Bebe Miller

Divas of dance descend on Philly

“FLY” brings five of the genre’s luminaries to the stage for a rare performance that honors the collective breadth of their experience and talents.

By Naila Francis

It was supposed to be a singular event.

When Brooklyn’s 651 Arts decided to present “FLY: Five First Ladies of Dance” as the finale to its 20th anniversary season honoring women in the arts last year — the company is dedicated to performances from artists of the African Diaspora — no one imagined a repeat of the landmark performance.

Yet tonight and Saturday, dance pioneers and renowned choreographers Germaine Acogny, Carmen de Lavallade, Dianne McIntyre, Bebe Miller and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar will appear at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia as the first stop in a limited touring engagement of “FLY.”

“These five African-American females are exceptional in having been leaders first as dancers, then as teachers, artistic directors and mentors and now they are returning to the place that they began, which is as performers themselves, and their ages range from 50 to almost 80,” says Brenda Dixon Gottschild, a noted Philadelphia writer on dance and culture and also professor emerita of dance studies at Temple University.

“For them to return to the stage when generally we think of dancers as being maybe as old as 40 and for them to be in a concert together, even though they’re doing separate solos, it is a unique and unusual coming-together of forces that speak to the richness and diversity of American dance history.”

Miller, who founded the Bebe Miller Company in 1985 in New York City, recalls how the five were struck by the beauty of what they had created together after their celebrated pair of dates at Brooklyn’s Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts in May 2009.

“It hit us all with a bit of ‘Oh, my gosh, this is really something,’ ” says the 60-year-old. “I was sitting through a dress rehearsal when it dawned on me that this is my history, as well. It’s not just the work itself. These are my heroes and my peers that I’m having the honor to perform with. It’s pretty humbling.

“Then if I step back and look at my work in line with this array of really wonderful women, it’s really a representation of work over time and decades and decades of heart and struggle and joy. This really represents a period in our dance history where things are hard and things are hard for women and things are hard for African-American women and there we are still and we still love what we do.”

All have broken down and pushed against barriers, redefining, with passion, intellect, creativity and resolve, the narrow expectations of black dance. But their work has not been limited to preoccupations with race. Miller, in particular, has always striven to draw the universal from the intensely personal.

“In the early days, I was really focused on making the work that I saw in front of me with the dancers that I was privileged to work with. I wasn’t really in the business of representing a culture or a point of view,” says Miller, who emerged as a promising talent in New York’s “downtown” experimental dance scene during the late 1970s and early ’80s, prior to starting her own company. “But I felt it was pointed out to me again and again: ‘Where is that piece that represents the black community? Where is that work that speaks for a particular view of who I was supposed to be?’ ”

She initially left such artistic representations to others but later came to use her expansive movement palette not so much to highlight issues of race but to explore a greater inclusivity.

“My company has always been mixed race and generally mostly white,” says Miller. “It’s been interesting to come through over time to a place where the work itself speaks rather than people’s expectations and what it’s supposed to represent.”

Her works have been many and multifaceted, with accolades ranging from four Bessie (New York Dance and Performance) Awards and an American Choreographer Award to several fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council — Miller has been a dance professor with Ohio State University since 2000 — and commissions that have taken her around the world. She last appeared in Philadelphia in 2000 for the premiere of “My Science,” a piece commissioned by Philadanco.

As a dancer, she says she loved moving and improvising, trying to find her own physicality in her body as part of a collaborative work. Now as a choreographer, she is more drawn to the story and “the phenomenon” of what can emerge from a group of people thinking together, a community that in recent years has come to include dramaturges, visual artists and animators, as her work has evolved to also encompass writing, film, video and digital media. Today, her company is a “virtual” company of dancers and collaborating artists and designers living across the U.S.

“Definitely we’ve gone from a period of, ‘Let’s just express our physicality,’ to a point where we’re interested in the dancers and audience being changed from the beginning of a piece to the end,” says Miller. “We want an evolution of thought process and transformation.”

The fierce unpredictably that was a hallmark of her dance career remains a staple of her choreography.

“It’s indescribable, it’s mysterious, it’s beautiful,” says Dixon Gottschild. “You don’t know what it is when you see it, but you know you’ve seen something incredible.”

For “FLY,” Miller has resurrected a visually striking piece titled “Rain,” which premiered in 1989 and gave innovative expression to an ambiguous blend of social, personal and political commentary. With its complexity and enigma, Dixon Gottschild, who saw the inaugural performance of “FLY” in New York last year, refers to “Rain” as “quintessential Bebe Miller.”

While some of her “FLY” cohorts are returning to performing for the first time in years, Miller has, within the last two years, premiered and toured “Necessary Beauty,” joining her dancers onstage in a series of dances and multimedia segments. She has since also appeared in various improvisational pieces.

“I got back into dance, so luckily I wasn’t too out shape,” she says. “This is not the same body that it was in 1989 when (‘Rain’) first premiered, but it’s my body and my sensibility, and I’m fine with the way it’s going to come out.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer