Real Bebe

Karen Pearlman interviews New York choreographer Bebe Miller

This being an article for Real Time about Bebe Miller, the name of it on my computer disc is RealBebe. But who or what is the real Bebe? Could such a seemingly easygoing woman as this really be one of America’s foremost, up and coming, exciting and tenacious choreographers? In a scene where blowing your own trumpet is pretty much required, she is known for being self-effacing and in fact, it would appear that she genuinely is.

On the question of how she feels about having been so influential, a simple (or could it be disingenuous?): “Have I been?” On why so many dancers say they want to dance with her (even ones I’ve met here in Australia who haven’t actually seen her work): “Oh, people want to dance like us, but students say that to a lot of people. That’s just a way of expressing curiosity about the world and a longing to try new challenging things.” As of this year, she has virtually a brand new company of dancers. With regard to training them into her work she says: “It’s really more a question of discovering what they do and how best to use it.”

Bebe (how else would I refer to her except by her first name?) is coming to Australia in January in 1995 to teach in Melbourne and Perth. She will be teaching movement primarily, her personal, highly developed code of squiggles on top of swoops, snaps in conjunction with suspensions and balances begun by ricochets. Although she herself has begun to explore more theatrical elements in her work – speaking, working with pro-active designers and with directors – movement is still a fascination for her. She loves to think about movement and to work on “elbows to heels relations” in complex co-ordination that demand speed, ease, fluidity. But for Bebe, the most important factor of learning movement in class is using it to “mine information about what your own body is doing”. She’s not teaching people to “move like me”, but rather using movement phrases as “objectively as possible”. In fact, if there is anything she’d like to be able to impart it is this: “to expand people’s idea of who they can be as dancers in a company and as choreographers.”

But really, what is this self she would like everyone to have the chance to express, to be, and where is hers?

As we’re talking, at the end of her long rehearsing week she starts to slow. She hesitates. She says, “You know what? As we’re sitting here talking I’m getting a rush of ideas.” She’s been troubled in rehearsal by making movement that doesn’t fit or say what she wants it to say. She doesn’t want to give up on all the years of accumulated information about making great movement, but new discoveries make it “unethical” to go backwards.

Right now she is working on a piece called Heaven and Earth about the relationship of the ecstatic to the mundane and finding a balance in the world. Maybe it’s sitting in a cafe overhearing tired New Yorkers’ conversations or seeing yet another headline about OJ Simpson, she “realises that what is missing is what’s outside of the movement. The requiems and gospel music lift it up, but it’s the stuff that’s not up there…”

She is working out her ideas right here in the cafe, as she speaks, and suddenly I start to feel responsible. Like a midwife or a fisherman whose job it is to catch, but not to mutilate with my own opinions and fingerprints. I try to help, to listen actively but not to pressure her as she haltingly articulates that what’s missing is not so much “where do we find exhaltation and peace?”, but “when in peace can we spare a thought for what we’ll make for dinner?”

I want to know how she’ll get from that thought to a dance. “I will look at the elements of the idea. Say I have a beautiful, exotic set and I put the Daily News in front of it. Does it resonate?

Am I narrowing the field? Honing in on the resonators?”

And now I realise that this is “Real” “Classic” Bebe. By making me responsible she makes me part of the work. This is how her dancers must feel, trying to catch, support, and nurture by being responsive, capable themselves, fully present in the process, not intrusive and not absent. For Bebe, being herself is partly a process of making her dancers, students, producers and audiences responsible for being themselves while engaging with the ideas. And partly a process of being responsible for continuing to uncover herself.

After all: “People respond to the humanity of what we dance about, to who we are. The mission for me is to think about how I can expand who I am in the company.” So RealBebe is in the work. Ironically, she remains elusive. “People never actually see the latest work because I’m always on to the next thing by the time it’s performed.”

Wendy and Shelley Lasica in Melbourne are organising Bebe’s visit and have organised visits by other teachers including David Dorfman and Lance Gries from New York and Lloyd Newson and Greg Nash from England. For more information call (03) 820-8620

RealTime issue #3 Oct-Nov 1994 pg. 6

© Karen Pearlman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1994