It’s no secret that contemporary dance, once a decidedly American art form, has undergone a seismic, global shift. In her controversial 2005 article “How New York Lost Its Modern Dance Reign,” New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas passed the crown to Europe, where, she wrote, “innovation flows like water from one country to the next.” Today, almost eight years later, the spotlight — at least the one cast by Americans — seems to have come to rest on a single, perhaps unlikely country: Israel.
With her “Mama Call” and “Pupil Suite,” Andrea Miller, artistic director and founder of New York-based Gallim Dance, reveals her affinity for and deep understanding of the popular Israeli aesthetic. Those works, as performed at the Rialto Center for the Arts on Saturday evening, were exhilarating, packed with the frenetic physicality and character-driven movement innovation that have become hallmarks of Israeli contemporary dance. But I also saw glimpses of Miller’s own choreographic voice, the sense of theatricality and humor, and both pieces offered refreshing takes on an often over-referenced style.
Miller, a self-described Jewish-Catholic-Spanish-American, and Gallim Dance are part of a growing lineage that traces its roots to Gaga. The word here refers not to the pop singer but an improvisational, sensation-based movement technique developed by Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv. Miller, who danced with the junior Batsheva Ensemble for two years, was inspired by what she saw in her Gaga classes and says they made her want to “run to the studio to figure it out,” that is, to create set movement based on her experiences.
“Figuring it out” is exactly what we saw onstage, and it’s a crucial element in Miller’s choreographic process. Gallim dancer Caroline Fermin, a fiercely expressive and virtuosic technician, taught a class at CORE studios in Decatur the day before the concert and revealed a few of the young company’s trade secrets. In an exercise the troupe calls “figure it out,” Fermin instructed the class to pair up, and one partner became a moving shape — a “thing,” she insisted, not a person. The other partner’s job was to discover his or her thing (“alien” was another word Fermin used) through improvisation and character development. Dancers moved across the floor like curious scientists as they poked, measured, pushed, dragged and lifted bodies and body parts.
The evening’s first work, “Mama Call,” explored Miller’s Sephardic roots and ideas of displacement and alienation that affected Spanish Jews around the time of the Inquisition. More broadly, the work questions how a displaced people rescue the idea of “home.” It was more subdued and a bit more traditional in the vein of Israeli-style contemporary dance. I was reminded of choreographer Barak Marshall, an American whose work is also heavily influenced by Israeli and Gaga dance, and his recent “Monger.” Both “Monger” and “Mama Call” feature the music of Balkan Beat Box and are similarly costumed, in Old World, vaguely ethnic, pedestrian garb. But the moments of stunning athleticism, the quality of the dancing in “Mama Call,” put aside any raised eyebrows at this stylistic repetition.
In one section, four women exploded into a breathtaking series of jumps, their hair and limbs flying as if they were on a trampoline. In another, a large moving spotlight onstage, operated by a dancer, revealed evocative images: tight, huddled embraces, fatigued footfalls, and women stabbing at their bellies as if killing unborn children. It ended with a mesmerizing duet intended to personify floating rootlessness. Dressed in a nude-colored leotard, dancer Francesca Romo, supported by Austin Tyson, never put her weight on two feet but moved suspended above the floor as if on a planet with less gravity.
The second work was “Pupil Suite,” a selection of excerpts from Miller’s 2008 piece “I Can See Myself in Your Pupil” that was based largely on hours of experimentation using this improvisational game. The class exercise translated surprisingly well to performance, and the result was a journey into a colorful, unknown world of twisted gender roles and lovable eccentricity.
To make a piece that is purely movement-based is a bold statement in a society that so often demands deeper meaning and/or a storyline from its art. Thus “Pupil Suite” falls in line with a 20th-century trend toward abstraction and especially the postmodernist aesthetic of the 1960s and ’70s. But its focus on frantic, shifting characterization made it feel current. An exuberant, almost cartoony duet was a standout in the piece, as was a lip-syncing female trio. In both sections, the dancers’ facial expressions and body language changed at breakneck speeds. It was as if they were on fast-forward at a theater audition, playing every character in the scene with deft and fascinating clarity.
Miller calls herself a “problem maker” and her dancers “problem solvers,” in reference to both the studio and the stage. “Mama Call” and “Pupil Suite” have space within which the dancers can make mistakes, improvise and employ the body’s intelligence. Perhaps most satisfying is that we see the effort, and we are drawn into these wild, humanistic little worlds. These are problems that have myriad solutions, and I took joy in watching these gifted dancers figure them out. If only they didn’t find the solution so quickly. I wasn’t ready for the evening to end.