The Making Room has inspired numerous thoughtful pieces of writing since its premiere. Scroll down to read excerpts from The New York Times, ArtsJournal and more.
Bebe Miller and Susan Rethorst Re-Make Room for Contemporary American Dance
by elizabeth zimmer, village voice, february 23, 2018
Sitting beside me at New York Live Arts was a bewildered young man from Long Island, a student at Queensborough Community College who’d been assigned to review the concert by Bebe Miller and Susan Rethorst. He took a lot of notes, but confessed that he didn’t understand what he was seeing. My companion and I tried to reassure him, urged him to track how it made him feel, to notice exactly what was going on. He couldn’t have come to a better event; the whole focus of The Making Room is to explore and preserve the process of creating dance. Miller and Rethorst are engaged in an effort to clarify their creative processes, to document how ideas and images make it from the private recesses of their minds to the broad landscapes of the stage. They’ve been talking and “convening” around the country since late 2015; Miller’s In a Rhythm dazzled viewers in Columbus, Ohio last fall, and did it again the other night in Chelsea.
While both of these artists began their long careers in this city, they’ve spent decades elsewhere. Miller recently retired as a Distinguished Professor of Dance from the Ohio State University, commuting between Columbus and Seattle; Rethorst has lived and worked in Amsterdam and Philadelphia. But it’s the members of Miller’s ensemble who demonstrate the geographic spread of terrific dance intelligences; her dancers (Michelle Boulé, Christal Brown, Sarah Gamblin, Angie Hauser, Bronwen MacArthur, Trebien Pollard) live, teach, choreograph, and perform all over the U.S. and abroad.
At New York Live Arts, they occasionally spread rolls of gray and white carpet, runway-style, onto the dance floor; other carpet scraps serve as ponchos. The movers are fleet and flexible, their bodies faster than thought, feinting in all directions, sometimes genuflecting on the white floor. Snippets of sound course through the piece. What kept grabbing me was the chorus of “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko-Bop,” repurposed from Little Anthony and the Imperials into Nelly’s “Country Grammar.” Black artists, both onstage and off, have a strong hand in this work: Toni Morrison challenges Charlie Rose, two black dancers (Pollard and Brown) get down in a slow drag. Miller, suddenly garbed in bright chartreuse, reminds us that “my reason for dancing is because of what it feels like.”
The Making Room isn’t a dance, it’s a project devised by Bebe Miller that she and fellow choreographer Susan Rethorst have been working on for over a year via conversations both virtual and actual, plus convenings and rehearsals with their collaborating dancers wherever they could find space and time. A website (the makingroom.org) includes text, images, and video documentation of the process. The project has resulted in two works—Rethorst’s Stealing from Myself and Miller’s In a Rhythm—shown, along with video installations by Lily Skove and Ellen Maynard, at New York Live Arts this past week.
These dances have made me think about the term “making room” beyond its significance as a room in which things get made. It resonates with getting rid of what you no longer need in order to create a space in which new ideas can flourish. That thought in turn makes me ponder lost and found ideas in relation to cleaning out your closet or attic. You discover something you’d almost forgotten you had; maybe you give it away or toss it; maybe you ponder it, refurbish it, and give it new life.
“Excavate” was a word applied to the process in an thought-provoking essay, “Bebe Miller and Susan Rethorst: Archiving the Disappearing Dance.” Its author, choreographer, dancer, teacher, writer Meredith Bove saw the project develop at various stages. I hadn’t read the essay before the NYLA performance, although it was included in the press kit and can also be found at http://thinkingdance.net/. I came to the works bearing only my partial knowledge of these two dancemakers, who first met in the 1970s.
Rethorst’s name for her dance is apt. In Stealing from Myself, Gabrielle Revlock and Gregory Holt replay moments from earlier works by Rethorst as well as showing movements and gestures that developed during the process of working together with the choreographer. The two inhabit a white-floored space, possessing only two chairs and several books. At times, Stan Pressner’s lighting colors it boldly, and Danny Elfman’s recorded score creates emphases, whether sharp or dreamy. Revlock and Holt, wearing brightly colored and patterned clothing, appear neither as lovers nor as adversaries (although he does drag her by the legs three times, leaving her briefly inert). Instead they present themselves as colleagues—sizing each other up and collaborating, each facilitating whatever the other seems to be planning.
They may take years to make, but works of experimental dance are usually performed just a few times. That huge temporal imbalance seems like a problem, yet if you listen to many choreographers and dancers, you get the sense that just scheduling more performances wouldn’t solve everything. These artists often imply that the process, not the product, is the most valuable part of their work — at least to them. Performances, by these lights, are more like peepholes.
