For 20 years black choreographer Bebe Miller has worked in the mostly white world of postmodern dance. The division between that world and the realm of black companies and choreographers is even geographic—downtown versus up town: Downtown dancers tend to equate “uptown” with techniques associated with “black” dance, and with established black companies north of 59th Street.
Miller’s latest work, Going to the Wall, confronts the race issue, asking us what we think about who we are or who our friends are. Along with Miller’s first solo in 10 years, it receives its New York premiere at the Joyce on May 11.
“I felt it was time to talk about being a black choreographer with a mostly white company,” Miller explains. “During performances at a black choreographers’ festival, my white company members talked about the novelty and discomfort of being minorities there. I thought, ‘Gee, they’ve never felt like a minority before, which is how I feel all the time.’ In postmodern dance there’s not a whole bunch of black people doing what I do, and I’ve lived with that separation a long time. I wanted to look at why I’m here and not uptown.” Miller’s soul-searching went companywide in conversations and role-playing on race and identity during rehearsals for Going to the Wall. The result is a searingly honest piece, revealing differences that divide even so closely knit a community as a dance company.
“It was a difficult process,” she reveals, “but we know more about each other and how we define ourselves—we tell better jokes now. We admitted the depth of our differences. The message of diversity training is that we are all equals, we can learn to share, but I don’t think we can. Though we get to share weight, sweat, aesthetics, there are some things we just can’t share. The boundaries are visible now, so you can go right up to them. We are clearer about saying this is me and this is not you. If I say ‘lines were drawn,’ that phrase sounds divisive—it’s more like we’re outlined in stronger crayon.”