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A Private Life Reshaped Into Performance

July 20, 1986|LEWIS SEGAL

Midway through his 1982 dance-based performance piece "Postwar," Tim Miller frantically distributed photocopies of his birth certificate to the audience--as if pleading for his right to exist and as if the document somehow guaranteed him a secure future.

More than anything else in his innovative, internationally recognized body of work, this moment seems emblematic of Miller's mission and contribution as an artist: making an intense autobiographical perspective become as central to dance drama as it has long been to literature, motion pictures and the legitimate theater.

This perspective not only brings to dance a new kind of immediacy--what Miller calls "the more direct response"--it also personalizes such unwieldy if not overwhelming subjects as The Bomb, sexual identity, the factionalism of our political process and the role of traditional American values in shaping our view of ourselves. As Miller spelled out in chanted wordplay for "Democracy in America" (1984), history becomes his story.

In the Los Angeles area--where he grew up and trained as a dancer before leaving for New York in 1978--Miller has presented three works. "Postwar" (about adolescent identity crises brought on by the military buildup during his childhood) was imported by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. "Democracy in America" (about the confusions and responsibilities of political action) turned up on the "Explorations" series and, last summer, the first draft of "Buddy Systems" (about his early homosexual experiences in Hollywood) graced the "Dance Park" festival.

On Saturday, a full-evening version of "Buddy Systems" (which now incorporates a depiction of Miller's life over the last three years with writer/English teacher/co-performer Douglas Sadownick) will open at the Cast-at-the-Circle Theatre in Hollywood for a three-week run. It raises again the classic questions of how life influences art--and vice versa--that have confronted Miller throughout his career and also prompts some new ones about risk and responsibility.

Miller acknowledges that autobiographical performance art is "a form with many antecedents but no coherent tradition, a convention that's emerging intuitively like the 'I' voice did in New Journalism. We're sort of making it up as we go along.

"If you're viewing your life as material, which I've consistently and almost exclusively done in my work for eight years, there's an energy that is generated, a point of view put forward, sensations offered, a certain kind of authority defined that is completely different from that of a well-written character or an exciting ensemble theater piece or a fine corps of dancers," he declares.

"For me, the agenda of the form is to present my body, my life--with all the pitfalls which that entails but without the much greater artifice of theatrical tradition."

Until Miller's generation, even the most personal ballet and modern dance creations nearly always distilled the choreographers' feelings and experiences through myth, fiction or pure movement design. And Miller, too, once had ambitions to serve the formal post-modern dance aesthetic of Merce Cunningham: "seeing things as action, space, time and gesture," as he describes it.

However, influenced by the multimedia work of Spalding Gray, Robert Wilson and others, he began developing a custom-fit performance style that fused elements from post-modern choreography with those found in the obsessional, European dance-theater idiom. "My pieces definitely begin as an idea," he says, "but dance is the motor. For me, the creative process is much more linked to movement improvisation, working with objects--all sorts of physical activity--than to theater."

Punctuated by kaleidoscopic video and slide-screen imagery, strident music and sound effects and passages of disjointed speech, Miller's autobiographical pieces are too expressionist in style to be mistaken for documentary accounts. "It's such arrogance to think you could possibly make an accurate expression of something that you're as wildly subjective about as your own past," he comments scornfully. "It never interested me to try."

At one point in "Buddy Systems," he makes the issue explicit by critiquing his own representation of an experience: "No, it's not that way; it's not exactly how it happened. That feeling was not exactly like that . . . ."

More difficult to accept or to explain: the extreme contrast between the dauntingly self-possessed and voluble 27-year-old Tim Miller of today and the pent-up, inarticulate Tim Miller seen in "Postwar," "Democracy in America" and the 1985 "Buddy Systems." Even Sadownick--Miller's lover and non-dancing coperformer in "Buddy Systems"--forthrightly says, "I have no conception that he is the person on stage. . . ."

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