Go, Girl! Bebe Miller talking choreography

Rachel Fensham talks with Bebe Miller

Like the best of modern dancers, Bebe Miller watches movement intently. At her Melbourne workshop presented by Dance Works in June this year, the New York choreographer asked the participating dancers to “take the idea of weight being at risk and allow an interruption to happen.” She wants them to avoid the familiarity of their known dance vocabulary, or its beauty. “How does an interruption become a staccato pattern? Why is that dissolving gesture a continuous thought rather than a break with form?” The dancers struggle with these ideas in their improvisations. Katy McDonald has one foot curved under while another foot is flat, then she flips her body over like a tensile cat. Miller responds with a series of strategies to intervene in the phrasing of movement-hair-pulling, visual or aural distraction, speaking in one ear, manipulating body-parts.

Later in conversation, Miller explains this idea of interruption, as both an aesthetic and political act. She is interested in the ‘civilian body’, a body available to the dancer outside her training but which becomes buried in the habit formation of dancing. “It is only when we know that we have habits that we can use them. Why is the habit of ‘light touch’ always about the same temperature and the same weight in relation to the task at hand. If you change that, then what do you feel? Or resist it? And what if you follow through?” This habit change involves utilising the pedestrian to interrupt the codes they have as dancers.

Political dimensions of being seen as dancers with civilian bodies are linked to interruption. “Studio practices have myths about equality and about mood as if you accomplish what you need to within given rules. But I’m not here to make everything equal. Two men together carry a charge, 2 women, black and white – we live in this world where those things are real so I try to let that be visible.”

I ask Miller where choreography is going in the 21st century? “I think we’re in the middle of a 40 year shift and time is not on our side. I feel there is a path towards relevancy. I went to Eritrea in Northern Africa a couple of years ago for 3 weeks. I’m in a foreign environment and I had this sense of them looking at me intently while I’m looking at them intently. They are looking at someone foreign inside something familiar, so we have a different point of view in terms of intensity. What is that about? Is that something that I can capture in dance? As I work on it, it occurs me to that that difference of gaze is political. It shows up in Ohio, it shows up in Pakistan and Palestine. What seemed like a foreign adventure is in fact localised. So the choreography is about how I can use the home environment, not recreate an African experience. It is not just about race, it is about vibrating in a different way. That is the ultimate test of globalism, can you allow that body vibrating differently to be next to you.”

Her voice in class says “go-girl”and “Yeah! Yeah! “and “oh, hello” when she sees an interruption that vibrates. In watching, Bebe Miller shares this potential for dancing to create physical or psychic change even though she does not know where the choreography of civilian bodies might go in the future.

Bebe Miller workshop, Dance Works, Melbourne.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. web

© Rachel Fensham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002