Theater archives

Veteran Choreographers Bebe Miller and Risa Jaroslow Write Mysteries in Motion


Bebe Miller has been making mysterious dances since the mid 1980s. Their beauty is soul-deep. It resides in dancers’ bones, muscles, and sinews—sometimes blurry, sometimes startlingly clear. Her new Necessary Beauty probes memories—not just real memories, like those that taped voices deliver sporadically, but the process of remembering itself.

Maya Ciarrocchi’s videos illuminate this theme. Images projected on two large standing screens gradually swim into focus. A rippling, gray surface turns out to be sparkling lake water. A mass of clouds sharpens into an Albert Bierstadt landscape, whose tiny, distant waterfall begins to flow; eventually, the painting acquires a frame and later, diminished, hangs on a gallery wall. Albert Mathias’s live electronic score also plays with clarity and obscurity, and Michael Mazzola’s lighting pricks brilliance out of darkness in myriad ways.

Surrounding the white floor are black areas where the performers may rest, or sit and watch. Now a professor at Ohio State University, Miller develops her pieces over time, through intermittent company sessions and much long-distance communication. Maybe that’s why Angie Hauser, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Kristina Isabelle, Cynthia Oliver, Yen-Fang Yu, and Miller herself seem so profoundly invested in the movement and so watchful of one another. Their bodies function like repositories for thoughts and fleeting impressions. A pose may trigger another hoarded memory and generate a gesture.

The women’s dancing is often a portrait of uncertainty, of swift changes of mind, of thoughts forgotten a second after they begin. Intentions war gently within their limbs, sometimes occasioning fumbles and falls. At the beginning of Necessary Beauty, Hermesdorf performs a long, challenging solo, her hips, knees, and elbows collapsing with uncanny silkiness. In the final moments, Hauser moves amid a storm of thoughts and feelings; they fasten onto her face, body, and limbs and glance off. She’s dancing a flickering lifetime; it’s as if someone has spliced together frames taken at random from a score of home movies and projected them into her nervous system.

At one point, a filmed door on one screen opens slightly. We see a crowded room. Then, a beach. That’s what happens in dreams. It’s rare that a choreographer leads us through such cracks of existence.

Risa Jaroslow’s Sixty is also indirectly about the passage of time and the waywardness of memory. Jaroslow has always been interested in community and teaching groups of all ages and abilities to dance. In honor of her 60th birthday last year, she invited 60 people who’d been important in her life to send her ideas for a dance, and used nine of these to make 15 sections. You don’t really sense what Sixty means as whole; its process is its subject. Most of its individual parts are resonant and engrossing to watch. What holds them together theatrically is mainly the performers.

From the moment that Gabriel Forestieri, Luke Gutgsell, Elise Knudson, and Paul Singh enter with sideways, spread-eagled leaps—their bodies flying parallel to the floor, then crashing down—we’re ready to follow them anywhere. We watch them fall and drag each other by the head. We listen to them (plus Rachel Lehrer) start sentences they can’t finish. We see them perform Plain Crossing, an early walking dance by Jaroslow, while she, sometimes joining them, speaks of political and cultural events relevant to dates in her life (mostly from the 1970s). When one of six variously sized wooden boxes (design by Clint Ramos) is opened to reveal a small table and a green-shaded lamp, Singh and Knudson, in their skivvies, slide their bodies together in gentle domestic sensuality. And all of them dance magnificently—bold in their energy, tender with one another.

One activity offers a sly metaphor for choreography: Sitting on chairs, the five (all of whom are listed as collaborators) take turns setting a colleague in motion, like a wind-up toy executing a fatally complex version of pat-head-rub-stomach. Jaroslow steps in to improve on the creations. Later, they all set her going.

As in her last piece, the powerful 2006 Resist/Surrender, this new one has a chorus. A short duet with a book, performed by the choreographer and Vicky Shick, later mushrooms when pairs of young dancers settle down to read together and do tricky things with their books. Performers associated with Jaroslow over the decades help open and close the only two operative boxes, and join in a final slew of identical quartets in which the sole activity is “bending and bowing.”

There’s very little music, some of it contributed by friends or relatives, and it comes in snatches, as changeable as Kathy Kaufmann’s lighting. It’s typical of Jaroslow that she would eschew personal nostalgia on this anniversary and invite others to write prescriptions for a dance in lieu of birthday presents.