Lush and Profound: A response by J’Sun Howard

A response to Bebe Miller’s “In a Rhythm”

April 5-7, 2018 at the Dance Center of Columbia College

Choreography and Direction by Bebe Miller

Dance Artists: Michelle Boulé, Christal Brown, Sarah Gamblin, Angie Hauser, Bronwen MacArthur, Bebe Miller, Trebien Pollard

Production/Lighting Design: Stan Pressner

Costume Design: Liz Prince

image by Robert Altman

********************

Before I went to see Bebe Miller’s “In A Rhythm,” I toured through the digital portal The Making Room to see what insight I would glean from the creative process for it. I didn’t know what to expect. It has a wealth of information for anyone who wants to know not only how a dance is made, but how to think about dance. Going through the portal, I kept thinking that these mini dances are a part of a larger constellation that makes up the syntax of “In A Rhythm.” Each with its own set of rules with its own meaning to make up a larger meaning, new meaning. Simple enough, right? But making anything legible is difficult.

I’m a Haruki Murakami fan and his short story “Burning Barns” is being adapted into a film by South Korean director Lee Chang-dong. In the story, the main character who’s a writer fails to miss syntactical clues given by the antagonist that “burning barns” is his way of killing women. So, the antagonist gets away another murder. I mention this because we are given language in situations that can lead us to danger, safety, or essentially ones that put us where we’re unable to communicate what hurts us. I haven’t read Wallace’s “Incarnations of Children, but I know the story deals with that notion. Juxtaposed with Toni Morrison’s literary canon, the death of Emmett Till, and other anecdotes Miller shared throughout the performance, I discovered a thread—a rhythm, if you will—that forces one to deal with the harrow-ness and beauty of our dystopian times. A rhythm that has to keep pulsating and ever change if we are to do something with our existence.

I went to Bates Dance Festival in 2013. I took Miller’s Creative Process class and I’m still thinking and implementing what I’ve learned from it into my own artistic practice. For one of the classes, we had to create a beginning and ending for a dance. The failure was not thinking that a beginning and ending can happen at any moment in the dance. I tried to make a beginning sequence that pushed my classmates to a confused state of dizziness. But that has a beginning and ending within itself. So, what’s a beginning and ending? When Miller opened the performance of “In A Rhythm” by introducing the performers — Michelle Boulé, Christal Brown, Sarah Gamblin, Angie Hauser, Bronwen MacArthur, and Trebien Pollard — and ended the performance by saying “I think I’ll end this,” I discerned that what evolved and will continue to evolve doesn’t necessarily require immediate presence. Like knowing a plant needs to be watered, but also knowing it can go on a few more days by taking in extra sunlight. Little details like these make the syntactical nature of things lush and profound.

As the performers evaporated from stillness to fluidity of movement to being alone, coupled, tripled, or quadrupled, I really didn’t feel involved with the movement until there was a semi-circle and the performers kept slipping in and out of it from being initiated by another performer. I wanted it to build and extend beyond its brevity. Even though brevity keeps syntax alive and fresh; there is still more to unveil when brevity is redone and redone. The “telling” unfolds in a way that allows me to be active in my viewing. In the digital platform In Terms of Performance, a keywords anthology designed to provoke discovery across artistic disciplines, Miller writes about virtuosity and how her long-time collaborators Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones have their “-ness” and “drive”. And about how honing one’s you-ness is virtuosic. There was virtuosity and exquisite dancing throughout “In A Rhythm,” but slipping in and out that particular improvisational score lacked the “-ness” and “drive” from the performers. If Miller is showing the “tell,” here was the opportunity to let exaggeration and idiosyncrasy be an additional dimension to the “tell.”

I love a good duet. And the suite of dueting in “In A Rhythm” had a perfect sense about them. The most astonishing one was with Trebien Pollard and Christal Brown to “Country Grammar” by Nelly and the interview between Toni Morrison and Charlie Rose. Although chair dances are super cliché, Miller was able to reinvent it with charm and wit. I was instantly reminded that kiking is a form of love. And that in kiking, a good “tell” hits just about every range of emotion.

A memory of my dad surfaced. We were driving somewhere, Ace Hood’s “Bugatti” came on. My dad blasted the radio as loud as it could go. I asked him what he knew about that song. He replied, “what you know about it?” I laughed. And we rode on basking in the bass a southern day can hold. One of a few good memories I have with him.

This is one of a million things I carry with me, which is a main point in “In A Rhythm.” Miller explained, “Everything is here. Everything is available. What’s left is choice.” Meaning we have all the material we need and how we employ its syntax is up for us to resolve as best we can.

I deeply missed Darrell Jones in this performance. I was curious how Miller would treat the duet between him and Michelle Boulé. Boulé performed it as a solo, very very beautifully. I saw Boulé last perform her solo “WONDER” at Links Hall. I wasn’t impressed and I was disappointed that I even attended. But Boulé performing this redeemed everything for me. The subtle preciousness of the movement modality was powerful against Donny Hathaway’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.” In The Making Room, Miller says that Hathaway’s song is one that has stuck with her and tried to use it in other dances. But felt “In A Rhythm” was the right time to use it. Aaliyah’s “One in A Million” is that song for me. Therefore, syntax is also how you keep something sacred for yourself and knowing when it’s right time to reveal the magic in that scared thing.

As I’m continuing to think about syntax, I was put off by the fact that there wasn’t more women of color in this ensemble. Made it less legible. Since a lot of the aforementioned references had been centered on race, there is a lot of syntactical history, information and poetics missing. Even if I’m staying with the dance, what am I truly finding? What tone is this? How precise is this? There was a striking moment between Christal Brown and Sarah Gamblin where Brown clutched Gamblin’s throat that didn’t segue into anything serious or heroic. It should’ve dared more. Why not take the breath away?

There’s rigor and brilliance in Miller’s “In A Rhythm” that left me wanting more. Maybe it’s time for me to head back to the Making Room to prod through this big generous effort. I tried use what’s available to me to write something meaningful about Miller’s work. However, I’m not sure if it aids in unpacking “In A Rhythm” for you. What I do know is that the syntax of movement is the poetry of what is here now, what will be left, and of the tomorrows. Of us.

********************

J’Sun Howard is a PRJ Guest Editor.