at the Dance Center of Columbia College, November 5 and 6

Amanda Miller’s dances are pretty/ugly. Her phrases are clear and fresh, her transitions neat, her allusions to ballet clever, and her dancers often give the choreography a pretty balletic finish. On the other hand, sometimes the dancing is rushing and off balance or so casual it’s as if the dancer’s suddenly stopped dancing; sometimes the works are aloof, disjointed, even somewhat smugly alienated. There are certainly other choreographers trying to drag ballet kicking and screaming into the 20th century, but Miller is the only one I’ve seen to integrate it so thoroughly with modern dance. Her talents are considerable: for devising and knitting together unusual phrases, for showing off the work of difficult new composers, for creating painterly stage effects (she often does the lighting, set, and costumes herself). This is in many ways the compleat contemporary choreographer.

So where has she been? For the last dozen years or so Miller, who was brought here by Performing Arts Chicago to open its dejAvant series, has been living and dancing in Europe, mostly Germany. But where she and her seven-member company live now is a bit unclear: the program says, “The art of Amanda Miller has no permanent residence and yet is everywhere at home: Frankfurt, Rotterdam, London, Paris, Zurich, New York, San Francisco.”

Literary quotations included in the program for three of the four works have to do with a sense of home. “One of the central acts is . . . connecting ourselves, however temporarily, with a place on the planet which belongs to us, and to which we belong,” goes the quotation (from novelist Junichiro Tanizaki) for St. Nick, a duet Miller dances with Michael Schumacher. A draped white floor and a white backdrop that leans toward us like a tent create an enclosed, cozy space, and by the end of the piece the dancers are as cozy as two friendly dogs, rolling their butts together, then glancing at each other and walking unceremoniously downstage for a bow.

But they don’t start out that way. When Schumacher first dances, Miller looks as if she wants to help him. He ignores her. And in this occasionally humorous dance their unconventional efforts to partner each other sometimes fail: crossing her arms as he embraces her from behind, she twiddles her hand near her cheek while his hand grapples for and finally catches it. When she suddenly drops forward from the waist, she lifts him on her back as if accidentally. This kind of clowning coexists peacefully with formally beautiful dance: in one of several movements suggesting the jitterbug she runs in front of him and turns, and he pushes her backward on pointe, her legs straddled. Her toe shoes come into play only occasionally, but they give the dance an elegance it wouldn’t otherwise have. Miller is remarkable here: she moves in a blink from controlled, cool “performance” to casual “being,” brushing back her hair, for instance–but whatever she’s doing, she’s fully invested in it.

Arto’s Books is darker but even more beautiful. Here the quote, from T.S. Eliot, is about returning home: “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Set to music by Guus Janssen and danced in stocking feet, often on half toe, this quartet proceeds according to its own formal logic: phrases shift into different floor patterns, dancers shift into and out of unison, and the transitions are so clean and clever they’re imperceptible.

To open the dance, two similar-looking men (Shaun Amyot and Vitor Garcia) and women (Anouk van Dijk and Miller) stand in a line facing the rear wall. (A balletic uniformity of appearance seems the goal, at least in this dance.) In unison they dip both knees, then swing a leg behind them with a big kick while tossing one arm like a windmill, a movement that’s inverted when they perform it facing us. Motions for the arms and hands are mysterious but suggestive: the arms twine upward quickly like vines growing in fast motion; one hand slaps the other, or both flutter before the face like caught birds. The dancers support one another’s falls forward, and in one case a dancer guides another to her place in a line where the rest stand, arms looped decorously around shoulders. The ending, with all four performers crumpled on the floor, looks bleak; but despite the piece’s risky off-balance moves, the feeling throughout is of a classical grace and symmetry.

Both St. Nick and Arto’s Books are little worlds unto themselves, little homes fashioned out of the dancers’ onstage relationships and Miller’s clever way with a phrase. But her newest piece, Night, By Itself, reveals bitter isolation. Here the program quote is from poet Edmond Jabes, an exiled Egyptian Jew: the whole world, he says, is contained in the space cupped by his hand to hold a pen, but it’s a fragile place. Perhaps for most artist-exiles their art is the fragile home they carry with them.

Night, By Itself spreads the entire company out on the stage like chess pieces in a dimly lit moonscape. The commissioned music, “Absinthe” by John Zorn, is moody, not propulsive; and the stage is set with sculptures by Cara Perlman that look like glass but fly up at a touch. The gestures are dark: thoughtfully tapping the insides of the wrists together suggests suicide, walking with the shoulders pulled high makes the dancers look like they think they’re about to be hit. The slight disjointedness and lack of closure that mark the earlier dances almost overwhelm this one.

Night, By Itself isn’t easy to watch, but I don’t think that’s just because it’s bleak. It also lacks the kinetic impulse that propels the other dances, and to my mind the sculptures and the way they’re moved around the stage add nothing. But if this dance is somewhat limp, the final work on the program, Pretty Ugly, set to often-wild music by Peter Scherer and Arto Lindsay, fully made up for its lack of energy. A dance for one woman (Maia Rosal) in red evening gown and four men (Amyot, Bennie Bartels, Rick Kam, and Schumacher) in pants and flowered shirts or vests, Pretty Ugly opens with three guys standing at three corners of the stage playing a game like baseball: each races for the next corner, stopping midway to take a big jump forward, three giant steps back, then slamming ahead again into the base.

The earliest of the four works, Pretty Ugly seems a kind of manifesto. The lone woman remains collected and pretty throughout, but the men engage in so much frenetic movement–including some wildly distracted scratching–that their dancing disintegrates. In one unison section for the men one guy seems to lose his place and drop out, then reenters out of sync; one by one the others join him in his “mistake.” I guess the guys are the ugly part. But we love them just the same, if not more for their energy and distraction.

Pretty Ugly has so much life and is so clever in its borrowings from ballet, from the Irish jig, from ballroom dance that it sweeps you along. And Miller’s dancers perform with an impressive conviction; Rosal is especially compelling in the jigging parts, haughtily precise but wild. The fact is, Miller has fashioned and carries with her a home, as we all do finally, and it’s a good and sturdy one.