Miller’s urgency to create
Gallim Dance performs the Canadian première of Wonderland at Chutzpah! March 10-13. (photo by Yaniv Schulman)
Gallim Dance’s Wonderland premières in Canada at the Chutzpah! Festival March 10-13. It was inspired by artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Head On, which is an awe-inspiring installation even when viewed only in photos. Ninety-nine wolves run into the sky, an arc of animals intent on moving forward and fast – right into a glass wall.
“I like this dance very much, which isn’t true of all my earlier works,” Andrea Miller, Gallim Dance founder and artistic director, told the Independent. “It’s the first of my works that I built like a story. It’s an absurdist narrative but a story nonetheless. I created four archetypal characters that depict the dangers of pack mentality. I use a broad range of music, from the Chordettes’ 1954 ‘Mr. Sandman,’ to Chopin, to indie singer-songwriter Johanna Newsom, to minimalist electronic music inspired by the circus.
“Seeing Head On at the Guggenheim Bilbao consolidated my mixed feelings about the war in Iraq,” she added. “As I was looking at the installation, I was making the dance in my head.”
The archetypes are “the fool, death, the lovers and Cassandra,” according to Gallim’s website. They “evolve in a universe influenced by the imagery of the American atomic age. Behind the smiles of an Esther Williams dream world, Wonderland reveals psychological and physical episodes of a herd acting as a unit through the uncoordinated behavior of self-serving individuals. Although pack mentality is a natural and ongoing strategy in the animal kingdom, among humans it can indicate a vicious, desensitized brutality and disregard for humanity – a concept that is at the core of Wonderland.”
Head On was part of Cai’s first solo show in Germany, at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin in 2006. While communicating a universal message, the danger of people blindly following others, among its themes are the rise and fall of Hitler – Wolf’s Lair was one of Hitler’s headquarters – and the rise and fall of communism, as symbolized by the Berlin Wall.
Such heady source material is not unusual for Miller. The writings of Raymond Carver and Albert Camus, for example, were inspirations for Fold Here and Sit, Kneel, Stand, respectively.
“I used to read a lot,” said Miller, “but now I feel like I’ve replaced books with work emails and video. I’m currently in a literary desert, but I love reading. Anything can inspire me, not just books; I’m available for being influenced and inspired by what I live and see happening to people in the world.”
Mama Call was directly related to her Sephardi heritage.
“I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home. My father grew up Orthodox and eventually became atheist and my mother was Catholic and converted to Judaism,” she said about her background. “Because we lived in Salt Lake City, one could feel, as Jews, like we were in a minority and the synagogue became a really important place for feeling part of a community. I guess because of that, Judaism has always been a strong presence in my life. I currently attend Shabbat services with my two children whenever we aren’t on tour. We also attend Catholic services with my boyfriend, their father. Truthfully, I can’t exactly delineate the contours of what is exactly Jewish in me, but I feel that it is a latent presence in my life. In any case, that’s ultimately a personal circumstance; everybody has their own personal circumstances.
“I feel that, in order to relate to humanity, to each other, to art, we must understand that our personal circumstances are just departure points, which we should be ready to transcend. In this sense, I am more drawn to the universal human condition than restricting my artistic research to my personal circumstances, whatever they may be (nationality, age, cultural background, ethnicity or spiritual beliefs). Mama Call began its inspiration with the Jewish Diaspora and eventually became a story of home for any immigrant or displaced person.”
Miller’s professional journey began in Salt Lake City at the Children’s Dance Theatre, which was developed by a Doris Humphrey disciple, she explained. “The philosophy behind the training was in discovering movement through improvisation and dramatic play, and I loved it.
“We moved to Connecticut when I was 9 and, by pure coincidence, I ended up dancing with another Humphrey master, Ernestine Stodelle, and learned the technique and repertory of Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. At that time, I became sort of a young expert in pioneering modern dance, hungry to interpret the works of [Martha] Graham, [José] Limón and choreographers of that era.
“I got into Juilliard, which baffles me to this day considering I had very little ballet training. In my first year at Juilliard, the director Benjamin Harkarvy would work often with me, imploring me to undo myself, my body, from the 1930’s esthetics. It took a year of identity crisis and it was then that I started obsessing over living choreographers and contemporary art. I met Ohad Naharin at Juilliard and, after graduating, joined the ensemble Batsheva.”
It was during her time with Batsheva, she said, that “choreography changed from a passion to an urgency.” When she left the ensemble, she started creating her own work. Back in New York, she founded Gallim in 2007.
“Early rehearsals of the company were at Juilliard between 9 p.m. (when the students typically had to leave the studios to rest) and midnight,” she said. “My first piece was a quarter evening called Snow. I made it for a performance by video application at Joyce SoHo. It went well and they invited us back for a solo week for which I created my first full evening, I Can See Myself in Your Pupil. After that, we were invited back for two weeks, where we repeated Pupil and premièred Blush. Ella Baff from Jacob’s Pillow saw it and booked it for the summer festival. Everything started moving from there. The next year, we were asked to open Fall for Dance and perform at the Joyce.”
Gallim Dance has become an internationally renowned company. Miller has won multiple honors and her work has been commissioned around the world. Also of note is the company’s financial viability and continued growth. According to its 2014 annual report, that year ended “with a balanced budget just over $700,000 and an increase in net assets of more than $46,000.” In addition to looking after itself, the company invests in community programs in its Brooklyn neighborhood and beyond.
“I don’t feel I have any innate talent in the hard skills of business but I seem to have an intuition for the soft ones,” said Miller when asked about her apparent business savvy. “One of my understandings for both my business and my choreography is that progress is incremental and incremental steps take giant leaps of creativity, risk, strategy, planning and commitment. I think I have a combination of chutzpah and common sense that helps me push us forward without threatening our sustainability. I’ve learned a lot about leadership and business from my dancers, staff and board.”
Early in the company’s history, Miller articulated her vision for Gallim Dance: “to play inside the imagination, to find juxtapositions in the mind and body that resonate in the soul, to investigate our limitations and pleasures, and to realize the endless human capacity for inspiration.”
“It describes where everything begins for me and how I relate to all art, not just mine,” she told the Independent. “I think this vision captures both the values I hold for the process of making dances, as well as the larger impetus for making dances at all.”
Gallim Dance performs Wonderland March 10-13, at Rothstein Theatre. For tickets ($29/$25/$21), call 604-257-5145 or visit chutzpahfestival.com.