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Sitting beside me at New York Live Arts was a bewildered young man from Long Island, a student at Queensborough Community College who’d been assigned to review the concert by Bebe Miller and Susan Rethorst. He took a lot of notes, but confessed that he didn’t understand what he was seeing. My companion and I tried to reassure him, urged him to track how it made him feel, to notice exactly what was going on. He couldn’t have come to a better event; the whole focus of The Making Room is to explore and preserve the process of creating dance. Miller and Rethorst are engaged in an effort to clarify their creative processes, to document how ideas and images make it from the private recesses of their minds to the broad landscapes of the stage. They’ve been talking and “convening” around the country since late 2015; Miller’s In a Rhythm dazzled viewers in Columbus, Ohio last fall, and did it again the other night in Chelsea.
While both of these artists began their long careers in this city, they’ve spent decades elsewhere. Miller recently retired as a Distinguished Professor of Dance from the Ohio State University, commuting between Columbus and Seattle; Rethorst has lived and worked in Amsterdam and Philadelphia. But it’s the members of Miller’s ensemble who demonstrate the geographic spread of terrific dance intelligences; her dancers (Michelle Boulé, Christal Brown, Sarah Gamblin, Angie Hauser, Bronwen MacArthur, Trebien Pollard) live, teach, choreograph, and perform all over the U.S. and abroad.
At New York Live Arts, they occasionally spread rolls of gray and white carpet, runway-style, onto the dance floor; other carpet scraps serve as ponchos. The movers are fleet and flexible, their bodies faster than thought, feinting in all directions, sometimes genuflecting on the white floor. Snippets of sound course through the piece. What kept grabbing me was the chorus of “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko-Bop,” repurposed from Little Anthony and the Imperials into Nelly’s “Country Grammar.” Black artists, both onstage and off, have a strong hand in this work: Toni Morrison challenges Charlie Rose, two black dancers (Pollard and Brown) get down in a slow drag. Miller, suddenly garbed in bright chartreuse, reminds us that “my reason for dancing is because of what it feels like.”
The simple rehearsal garments mutate in the course of the seventy-minute work into brilliant plumage (by Liz Prince), culminating in a parade of tropical birds to a soundtrack of chirping. Afterward, they die back down into the monochrome duds the dancers began in, just in time for a tour-de-force solo by Boulé, running in grand circles at top speed.
Rethorst’s Stealing From Myself, a duet half as long as Miller’s opus, opens the evening, condensing fragments from a forty-year career into thirty-five minutes. Gabrielle Revlock and Gregory Holt, Philadelphia-based dancers a generation younger than the ripe artists in Miller’s work, are charming to watch. Revlock, in tight shorts and a flowery shirt tied above her navel, has the aspect of a Vargas girl, a self-conscious pin-up at play with the more interior, almost neurasthenic Holt, also in beach attire. The pair define space and display feeling — he often in a still pose, she flinging her limbs into action. While Miller’s introduction to her piece invokes stories by authors like Gertrude Stein, David Foster Wallace, and Toni Morrison, Rethorst’s mise en scene is littered with actual books and a couple of chairs; the dancers fidget with both but don’t really justify their presence. My favorite moment in this almost comic pairing is Holt playing hopscotch around Revlock’s prone body.
In a Rhythm moves to Seattle in March and Chicago in April; an e-book about the entire project is in process. Rarely is learning so much about dance such a sensuous pleasure.