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Flash Review 3, 3-4: She's Sort of got the Music in Her
Miller Meets Bach, Half-way

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003 Nancy Dalva

NEW YORK -- In the pleasant auditorium of the John Jay College Theater (on 10th Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets in Manhattan), Lincoln Center has started presenting excellent music concerts with a dance component. (A previous entry, Trisha Brown's choreography to Shubert's "Winterreise," with the fantastic British baritone Simon Keenlyside, was so popular it will return to Lincoln Center this summer.) This time around, as part of the New Visions: Bach Variations series, Ballet Freiburg Pretty Ugly teamed up with members of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra to present "The Art of the Fugue," seen Friday.

We already know from Mark Morris that not only can baroque music and post-modernism co-exist, they can sublimely mate -- but perhaps it takes a choreographer with a baroque turn of mind to pull it off. Amanda Miller, the American founder of Pretty Ugly (she previously worked under William Forsythe at Ballett Frankfurt) has a vaporous musicality, and appears to little care for structure, or musical hermeneutics. (If she does, she doesn't show it.)

Miller is fond of twist and torque, of distortion, and curious misalignments. But her kinesthetic perversities -- which she sets up in the first half of her program as a kind of parallel universe to the music-- are no match for the clear-minded intricacies of the Bach. Only when she bows to the music, late in the second half, does she overcome the cognitive dissonance -- and cognitive distance -- she establishes at the outset. (For anyone thinking that this is like the separation of music and dance achieved by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company under the artistic direction of Cunningham and the musical direction of John Cage, whose music Miller has used before, it is not. There, the dance is made in silence, and rehearsed in silence, and has an independent life from the music. Miller's work, in contrast, was made with the music in mind and exists to be seen as it is heard. )

During the first half of "The Art of the Fugue," all of the dancers -- there are eight in the company -- are posturally warped, with a curious carriage. Their ribs are thrust forward over their toes; their backs are arched down low, so they are disconcertingly callipygian; their shoulders are unaligned, with one higher than another. A twisted, hunched upper arm or a looming bottom are often the initiators of Miller's phrasing, which comes out of nowhere, and recedes there. (Just in case we weren't aware that this isn't your usual ballet, the dancers, with two exceptions, wear socks, as if in rehearsal. Their chic, dark blue and grey-toned costumes mix shorts or skirts with t-shirts or more conventional leotard-looking tops devised by the choreographer and Lisa Brzonkalla.)

In program notes, Miller says she uses neither counting nor cuing on the notes in this choreography. "I prefer music which is based more on the resonance of a note than on the exact note itself," she explains. This vague approach leads the dancers into trouble when they cannot easily cue off one another, and by default makes solos and duets her strong suit. (In ensemble, you could see worried visual checking, blurred attacks, not- quite- unisons, and the like.) To complicate matters, Miller uses a dual front, with some in the audience -- and their winter coats and shopping bags and whatnot -- sitting on a bench at the back of the stage. The dancers sit on a bench at the left, and the musicians to the right. The curtains are all stripped away, and some grey walls form a back and side-drop. This arrangement, quite handsome, is designed and lit by Seth Tillett, who doubles as the dance company's dramaturg.

On the floor, a grey pentagonal covering echoes the five-ness of the musical ensemble, which includes two violinists, a violist, a cellist, and a harpsichordist. The latter, Michael Behringer, emerges as the spiritual eminence of the piece, watching the dancers with a keen attention when not stooped over his keyboard in a gentle, inverted question mark.

Playing period instruments, the Freiburg establish a warm choral resonance as soon as their stringed voices join together. Only well into the second half of the work does Miller answer in kind, introducing a clear canon. As the dance bends to the music, the dancers revert to a pleasant, more natural, and more subtle bearing -- which is different for each of them. This is not surprising, as they come from varied backgrounds -- Momix, the Rambert Academy, the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona, the Conservatorio Nacional de Danca in Lisbon, Madame Floriane Vergere in Geneva -- and various countries. Nonetheless, they cohere. The cleanest performance, a running around solo that sends the piece into the same orbit as the music, belongs to Kideto Heshiki, whose background includes Butoh. The most buoyant is that of Shane Hedges, who springs from the School of American Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet School. Maybe it doesn't matter what you train in, if you train well, any more than it matters what you believe in, if you believe well. I'm not sure what Amanda Miller herself believes in, from the evidence of this piece, though I have some idea of what she doesn't. About J.S. Bach, though, I have no doubts.

Nancy Dalva is the senior writer for 2wice.


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