Hollering Back at In a Rhythm Mar 16, 2018
by Elissa Favero
A response to In a Rhythm by Bebe Miller Company (Mar 15-18, 2018) (Photo: Robert Altman)
About her contemporary, the now deceased writer David Foster Wallace, novelist and occasional essayist Zadie Smith asserts, “He was always trying to place ‘relationships between persons’ as the light at the end of his narrative dark tunnels; he took special care to re-create and respect the (often simple) language shared by people who feel some connection with each other.” (“Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace”)
In a Rhythm, Bebe Miller Company’s current show at On the Boards, hinges on metaphors of language: language as words set next to each—arranged and then rearranged in time and space; language aspiring to be natural, revised to look like it rolls out before you, easy, not waving its hands performatively, for attention; and language as negotiation between writer and reader, between one speaker and another. Miller herself acts as a narrative guide, casually introducing the dancers, bringing in Wallace, and novelist Toni Morrison talking to now disgraced journalist Charlie Rose, then Smith on Wallace, and later the rapper Nelly and his song “Country Grammar,” and artists responding to the black teenager Emmett Till who was murdered so brutally, whose death catalyzed the further brutalities and hard-won victories of the Civil Rights movement. Miller queues us into sound as well as words. “Did you hear that note?” she asks several times of the key that’s been stuck intermittently as she first began speaking. She moves in and out of the performance, addressing us and then gone so that music, movement, color, and light become the elements we watch. She’s alerting us, all the while, to choreography as language—the moving body written in time and space, aspiring to be natural. And she’s asking us to work to make sense of it – to make meaning of how the parts work together, like a reader does with an author’s word on the page, or words in the mouth of a speaker.
I didn’t come to any definitive answers about the making sense of. Certainly race is a thread running through, perhaps the major theme of the work. “My grammar be’s ebonics,” Nelly sings back from the year 2000. He performs, with bravado, a rapper’s newfound wealth. Rose questions Morrison about the recurrent theme of race in her novels. We’re all inside of race, she responds. Two dancers of color, Christal Brown and Trebien Pollard, move in duet.
I thought also of somatics—the body as perceived within – as opposed to how it’s understood by an external viewer. In my place outside, many of the gestures here seem recognizable, though isolated, fragmented: skating and tumbling; emphatic hands, like those of a child, to communicate “stay low, keep quiet;” the foot-stomping of frustration; the dance of a house party. Sometimes the performers move in ways more akin to theatre than dance. They perform with their faces: with eyes that seem to search the crowd, or with mouths that make the words of that decades-old interview.
There’s no such thing as a private language, the twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued. So there’s Wallace and Smith and Morrison and Nelly speaking to the often fraught ways we feel connected to each other. And there’s Miller putting them all in conversation together through words, through dance.
I’m looking for the right words here to answer back.
Elissa Favero teaches critical and contextual studies at Cornish College of the Arts and writes essays about art, architecture, and landscape.
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