Is there a way to widen the aperture? This appears to be the goal of the “The Making Room,” a project led by the veteran choreographer Bebe Miller. At New York Live Arts last week, she and her esteemed colleague Susan Rethorst each presented a new piece on a shared program. So far, so ordinary. But Ms. Miller’s company also unveiled a website — themakingroom.org — that gives the public access to more of the making.
The access we get isn’t equal. Over the course of two years, the two choreographers operated largely independently, and the text and video clips on the website offer much less of Ms. Rethorst’s process than that of Ms. Miller, whose company organized the project. We see bits of Ms. Miller’s rehearsals and in-progress showings, source material and improvisations, experiments that yield discoveries or don’t, and lots of stuff (including dancers) that didn’t make it into the performed piece.
Clicking around, you can get a decent feel for what Ms. Miller and her dancers do with their time, and for the collective exploration that matters to them. That’s much less true of the pages devoted to Ms. Rethorst. But the project has a third element: three occasions on which the choreographers met and compared notes. And here Ms. Rethorst’s participation is crucial.
As she demonstrated in her 2012 book “A Choreographic Mind,” Ms. Rethorst is uncommonly skilled at articulating how her kind of choreographer thinks. She’s a straight talker, too. She’s the one, on the website, who suggests that all this exposure of process might be more interesting to the participants than to audience members.
ONe after another
by Eleanor Goudie-Averil, Thinking Dance, March 2, 2018
On Saturday I attended Bebe Miller and Susan Rethorst’s “Shared Practice” workshop in the theater at New York Live Arts before attending their shared performance, The Making Room, in the same space that evening. Rethorst and Miller took turns facilitating the workshop, and the two hours went by in a flash. We dancer-makers worked in duets, putting one movement in front of another without stopping to edit what was being made. We watched and assessed the simplicity of movements in time and moved right on to the next exercise, revealing methods of making from both artists’ process. Starting my experience of The Making Room with this workshop felt apt. There is an ongoing-ness and a cohesiveness to the entire project and processes (described in another TD article previewing the work by Meredith Bove.)
Rethorst’s Stealing From Myself, a duet for Philadelphia dancers Greg Holt and Gabrielle Revlock, functioned as a sort of prelude, a short story before a longer prose work. They moved books and chairs (the only objects in the space), traced each other’s outlines, drawing their bodies into the space, and made intricate hand gestures and quick, full-bodied shifts one after another. Their partnership was ambiguous yet synchronous. In Stealing, Rethorst quoted movement from her earlier works. Most notable for me was Holt dragging Revlock by her feet across the floor, then jumping and hopping over her relaxed legs and torso, a direct quote fromTHEN, Rethorst’s first Philadelphia work, made for Group Motion in 2013. Rethorst also reused upbeat music from the movie Beetlejuice, that came in at random, and appeared in the 2013 piece, and in a 2015 work she created with students at Ohio State University (where Miller was the chair at the time). Holt and Revlock posed and preened through phrases, moving chairs towards and away from each other, putting on jackets and taking them off, until Revlock declared “The End” after flipping fully through the pages of a book. The piece was witty, colorful, ironic, and totally enjoyable.
Miller’s In a Rhythm followed, and she began with a casual introduction of her literary inspirations and the dancers, as they began warming into movement around her. Discussing her musical choices, she called attention to the one repeated note, high and quick, which provided a kind of stilted metronome throughout the piece. Miller spoke about a David Foster Wallace short story (she told the audience to “Read it.”). However, she didn’t explain the plot, rather, she focused on his writing, his structuring of words. She brought up an interview in which Zadie Smith speaks about Wallace’s writing. And she discussed an interview in which Toni Morrison was asked when she would “stop writing about black people,” a question that Miller rightly said is “ridiculous.” Miller and dancer/ rehearsal director Angie Hauser entered with one earbud in each ear, speaking in interview style about how to make words “march forward.” The dance similarly marched forward
In the literature of David Foster Wallace, the footnotes are just as enjoyable as the body of text. The footnotes offer an earpiece to the rich internal monologue that characterizes many successful artists of all mediums. A similar idea might apply to The Making Room, a creative dance-making experience organized by the Bebe Miller Company, culminating in their performances at New York Live Arts. The Making Room brings us not only the “body of text” in the form of a live performance, but also the “footnotes” illustrating the creative process behind it. Fittingly, Bebe Miller cites David Foster Wallace as inspiration for her work, along with Gertrude Stein and Toni Morrison, specifically for their ability to “capture diverse cultural relevancies through how they structure language.”
