April 30, 2013
They Have a History
Choreographers quote themselves all the time, recycling ideas from earlier works and earlier rehearsals, and thus a new dance is often a palimpsest. There are clues to where a choreographer has been, if not outright recognizable references, and an audience witnesses a dance’s history expanding before their eyes. And, just as each new dance represents a new chapter, each performance of that dance is a mini-chapter, and everything that occurs in it is a footnote to the past. This layering is the subject of Bebe Miller’s most recent work, “A History.” Miller, who is in her early sixties, has had a company for more than thirty years and has made many dances. The core of them has been human relationships, enacted in emotionally charged, very physical choreography—fertile ground for a work like “A History.”
For this project, Miller collaborated with her longtime dancers Darrell Jones and Angie Hauser (Jones began working with Miller in 1998, Hauser in 2000). To assist in what Miller has called “an archive of our practice, an incomplete and completely subjective accounting built on ideas, movement, and conversation from the past ten years,” she enlisted another regular collaborator, the playwright Talvin Wilks, to act as dramaturge. In making dances, there is a lot of talking—it’s a process of problem-solving, requiring negotiation and repetition and reliance on all the participants’ memories; for “A History,” Miller and Wilks put together a text from a variety of sources—fragments of rehearsal conversations, personal writings, pieces of literature—which formed a revealing verbal reflection of process and collaboration. But the visual and choreographic elements spoke just as strongly.
At the Kumble Theater, on the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, the set designer Mimi Lien had placed large sheer panels that floated at the sides and the back of the wide stage, through which were visible the raw walls of the theatre, creating a kind of room-within-a-room. A screen hung stage right, and behind it was a large, wooden-topped table. As the piece began, a video played on the screen, of people setting up the table in some other space, and of Hauser and Jones putting on headphones. Onstage, Jones, wearing brown pants and a blue long-sleeved shirt, entered from a cutout doorway in an upstage corner and launched into a wild, loose-limbed solo, a kind of controlled thrashing; beyond the stage-left scrim, Hauser sat in a chair, writing. On the screen, the video had ended, but projected onto it were the words “Darrell Drive”—perhaps a reference to a special gear that Darrell Jones can access in his dancing. Then Hauser, in a purple top and dark-yellow pants, left her chair and danced alone, more gently than Jones, her arms carving the air, her face expressing delighted interest at the volumes she’d discovered. The word “Angie-ness” appeared on the screen. It was like being let in on rehearsal shorthand.
Miller was very clear about what was going on here. Accompanying Hauser and Jones’s first duet, the screen informed us, “They are ‘they’ now,” then, “They have a history.” This was not merely a construct for a dance work, then, but also real life—we were getting artistic and documentary treatment at the same time. And we were getting it on many levels. In addition to the projected text, Jones and Hauser also spoke, often wearing large black headphones, which seemed to cue them in their speech. In the first iteration of this, Jones placed the headphones on Hauser as she sat in a chair that he had brought onstage, and she began talking about waiting for her cue to enter for a dance. As she continued, speaking about “the miniature wood house” that she encountered once she arrived onstage (a reference to Miller’s “Landing/Place,” from 2005), a soft, painterly video of a small house in a field appeared on the screen, first in black-and-white and then changing gradually to color.
Lily Skove’s videos were ravishing accompaniment to the live dancing and speaking, and sometimes were the sources of the text. In one segment, Miller herself stood in the field, at some distance from the camera, and talked about what it’s like to confront what you’ve done before in making something new. “I remember, in that moment, everything,” she said. In black-and-white footage of Jones and Hauser, wearing headphones and lying on a bed, Hauser spoke at length about the “collision of unspoken processes” inherent in dance-making—a clever bit in a work that incorporates text.
As this played, Hauser and Jones hauled the table out from behind the screen, and for the remainder of the dance it provided another kind of stage for the performers, as well as a subject of their conversations. Jones used it as a playground, splashing his body on it, against it, around it, levering himself off its edges and corners; and, in a seated duet, it functioned as a kind of canvas for Hauser and Jones as they painted the table with their sweeping hands and arms. At another point, their headphones on, they engaged in a fragmentary exchange from an earlier discussion about working with a large table—bringing in references to Thomas Adès’s opera “The Tempest” and the Wooster Group’s “I Am Jerome Bel.” Thus, Miller gave us a re-created past conversation about a future dance that ended up being the very thing we were watching. The exchange also introduced the idea that “A History” is as much a play as it is a dance.
Hauser and Jones are tremendous performers. “A History” allowed the audience to bask in their talents, both of them fully committed to every movement. In a beautiful passage, Hauser danced while video of her played on the screen. What Skove had made captured color and movement and angles, but right in front of us was this radiant woman, bringing everything she has ever known about dance to the stage in that moment, then collapsing, spent, on the floor. Standing behind her, his hands on his hips, Jones gathered himself, then took off around the space, running freely, his arms out at his sides. When he stopped, Hauser rested her head on his shoulder, tenderly, then Jones was off again, dancing for us hungrily, as his image from an earlier time played on the screen.
Watching them dance together, a history became clear; their partnering was marked by a sixth sense, which comes not just from rehearsal and repetition but from deep knowledge, when bodies and brains are in synch, and an organic rightness takes hold. When Jones and Hauser lifted one another, it was as though one was suddenly supported by the other, without our seeing, or their understanding, how that came to be. The bond between dancers who have worked together for many years is very strong. The history builds, and, with it, so does the ease of conversing without words, and only with bodies.