott Smith, Earnie Stevenson, and Jeremy Weichsel–reiterate her blend of mercurial substance. They’re not her clones, but they’re of a companionable size, shape, and manner. Their sense of community and the sure touches of Miller’s choreography make you feel you’d like to have this strong, good-natured, levelheaded woman for a friend. But in lieu of that, go see her dances.