To hear them tell it, veteran choreographers Bebe Miller and Susan Rethorst first danced together in their twenties. Four decades later, in 2016, they convened with their respective dancers, embarking on a year-long journey to each create new work in parallel, and painstakingly document their progress along the way. In this case, their “footnotes” took the form of a website, with an online portal housing the choreographers’ notes, photos, and videos. The material drew from their travels as the dancers rehearsed in various cities, including Philadelphia, Columbus, and Northampton. The website, which went live in unison with The Making Roomperformances at New York Live Arts, articulates its goal “as an online resource template for creative process documentation, geared for both academic and artist audiences.”
I happen to attend the show the same evening as their post-performance “Stay Late Conversation,” an informal Q&A that is facilitated by The Making Room’s project manager, Lila Hurwitz, while the dancers sprawl across the stage with a level of ease that only dancers and cats can muster. The two choreographers consider their respective approaches to the choreographic process. Rethorst’s approach is to hone in on isolated artifacts; this evening, her work is compiled from fragments of older works, taken out of context and juxtaposed against each other. For Miller, the path involves syntax and context: choosing and rearranging memories and choreographic elements to examine cultural references and relationships. These ideas are evident in the choreographers’ pieces.
What Can One Dance-Maker Learn From Another?
By lauren kay, theatre development fund, february 15,2018
Choreographer Bebe Miller explores the creative process in The Making Room
Choreographer Bebe Miller always prioritizes the investigative process. Even in the throes of creating, she likes to zoom out to consider how she actually makes the art. Does she prepare material before rehearsals? How does she engage the dancers in helpful dialogue? If the dancers are improvising, how does she decide which sections to keep, and how to order them?
These questions always remain front of mind for Miller as an artist and a person. In 2012, her full-company piece, A History, explored the creative process of working with her main collaborators: dancers Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones, and dramaturg Talvin Wilks. While that satisfied some of her curiosity, she wondered how adding another choreographer might enhance her understanding of dance-making.
So in 2016, she embarked on The Making Room to engage in "parallel play" with modern dance innovator Susan Rethorst. The two had performed together in 1977, but then gone off in their own directions. While Miller's swelling movements integrate energetic zeal with an abstraction of narrative, Rethorst's work feels direct and clean, with an underlying inquisitiveness about shapes and steps. Both are interested in the concepts of aesthetics and structure, but come at them from disparate vantage points.
That's why Miller saw a perfect ally in Rethorst, an equally respected but wholly different choreographer. "The idea was we'd convene three times over a year plus, as well as document the process and talk a ton," explains Miller. "It's not that we collaborated on a piece. Instead, it's watching and learning how another artist creates. How do we work? How is it different? How do those differences actually happen?"
IMPRESSIONS: Bebe Miller Company and Susan Rethorst's "The Making Room" at New York Live Arts
By Theo Boguszewski, The dance enthusiast, march 12, 2018
The evening is uncharacteristically warm, and the New York Live Arts theater is particularly balmy with the scent of impending spring hanging throughout my experience of The Making Room, Bebe Miller and Susan Rethorst’s collaborative dissection of process.
Miller and Rethorst met in the 1970s, before embarking on divergent careers as choreographers. What brings them together now is a mutual interest in collecting ideas about the creative process and sharing them in their split-bill program.
The Making Room is an unfinished yet thought-provoking experiment that doesn’t stop at the theater doors. A website (www.makingroom.org) containing media and text materials generated during rehearsals can be visited to continue the experience.
During In a Rhythm, Miller makes a comment that holds relevance throughout the program: “What I remember and what I carry with me is what I measure the present moment against.” Thus, all the factors that affect how a person experiences a performance then, in a way, become part of the performance itself: the environment, activities prior to the show, everything in a life up to this moment.
The influence of literature appears throughout In a Rhythm. Miller opines on the process of creating and translating art through the filter of authors like Toni Morrison, David Foster Wallace, and Gertrude Stein. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it contains within itself a rich history of influence.
Although accompanied by a group of dancers, Miller is an omniscient presence, eloquent and engaging as she recites from a grant application, like a grandmother reading a story by a fireplace. She pauses for a moment: “I did not get this grant.” In the background, her performers have found stillness, with the exception of one young woman, who moves almost aimlessly. Miller sighs and says, “ We keep going.”