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To technique, she adds tech

Video and motion-capture animation have aided choreographer Bebe Miller in expanding her thinking about human movement.

October 16, 2005|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

WHEN it comes to embracing technology and its potential to expand the limits of her art form, contemporary choreographer Bebe Miller describes herself as a "new nerd."

"I'm kind of a latecomer -- well, not that late," jokes the 55-year-old Miller, whose multimedia dance piece, "Landing/Place," will have its West Coast premiere Wednesday at downtown's REDCAT at Walt Disney Hall -- a space that, acknowledges REDCAT executive director Mark Murphy, is always eager to present interdisciplinary and high-tech performances.

"I'm really enjoying having access to the set of tools," Miller says from Ohio, where she's been exploring motion-capture animation -- the technique used to turn actor Andy Serkis into the animated Gollum character in "The Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy. "And my feeling is that in L.A., we're going to have an audience that is pretty well versed in a lot of this work and might be interested in our take on it."

In "Landing/Place," Miller freely mixes animation and video, projected onto scrims, with live dancers moving on the stage to music performed on laptop and slide guitar by Albert Mathias. The creative team for this evening-length dance piece also includes digital animators Vita Berezina-Blackburn and Brian Windsor as well as video/media artists Marlon Barrios Solano, Maya Ciarrocchi, Robbie Shaw and James Wood.

Miller's entree into such new-nerd experimentation came through her position as a dance professor at Ohio State University, whose Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design helped develop "Landing/Place."

Miller formed the Bebe Miller Dance Company in 1985 after dancing in the New York troupes of Nina Weiner and Dana Reitz. For most of her career, Miller toured with her company when not rehearsing or performing in New York City. Then, five years ago, she was offered a professorship at Ohio State, where she had earned her master's degree. Now she teaches for five months a year, free for the remainder of the year to assemble a troupe of dancers and go on tour.

Although there is no full-time dance company, Miller tends to hire dancers she has worked with before, "so I feel it is the continuity that makes it more of a company than a 'project,' " she says.

She does not perform in "Landing/Place," but she does still dance. "Right now I'm just interested in making work by being outside of it, so I can see it," she says. "And if I sound testy about it, it's because I just had a review that said: '55 and no longer dancing ...' "

The perks of academia

MILLER has mixed feelings about leaving New York City for Ohio but has come to enjoy the combination of affordable housing and the freedom to make dances without the constant pressure to tour new work to pay dancers' salaries and company operating expenses. In the case of "Landing/Place," the security of her university post allowed her to take three years to develop the piece, which she says is loosely inspired by a sense of other-ness she felt during a 1999 visit to Eritrea, in Africa. During her company's last appearance in Los Angeles in 1996 -- at Luckman Theatre as part of the Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century event -- Miller's company performed "Yard Dance," inspired by a trip to South Africa and the differences between the reality of the region's racial politics and what the American viewer sees on CNN.

Access to new technology also came with the academic job. "The reason I got into technology was because I could," Miller says. "Here at Ohio State, they have a motion-capture lab that costs $13,000 a week to operate. I was able to use it in-kind and to get college grants to pay for the animator and artists' residencies. And because I was new to Ohio, bringing a professional company there, there was lots of fortuitous funding happening." Besides university sources, the mile-long list of supporters includes the National Endowment for the Arts, the Doris Duke Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ohio Arts Council, Altria Group Inc. and the New York State Council on the Arts.

"The video is pretty straightforward, but we worked really hard with the motion-capture not to just leave it in the form of the body but to take certain humanistic movement and apply that in unexpected ways," Miller says. "Maybe there's a way of seeing something else besides the body acting out that carries some sense of human movement.

"For example, one dancer turns into a flock of birds. There is another group that become sort of cloud figures, like Michelin men, bouncing all over. At the same time, the live performers are doing the same kind of action but not specifically the same thing."

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