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Flash Review 1, 12-5: Remembering
Tim Miller and the Boys in the Chorus

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2002 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK -- Seeing Tim Miller's "Body Blows" (at P.S. 122) on World AIDS Day was a perfect way to embrace my several communities, to celebrate together what we have achieved and to mourn what we've lost. And an opportunity for breaking through preconceptions, which is always a good thing. I'd previously lumped Miller with the rest of the NEA Four (based on first-hand experience with one of them) and into a category of minor artists who got famous accidentally and for the wrong reasons. Now I'm happy to eat my hat. Miller is clearly a master artisan of the talking/moving time-art form we now call Performance, and has been making it since its 1980s East Village genesis, before it had a name.

It would be a disservice to the essential honesty of Miller's work to analyze it in print without noting that I am a long-term PWA (Person With AIDS). It was through this lens that I viewed his storytelling. The pandemic lurked only in the wings of this particular piece but it has been a constant undertone in Miller's life, as in mine. This is my 16th December since seroconversion to HIV-positive and on that cold night I was feeling particularly like, as Miller put it, "used merchandise."

Returning home to P.S. 122, which he co-founded, one last time before he emigrates to London where his same-sex partnership can be legally acknowledged, Miller preached to a primarily male choir about "myth, memory, feeling and fantasy." With the fervor of a Pentecostal evangelist, Miller morphed from a nellie Auntie to an awkward, boyish Puck, using (again in his own words) his body as a bridge.

"Body Blows" knitted excerpts from earlier work -- growing-up stories hinting at family secrets and picaresque anecdotes from his New York years (all included in the recently published book of the same name) -- with new connecting material. Shared memories from our gay youth caused chuckles of recognition: the sight of Leonard Whiting's ass in Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet," The Partridge Family, the "rise and fall of the Queer Nation goatee." The stories revolved around Miller's first high school boyfriend (heartbreaking memories of perfect, innocent Queer romance) and NYC circa 1981, where Miller's relationship with John Bernd evoked complex feelings of love and pain.

Miller catapulted personal recollection -- what for most would be quickly forgotten observations or minor epiphanies -- into the realm of mythologized, life-defining metaphor. The text seemed to move through him, to possess him, his galumphy body always extending beyond its kinesphere. Physically, he was completely committed to fulfilling the action of each movement, not concerned with its shape or afraid of looking foolish, as words elbowed each other out of the way to be spoken.

There was something draining about Miller's persistent, exhibitionistic earnestness while I was watching it; I longed for him to chill out once in a while, for a moment of repose. Afterward though, his verbal barrage formed a clenched fist in my mind's eye, as if he'd channeled a generation of sissies and repressed rage at the "injustice of heterosexual privilege" in America. When he dropped his amplified stage persona to give a post-show speech about the lack of same-sex partner rights in the U.S., he was eloquent, astute, and charming, with a remarkable comfort level in front of his audience.

I want to credit Miller for a sweet catharsis. That night the damn Epivir caused insomnia and "sleep disorders" like every night, but my dreams were unusually vivid, even through the Restoril. I found myself in a recurrent dream scenario: a big house full of bedrooms, where it was somehow understood that I was one of a cast of chorus boys temporarily housed while performing summer stock. Next morning in the shower, I catalogued the images in my mind and realized: the last summer I did summer stock was 1986, the summer before I tested positive. My last carefree summer. Miller had inspired me to honor in my sleep my own heartbreaking memories of perfect, innocent Queer romance.

Choreographer Chris Dohse is the Dance Insider's senior critic, and has also written for the New York Times, Village Voice, and Dance Magazine.

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