Last summer I witnessed a bit of “History” being made. It was a Friday midmorning in late July, and I was sitting in a windowless room in the back of an East Main Street building. In front of me was a small stage with a table, two chairs, two pairs of corded headphones and two dancers rehearsing “A History”—the newest work from the Bebe Miller Dance Company, which premiered this week at the Wexner Center for the Arts.
I was there to do this brief write-up. I’d already read and talked to some people about this new piece. I knew it drew on the actual history of the dance company, its interpersonal dynamics and its unique process of creating. I knew, too, that it involved a lot of rummaging through recordings, notes, videos, perceptions, memories, movements, connections, gestures, friendships, discoveries and whatever else is or isn’t or is in-between the accumulated life of this long-time creative collaboration. But ask me what any of that really meant or what it might look like…I had nothing. So, I sat in my seat in the third row and watched.
Bebe Miller, company director, choreographer, dancer, professor and—to quote some critics—“visionary,” “translator,” “observer,” “seer,” “eyewitness” and “cartographer of human emotion,” sat just left of the stage with company dramaturge Talvin Wilks. Together, they watched and commented as dancers Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones would move, speak, sit, stand, stretch, laugh, as if, according to Talvin’s direction, they were “listening to all the conversations in a cocktail party and playing all the roles.”
I had been told that for Bebe Miller the getting there is as important as the there, and on that July day, getting there meant returning again and again to the shape of a circle. This was not a symbolic circle, nor a motif repeated in the arrangement of arms, legs and fingers. Rather, with ease and spontaneity, company members would literally and repeatedly circle-up to share, question, explore, joke, chat—to collaborate, but with an engagement, freedom, comfort and openness that was striking.
“Something happened there. What was it?” Angie asks as the four draw together again. Talvin puts into words what they all just experienced: “You let the language land,” he says, “it’s no longer battling.” Later the dancers ask if they should follow a certain direction, Bebe responds, “We can aim for that, but let’s see what happens.” When Bebe makes a suggestion, the dancers try it and announce that it helps—that’s great, but Bebe still asks, “How?” And all the while that Angie and Darrell move so do the cords from the headphones. The lines cross, dangle, tangle, wrap around chair legs (“I’m hung,” says a stuck Angie at one point). At this rehearsal, it seems even the props are collaborators.
Witnessing this process of discovery unfold within this easy rapport, I begin to get, though still rather clumsily, what “A History” is about. But what I get with absolute clarity is that it is already fascinating, and though I can’t say what it will mean I trust that it will be meaningful.
On Saturday, I saw “A History.” And I was right to trust. I hope I’m also right to trust my instinct not to write so much about what happened on stage, but about what happened afterwards. I had made my spouse come along. Though, artistically willing to give things a go (he’s listened to the unlistenable, by which I mean Harry Partch and Fred Firth, and he’s sat through Guy Maddin’s early movies) sometimes I have to force these things and Greg does not much like dance. The language is too self-conscious, he says, more aware of how it is talking than what it is saying. “Or,” he concedes, “maybe I just don’t understand it.”
Yet, Greg didn’t exactly seem reluctant to go to Bebe Miller. He was intrigued, I think. Also, I had made sure to always refer to it as a “performance.” When that performance was over—THE END literally writ across the screen—he turned to me with eyes I feel I can accurately call “gleaming” and said, “That was good. I really liked that.”
When it was over we both applauded because that is what you do. But the timing seemed wrong, the piece was over but the experience was still churning. Plus, a clap seemed an ill-match for expressing our appreciation—I sensed others felt the same. Maybe the company predicted this, or maybe they just like dialogue, in any case they came back out for a bit of Q&A.
Though dance is “ineffable,” to quote a front-row audience member, many shared well-articulated praise, expressing gratitude for the aesthetic and emotional “wows,” and sharing how the questions and discoveries that drove the piece were resonant in their own lives—musing about what the experience of “remembering remembering” is; about what else is created when people create together; about the history that resides in the body; and how a specific physical movement can trigger entry into a whole new world.
To my surprise, Greg was one of those asking questions. And later as we made our way out of the auditorium he went on about how “full-fledged” both dancers were and how impressive that was; they were “distinct personalities” but “equal partners,” he said, “they would and could trade roles.” Outside we are walking to the car and he hasn’t stopped. (I love it, so for once in our relationship I stay quiet.) He’s blown away by how the dancers move—pliable, loose, fast, but utterly controlled—and how they made trust so palpable. “You can see the acceptance and tension and playfulness….I realize,” he interrupts himself for a second, “I’m talking like a guy who just got high for the first time.” Then, a smile still on his face, he relaunches: “And the spoken parts were like music, in synch, out of synch…” and on he goes.
There is one particularly lovely moment in “A History.” The two dancers are running in a circle side-by-side having a good time, the pace speeds up and the feeling intensifies. Angie quietly drops out. She simply stands to the side. The space is mostly Darrell’s, and he zooms. It’s as if every muscle in his body is turning on it’s own separate axis. And then he stops and utterly composed walks over to where Angie is and places himself next to her.
On Sunday, a day later, Greg and I are at home sitting at the table eating dinner. He starts to tell our daughter about the performance, but then turns to me and he says, “You know, I never asked, what do you think about the dance last night?”