The Bebe Miller Company performed the complex, well-crafted, multimedia piece Necessary Beauty at the Bates Dance Festival July 31 and August 1. Right away, the performance drew you into an ongoing flow of movement, sound, and images. And afterward, my mind was buzzing — in a good way — not only because of what the piece said, but how it said it.
FLEETING CLARITY: Bebe Miller and Kathleen Hermesdorf
As we entered Schaeffer Theatre, dancers could be seen on stage moving against a backdrop of lowering storm clouds and grey ocean swells digitally projected onto two large screens. Silhouetted against the grey horizon the women rose and fell in simultaneous solos, duets, trios: shadowy figures skittering, reaching, or quietly reclining. For an hour and twenty engrossing minutes, projected images and sound score ebbed and flowed around Necessary Beauty’s choreographed and improvised movement. This flood of sensory information created a sense of viewer participation — a kind of relaxing into the moment — with a heightened openness to whatever funny, awkward, clever, lyrical surprises might surface next.
Sometimes the large screens reflected bright white light; but more often ingeniously timed digital images evolved in size and subject matter: a mountain peak, seen close-up, panned slowly to reveal a full-size landscape painting. Later the painting shrank to the size of a cheap reproduction with schlocky gilt frame. Rooms appeared, supplanted gradually by trees or clouds or close-ups of the dancers’ faces. Music, performed live by composer Albert Mathias, segued electronically from rhythmic drums to melodic tones, wind in trees, tolling bells, ticking clocks, and a Purcell aria, subtly marking transitions between different sections of the piece. The score also contained conversational snippets and reflections about family and memories.
In a program note, Miller explains that the key words “unseen influences” and “fleeting clarity” informed this collaborative project. A lighting designer, animation designer, video designer, writer, costumer, dramaturge, six dancers and a composer translated these abstract concepts into visible personal and cosmic landscapes, interior and exterior gravitational pulls. They revealed physical habits and emotional inheritances, unseen influences that shape “ourselves.”
Each of the dancers is a choreographer and performer in her own right, yet in sisterhood they comprise a richly varied ensemble: physically interacting, manipulating and counterbalancing each others’ energies. Improvisational moments within the highly structured dance revealed distinct personalities.
They were costumed in stylized street clothes in a palette of white, cream, grey, black — except for one dancer in a scarlet jumpsuit who jumped out at us first, in a riveting solo. Ms. Red (Kathleen Hermesdorf) moved with determined physicality, disjointed, ironic, and intense; Ms. Grey (Kristina Isabelle) was tightly wound and overwrought, spinning and attacking with pinpoint focus; Ms. Black (Yen-Fang Yu), younger, more contained, was also energetic; Ms. Cream (Cynthia Oliver), tall, authoritative, had a playful Attitude (capital “A” intentional); and Bebe Miller herself, Ms. Charcoal Grey — was calmer, warmer, with a sure, sly sense of timing; Ms. White (Angie Hauser), openhearted and vulnerable in a short flowing white dress, ended with a transcendent solo, bathed in clear light. The piece concluded as she adventurously entered the unknown space dividing the two screens.