There is a point in “A History” when Bebe Miller appears on film. She says: “My body is possessed by past dances.” But it also sounds like “dancers.” Both words make sense coming from a choreographer who has led a troupe since 1985, and especially so in the context of her illuminating, if occasionally rambling, 2012 work performed Tuesday night at The O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.
“A History” delves into the creative process, but not in a typical manner. Instead Miller collaborates with company members Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones (seen both onstage and onscreen), as well as dramaturg Talvin Wilks, filmmaker Lily Skove and installation artist Maya Ciarrocchi, to reveal some of the thinking that drives dance making. Interestingly what we learn about it depends as much on words, sounds and image as the movement itself.
The piece is framed within a white space, almost like a laboratory open for experimentation. Jones travels in an off-balance, marionette-like manner, his arms and legs producing slashing lines against the spare background. Hauser enters with cat-like, smoothed-out moves that contrast with Jones. Projected text adds evocative suggestions or moods, such as “She is alert, busy, elsewhere.”
Their intuitive relationship and clear trust comes from years dancing Miller’s choreography. The evening includes excerpts from “Landing/Place” (2005) and the Bessie award-winning “Verge” (2001).
Text drawn from rehearsal conversations, journals and repertory also infiltrates the work. Hauser and Jones repeat source material piped through headsets. This is the weakest aspect, often excessively interior. What makes sense to the performers doesn’t always communicate clearly to the audience.
Miller is taking a chance in this piece. It is built on the premise of giving outsiders a glimpse inside the intimate and sometimes inscrutable act of artistry. While the resulting effort is never obvious (thankfully), there are instances when the text renders it too enamored with its own specific language.
Still, “A History” offers much to admire. Dance has a fleeting energy that cannot be captured completely on film, paper or canvas. All of the elements that come together to generate movement depend upon a meeting of minds and bodies in a selected moment that is like none other. Miller, with the help of her collaborators, isolates several of these moments, holding them out for renewed examination and further development. They may be part of the past but they also inform the future.
Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.