Tanz Farm, the performance anthology curated by gloATL and the Goat Farm Arts Center, has blown open Atlanta’s dance world this season with a series of cutting-edge artistic collaborations. The fourth in the series, “The Liberated Accident — an evening in two chapters,” will take place May 9-11 at the Goat Farm’s Goodson Yard.
On a recent afternoon, Miller-Fasshauer, who spent eight years with William Forsythe’s revolutionary Ballet Frankfurt and 17 years running her own Pretty Ugly Dance Company in Germany, watched the dancers rehearse at CORE’s Decatur studio. Each held a point along a length of red string, their bodies slowly dipping and turning, creating organic patterns in space. The dancers didn’t know it yet, but they were learning techniques rooted in the experimental work of Rudolf Laban, a brilliant movement theorist who profoundly influenced modern dance in Germany in the first half of the 20th century.
Moving in a circle, the six dancers’ sense of volume and their connection with one another brought to mind Henri Matisse’s painting “The Dance.” That’s an association that Miller-Fasshauer herself might have made: she considers herself an artist whose medium happens to be movement, just as Mark Rothko and Dan Flavin are artists whose primary medium happens to be color.
Sue Schroeder, CORE’s artistic director, suggested to gloATL founder Lauri Stallings that a Miller-Fausshauer commission would be a good fit for Tanz Farm. Schroeder has watched rehearsals over the last few months as Miller-Fasshauer introduced the dancers not just to movement but to images and text of all kinds, giving them books of art and poetry to study between rehearsals and inspiring them to see dance in a different context. Laban would be proud.
For Miller-Fasshauer and many other contemporary choreographers, dancers are artistic co-creators. “We are not just replicating a dance or creating entertainment,” she explains, sitting down after the rehearsal. The process is as important as, if not more important than, the performance itself.
That puts the audience in a strange place — until you realize that watching dance can also be part of the process. As Miller-Fasshauer describes it: “I want audiences to use their intelligence. They will see, feel, hear and be part of it in a safe environment where they can disarm themselves.”
Her philosophy may be rooted in German Expressionism, but the way she describes her craft is very American. “I love to watch Turner Classic Movies, because it is such genuine craftsmanship,” she says. She loves Dick Van Dyke for the same reason, and also draws on a basketball analogy. “You don’t really know what’s going to happen in a basketball game,” she says, “The athletes make their plays and are so physically in the moment that all this energy is created: there is reciprocity between the players and the audience. It’s the same in dance. We are two teams communicating.”
“The Liberated Accident” is the first work that Miller-Fasshauer has created for an American company since returning from Germany in 2009. She grew up in North Carolina, graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts and, after a stint with the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet, moved to Europe in the early 1980s. She joined Ballet Frankfurt in 1984, the year Forsythe became artistic director, and soon became resident choreographer.
As much as she loved to dance, she rebelled against the strictures of the ballet world. She would get into trouble as a ballet dancer because she was “having too good a time.” You could call her a revolutionary ballerina. Perhaps even a recovering ballerina.
“The whole environment really upset me,” she recalls. “They tell you your legs are too short, you are too fat, you can only listen to classical music, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. You have to be a nun!”
Forsythe sensed her struggle and eventually suggested that she go out on her own and find her voice. In 1992 she founded the Pretty Ugly Dance Company, which she directed until 2009. It identified itself as “a platform for dancers, musicians, visual artists, poets, stage and costume designers to create works independent of institutionalized theaters and budgets.” Now she’s bringing that open-source collaborative spirit to Atlanta, starting with the CORE dancers: Stephanie Boettle, Anna Bracewell, Derrick Causey, Joshua Rackliffe, Rose Shields, Deedee Chmielewski and Erik Thurmond.
“The Liberated Accident” includes a reading of “Parable of the Equal Hearts,” written by visual artist Agnes Martin, as well as music by composer Fred Frith that uses material from Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.” Add excerpts from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” in a recording by Musica Antiqua Köln playing authentic instruments, and recycled costumes from CORE and Pretty Ugly reworked by D. Patton White, a philosophy and psychology major turned choreographer, and you get a sense of the multidisciplinary brew that Miller-Fasshauer enjoys.
This artistic dynamism has helped her transition from the creative whirlwind of Germany to her new life in the States. She left Europe for two reasons, she says: she was tired and wanted to reinvent herself, and, perhaps more importantly, she wanted to spend time with her 80-year-old mother in North Carolina, who died soon after her arrival. Not long afterward, she reconnected with an old school friend, a cellist, and they married last year and moved to Birmingham.
Miller-Fasshauer insists that she has “no career and no cred,” though she continues to teach and choreograph here and in Europe. Her “Field Days” premiered in 2011 with Nederlands Dance Theater, and a new ballet she has created for Düsseldorf’s Deutsch Oper am Rhein will premiere this month.
And once in a while she still dances — in her Alabama kitchen.