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True collaboration: Bebe Miller Company.

Lemons and Lemonade

By Lynn Hasselbarth

Bebe Miller Company

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., Aug. 26

In the final performance of the 75th anniversary season of Jacob’s Pillow, the Bebe Miller Company removed the barrier between audience and performer with Landing/Place, a multimedia playground of human interaction.

Miller’s latest dance work reflects on the overwhelming disorientation and surprising hospitality one can find in unfamiliar territories. When redefining one’s place, not only do physical maps become irrelevant, but one’s inner landscape becomes altered. However, despite any temporary loss of roots, Miller’s own words are heard declaring that “a kind of placeness is out there.”

The choreography is based on improvisation, with active collaboration among the company’s six dancers, each revealing distinct qualities and messages. Kathleen Hermesdorf harnesses a fierce athletic stability, while Angie Hauser is more chatty and exuberant. Kathleen Fisher offers a meditative inner reserve, working lower to the ground. The two male dancers represent a generational divide, with Darrell Jones bringing the youthful attack of street funk, while Keith Thompson rests into the role of storyteller through vivid facial expressions.

The diversity in personalities is unified by a visible compassion among the dancers. The entire piece is delightfully conversational—peering at one another through lifted elbows and rebounding off of each other’s chests, shoulders and hips. The dancers deliberately acknowledge each other, relying on one another for recognition in a manner that is disarmingly informal.

The cacophony of movement is grounded by a steady stream of electronic sounds that composer Albert Mathias derives from his steel lap guitar, digital drum kit, and Mac computer. Seated in the front left corner of the stage, Mathias makes fluid transitions between techno beats, distorted vocals, ethereal guitar melodies and progressive drum sequences.

The digital animation of Vita Berezina-Blackburn brings an added layer to this technologically sophisticated piece. As faculty members at Ohio State University, both Berezina-Blackburn and Bebe Miller have access to the acclaimed Advanced Center for Computing in the Arts and Design (ACCAD) and its motion-capture technology. Used in today’s epic fantasy films, this form of media makes it possible capture the outlines of moving bodies and fill in the space with new images, in this case billowing clouds, village houses and birds in flight. At times the initial outline is all that is projected, revealing a constellation of dots cascading through space.

Video designer Maya Ciarrocchi adds images of travel and displacement on the large backdrop and a smaller screen downstage—an endless road with passing traffic, a reckless flood or a damaging earthquake. These scenes redirect viewers’ attention to the unpredictable realities that disrupt our daily lives and the social order.

As the piece progresses, one becomes lost in ambient electronic tones and the dim green shadows of lighting designer Michael Mazzola. The movement seems less remarkable, possibly because it is so recognizable, so pedestrian. However, it is instructive to see such familiar exchanges reflected on stage in a performance setting. What is alive in the seemingly arbitrary and improvised movement is mindful intent. Precise spatial awareness is necessary in order to coordinate flailing limbs and torsos. This consciousness is in contrast to the detached execution of our own daily walking, reaching, dodging . . . tripping.

Just as one yearns for something less commonplace, Mathias rises from his digital den and lip synchs a Verdi aria toward the onlooking dancers. More surprises tumble outward, like the tray of lemons uneasily carried by Angie Hauser, which spill out unto the empty stage. Hauser proceeds to hand-pick each fruit from the ground in a peaceful ordering of events, later violently slicing a select few to offer the dancers. A delightful scene ensues with the entire company stoically sucking the juices from their ripe lemons, their lower bodies jittering incessantly. The air is filled with the smell of fresh citrus, enlivening one’s senses to the present moment.

Not to be forgotten is the bird house—the small wooden dwelling ignored in the middle of the stage and later heaved forward by the ensemble as if deeply rooted in the earth. The detached interplay with this symbolic object serves as a reminder of the enduring presence of home even during our most distant travels and inner journeys. While one may continue to search for that connection, Landing/Place makes our own conceptions of home and belonging more accessible.

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