It’s expected that a dance performance will focus on movement. And yet, the space and time separating the steps is just as important. Kaleena Miller Dance’s “I Love Her,” which premiered Thursday night at the Southern Theater, exemplifies this concept.

The evening features a cast of impressive local tap dancers led by Miller. A founding member of Rhythmic Circus, she recently struck out on her own, building a troupe and codirecting the annual Twin Cities Tap Festival. Miller has a cool, smooth style — strong, streamlined and a bit sly — that translates well into a cohesive choreographic collaboration with her seven company members.

“I Love Her” celebrates the symbiotic relationship between sound and movement specific to percussive dancing. It also ably employs juxtaposition — sandwiching virtuosic elements between humorous opening and closing scenes. Miller gives her crew, including accomplished hoofers Galen Higgins and Molly Kay Stoltz, ample opportunity to find their groove within drummer JT Bates’ score, a blend of pulse-pounding beats and eclectic soundscapes.

A particularly potent section involves a trio for Bruce DeMorrow, Noah Parker Brewington and Stoltz. They move with a slow and deliberate pace, sliding and sizing each other up, until the three find a shared rhythm and then square up to the audience, dancing forcefully, as if daring anyone to interrupt. Miller and Higgins share a similar dynamic in their duet, with even more of an emphasis on discovering ways to push each other’s rhythmic capacities onto new levels.

When all of the dancers come together on stage they pay close attention to one another, performing as a tight unit but also responding to their shared sound signals — using pauses to catch the coded messages emanating from one tapping foot to another. Miller has a sophisticated sense of how she uses the space to move her performers — creating the sense of a squad spirit that also allows for individuality and improvisation.

“I Love Her” is craftsman-like. Miller strips away any embellishment so the movement and music can fully inform each other. It’s within this age-old relationship that Miller finds a technical strength as well as a source of creative freedom. Tap, like all forms of dance, is ever-evolving. So, too, is Miller as she keeps exploring the endless opportunities that space and time offer to her choreographic vision.

 

Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities critic.