Bebe Miller, Picky Postmodernist

Innovative dancer-choreographer uses only the best of current trends. DANCE

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor. Jamake Highwater is the author of ``Dance: Rituals of Experience,'' a book on the choreographic art.

BEBE MILLER is a strong new force in dance. The performances of her young company offer some of the most fascinating and fresh choreography of the postmodern movement. Unless Ms. Miller takes an entirely unexpected tumble, she will surely be a major new talent for the '90s. Admittedly, such an opinion is more than a bit hazardous, especially since it is based on seeing only one of Ms. Miller's dances, an hour-long opus called ``Allies,'' presented last season by Boston's Dance Umbrella at the Emerson Majestic Theatre.

This month the Miller company is traveling in Europe; next month it will be back in the States. But the ``Allies'' work, all by itself, made clear - especially when Miller's achievements are compared to the well-intended but ill-formed efforts of countless other young choreographers - that she's likely to become a major creator in the world of dance.

Miller's choreography is original and innovative at the same time that it embraces all that is best and nothing that is bromidic about postmodernism. For instance, the company of three women and three men is completely unrestricted by stereotypes of gender - a trend that has become a powerful element of postmodern dance.

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Women are not aggrandized as helpless and fragile idols, to be lifted and carried across the stage by their sturdy cavaliers. To the contrary, women lift male dancers and other female performers more often than the men lift the women. Such ensemble movement conveys a subtle and ambiguous sensuousness rarely witnessed in older forms of dancing.

There are also many all-male duets and trios, including lyrical lifts and ``adagios,'' that are executed with deeply touching effect. Though the dance has no program or pretext and does not strive for literal meaning, these changes in the physical relationships of the performers convey several important messages about human kinships. And in this way, Miller's unisexuality provides depth and substance to her theme in ``Allies,'' which, at least on one level, is concerned with the joys and sorrows of many different kinds of human relationships.

Miller's choreography possesses the nonchalance and relaxation that is characteristic of most postmodern dances; dancers reel and leap with a streetwise naturalness; individuals are not submerged in a strict sameness of style and appearance; toes are not fully pointed; and there are few efforts to achieve a pyrotechnic effect.

Yet ``Allies'' managed to sustain, for over an hour, a persistently innovative movement vocabulary, evolving numerous surprises out of familiar forms that are engaging in their lyricism, effective in their theatrical aggression, and often deeply touching in their allusion to human feeling.

Like most postmodern choreographers, Bebe Miller has a catholic sensibility that absorbs many different influences and lifestyles. For instance, the music of Fred Frith straddles that old barrier that used to be raised between so-called classical and popular music. The rhythms are often pop while the harmonic development is lavishly complex.

Miller adds large episodes of silence to Frith's commanding score, and she manages to use both the music and the silence to great purpose, sometimes operating entirely in counterpoint to the music while at other times producing a powerful ensemble sequence to the primal thump of the beat.

Miller possesses a rare combination of talents. She seems inexhaustible in her ability to create new movement for her performers at the same time that she has a marvelous sense of the space between the dancers. ``Allies'' is every bit as strong in its spatial concept as it is in its movement vocabulary. Miller achieves an added dimension of meaning and emotion by her use of the ``isolated'' space behind two transparent scrim-structures designed for the stage by Robert Flynt.

The figurative paintings on those scrims were distracting, but the structures themselves, which many choreographers would treat simply as pictorial backdrops, were put to vivid use. This spatial awareness was aided by the lighting design of Ken Tabachnick, which heightened the theatrical quality of ``Allies.''

The costume designs of Muriel Stockdale were ideally suited to the look, mood, and movement of Miller's choreography, emulating casual street dress. Ms. Stockdale also lends an emphasis to the unisex accent of the dance with costumes that give little emphasis to the gender of individual dancers.

It is no easy matter for a young choreographer to create a work of the duration of ``Allies,'' the one aspect of the piece that seemed a weakness. It was modern-dance pioneer Doris Humphrey who advised that ``all dances are improved when they are shortened.'' That seems to apply to ``Allies.'' The opening five or ten minutes, performed in silence, are both taxing and misleading in terms of the great things to come. The movement in this segment doesn't display Miller's choreography at its best. The unfortunate naturalism of the dancers' dramatic gestures verges on bad acting; they seem intent upon ``telling'' us something we don't need to know.

Though Miller herself is a black artist from New York City, she had no black dancers among her ranks when I saw the company. She has said that her work is about being a human being, not about being African-American. She wants her creative work to be colorless, which, she reminds us, is what the real struggle for racial equality is all about. Dancers Elizabeth Caron, Nikki Castro, Renee Lemieux, Earnie Stevenson, Scott Smith, and Jeremy Weichsel performed with great skill and commitment, producing the kind of joy that will surely carry the Bebe Miller Dance Company triumphantly through the '90s.

The company will be touring extensively this summer and fall. This month it will be dancing in Lisbon, Portugal. In August it will appear in Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee, and at the new Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio.

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