Bebe Miller’s Gripping, Evocative In a Rhythm at the Wexner Center
Modern dance can be the most intimidating strain of contemporary art for the uninitiated. Bebe Miller’s masterful In a Rhythm serves as a perfect introduction for anyone who has yet to crack that language. More, this tight 75-minute piece does that without pandering, watering itself down, or neglecting the experienced eyes in the room.
Every great magician starts by telling you “I’m going to show you a trick.” Miller’s magic does the same. She amplifies the Brechtian quality of modern dance with intensely bright lighting (courtesy of Stan Pressner) on a bare white floor and costumes (from Liz Prince) that start out looking like practice clothes, become more colorful and flowing, and return to workout gear.
The text — by Miller and Angie Hauser — opens with Miller herself in a chair, talking about David Foster Wallace, his own work and his work seen through an appreciative essay by Zadie Smith that punctured DFW’s “cleverness” as his appeal. Miller slyly ties that to an application for a grant “I didn’t get” to delve into the relationship between choreography and syntax. As she speaks, the company performs stretches and exercises that lead the audience through the vocabulary that makes up the rest of the piece.
Along In a Rhythm‘s glinting arc, the questions posed about syntax rise again and again. Syntax as a bludgeon and a comfort comes in carpets. Dancers roll carpets across the stage, dividing the pristine white plane and separating the dancers; rolled at someone, trying to get out of the way or stopping and pushing it back, most notably in a raging, virtuosic highlight from Trebien Pollard. Smaller, yoga-mat-sized rugs muffle the percussive music of bare feet and re-imagine themselves as cloaks and ponchos.
Syntax is a key piece of how we negotiate our existence in the world, and Miller and her dancers turn an unblinking eye on the way we are with one another and the way we exist in society. Her dancers slipping in and out of orbit around her, she ruminates on Dana Schutz’s piece in the Whitney Biennial, Open Casket. Miller and company call out its alleged reminder of atrocity with the plainly stated fact: she can recall Emmett Till’s photo anytime.
Charlie Rose’s tone-deaf and misguided interview with Toni Morrison is laid bare here too. Miller dissects the interview with audio and a funny and acidic “just the facts” reenactment. Like Schutz’s appropriation of Till’s family’s (and the world’s) heartbreak, Miller reminds us that art isn’t the purview of its gatekeepers and “mainstream” white society need not remind or discover the vibrant world the rest of society lives and carries with them every day.
Twelve hours later, I’m still chewing on these questions and the artful, surprising way Miller presented them. But to give the impression In a Rhythm is in any way dry or academic does everyone a disservice. Miller and her dancers know the body is packed with metaphor just by breathing and touching another person. She also understands the joy of movement. Her rapport with co-writer and assistant Angie Hauser is a gleeful delight throughout the piece, but everyone has time to shine without feeling like there’s a forced attempt at equanimity.
Sparse music weaves through In a Rhythm, subverting and highlighting the changes and movements. Mike Vargas’ solo piano threads the piece, single notes or chords rise into the air like fireworks, punctuating the motion of bodies and decaying unresolved. Thumps of funky fusion courtesy of Pamela Z and Steve Gadd seem to echo the dancers in as simpatico a union of dance and music as anyone this side of Balanchine, but the same dance continues when the music drops out. The work chops Leonard Cohen into two lines and a synthesizer sheen, closer to his generational peer Steve Reich than the wordsmith he’s best known as. The Commodores’ hit “Brick House” uses that eternal hook to highlight the sensuality but doesn’t play enough of it to fully resolve, drawing the audience in and letting the bodies hang in motion.
The song played closest to its full length is Nelly’s “Country Grammar.” The entire ensemble shifts between roles, with special attention to Sarah Gamblin and Christal Brown, as whole verses unspool. The patchwork quality of that Nelly hit, with its spine built from Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko-Bop,” echoes the postmodern writing Miller leads with and asserts itself through bodily pleasures rippling through the dancers and the audience in a feedback loop.
In a Rhythm’s world premiere run at the Wexner Center for the Arts this weekend should be a must-see for any arts lover. The work I’ve seen this year that most successfully takes the temperature of our fractured, terrifying, bloodied moment.
Bebe Miller was interviewed on The Confluence Cast:
In a Rhythm runs through December 3 with shows at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit https://wexarts.org/performing-arts/bebe-miller-company-rhythm. (Note: at the time of publishing tickets are only available for the Friday evening show.)