Bebe Miller’s dances are lovely enigmas. Meanings surface in them like silver fish glinting through water and slipping away. She structures her magical Landing/Place as ongoing journeys, to mapped countries or along the wavering trails that connect one person with another.
Like Miller’s 1996 Yard Dance, the new piece was influenced in part by a real trip, this time to Eritrea, and she makes us aware of the need to decode other cultures, other minds and bodies. Gently and inquisitively, her five wonderful collaborating performers encounter and embody the unfamiliar. Miller is a tender visionary, a subtle social and political commentator. The dancers may look out of control or intently focused, clumsy or elegant, stiff or richly fluid, wildly impulsive or serene, but they’re never cold, never thoughtless.
Miller has explored motion capture at Ohio State University, where she teaches, and Landing/Place uses it, as well as other stunning video creations by Maya Ciarrocchi (plus animation sequences by Vita Berezina-Blackburn). A projected window with blowing curtains serves as an overture, while composer Albert Mathias strokes his electric guitar into a sweet melody and turns the various dials on his electronic arsenal. Michael Mazzola’s lighting design isolates a small, plain wooden birdhouse, standing for home. But the clouds that materialize outside the window become seething cottony puffs that yield dancing cloud figures.
Nothing appears stable. Videos projected on two screens that define the space show a village of toy houses turning and changing places. Behind one translucent screen, Angie Hauser knocks on a virtual door. Hauser, Kathleen Fisher, Darrell Jones, Kathleen Hermesdorf, and David Thomson march—spraddle-legged, rhythmically positive, shoulder to shoulder or in a file, in place or traveling, and almost always merry, the movement itself their home. People break out, but for a while the bold journey keeps going with no defined “arrival.” The familiar and the unfamiliar intersect startlingly. Jones holds Hauser by the neck, touches her body in small intimate ways, then kneels, bends her back over one knee, and looks at us proudly (meanwhile, on tape, monologuist Ruth Draper wrestles with Dante’s Inferno in her “The Italian Lesson”). Backed by videos of an old town, Thomson and Jones, standing close together, point, smile, and bow toward us, but also groom each other with small soft gestures. Sometimes the dancers behave like culturally aware travelers, sucking lemons without puckering up. Fisher grins with pleasure when she masters a fast hip shimmy.
There are reminders, however, of disasters that uproot homes: turbulent music, videos of roiling waters and drowning buildings. An ordeal arches the dancers’ bodies back. And in the rich interchanges, the fluidly complex dances, the everyday moments, the meshing of images and sound, nothing appears permanent, nothing can be taken for granted. Life, Miller seems to say, is an ongoing voyage, wherever we think home is, whoever’s arms are around us.