It was the kind of honest, exhilarated audience response that is palpable and undeniable. For two nights in September, the most vocal reaction during a Fall for Dance opening program that included works by Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham went to Andrea Miller's Gallim Dance, performing excerpts from her 2008 work I Can See Myself in Your Pupil. Amid this A-list program, Miller's piece clearly electrified the packed City Center crowd, many of whom had been unaware of her work before.
Chances are they haven't forgotten Miller's name since witnessing her dancers tear into her juicy, eccentric, impassioned movement with demonic abandon, accompanied by an infectious international music compilation. Women in pouffy party dresses of hot pink and chartreuse, and men looking like they'd started out dapper but had long left elegance behind, erupted into spasmodic fits. They flung their limbs, twisting and wrapping their bodies in unexpected, almost dangerous ways, suggesting a desperate need to connect.
The Fall for Dance performances brought Miller's work to its largest New York audience yet. A month before, she had graduated from the intimate 75-seat Joyce SoHo, where both Pupil (2008) and Blush (2009) had premiered, to a shared evening at the Joyce, where she unveiled Wonderland, her most complex and powerful work yet. A dozen feral, androgynous dancers in sleek gray costumes flirted with danger and distortion in this exploration of the animalistic instinct to follow the pack—and the price of breaking out from the crowd. The 45-minute dance exemplified Miller's gift for mining her dancers' individual abilities and extending their potential, as well as her underlying structural savvy and sensational instinct for raw yet sophisticated ensemble movement.
“It's like investigating places you didn't think your body could go," says Francesca Romo, the dancer who has been with Miller the longest and is Gallim's associate director. “We always try to work in a safe environment, but not putting limits on your body, and not restricting yourself in your mind. Taking that lock off your mind really releases a lot of things in your body. It's been interesting to find what the body can do, and how far it can go."
At just 29, Miller has an authoritative choreographic voice, one that draws on influences as diverse as Ohad Naharin, contemporary visual art, and current political developments. Her manner may be demure, but that shouldn't fool anyone; she is a focused, disciplined, and prolific choreographer. The Salt Lake City native, daughter of a Spanish mother and a Jewish-American father, trained in Humphrey-Weidman technique with Ernestine Stodelle and Gail Corbin after the family moved to Connecticut when she was 9. She graduated from The Juilliard School in 2004, having begun choreographing there and making artistic connections that would resonate further down the line.
“Juilliard was the perfect place for me. It opened my world up to so many other dancers—seeing that what they valued was so different from the things that were important in my dance school," Miller said last January following a rehearsal at Manhattan's sleek and spacious Jewish Community Center, where her company is in residence three days a week. She arrived with her strong modern background, which included some Graham and Limón, but had not studied much ballet. “I had to catch up to everybody else, who had been doing ballet for most of their lives. I really wanted it, but I got bad grades. It was a big struggle."
Gallim dancer Caroline Fermin was a Juilliard freshman when Miller was a senior, and recalls her as being very focused on choreography even then. “I remember her work being very dramatically loaded, but well crafted. She already had a strong voice," Fermin says, adding that her freshman classmates who were cast in Miller's works “were a little scared of Andrea. They'd come back from rehearsal and say, 'She's so intense, so wild.' "
Miller's future direction was sealed when Ohad Naharin staged his Minus 7 for Juilliard during her sophomore year. “I knew from the first rehearsal that I wanted to work with him," she recalled. “When he comes forward with his ideas, it can really resonate. For a lot of people—and for myself, for sure—they change your brain. It made me feel like the things I wanted to believe about dance could actually exist, and were truths for him too." She delved deeper into his process when he selected her and others from Juilliard to participate in presentations at the Guggenheim Museum and Kaye Playhouse. Upon graduation, she headed for Tel Aviv to join his Batsheva Ensemble, Batsheva's junior company.
When Miller arrived at Batsheva, classes in Gaga, the movement technique Naharin has developed, were already a daily regimen for both companies. “I think what most impacted me while I was there was Gaga—the way of accessing movement and physicality, of using your intelligence to access sensations and different textures. Gaga demands/invites people to teach themselves how to investigate their imaginations. It has the end appearance of looking like you're moving from your instincts, but truthfully it's becoming like a sophisticated animal—who knows where your bones are, what's around them and behind them—and looking completely aware and focused."
A few opportunities to choreograph were available through annual workshops. “I made horrible pieces while I was there," she laughingly acknowledges. By 2006, it became clear to her that she wanted to play more with choreography, and by mutual agreement she left. She considered checking out the Brussels dance scene. But while taking a Doug Varone workshop that fall in New York, she met Romo, who had recently arrived from England after performing with Richard Alston's company, and they immediately gravitated towards each other. “I watched her for a week; I was too afraid to talk to her, I was so blown away by her dancing," Miller said. “When I met Fran, it was like a direct translation of my ideas into physical existence—a perfect match. So I didn't want to go anywhere after meeting her; I just wanted to start dancing with her."
Romo, trained at the Royal Ballet School and attuned to Alston's cool, Cunningham-influenced style, was immediately fascinated by Miller's movement explorations. “It was such a switch from what I was doing before. I think my mind and body just eased into it. At the beginning with Andrea, I was like a sponge—absorbing. I had never done any of this stuff—pushing my body to different places. And it was exciting."
They co-founded Gallim (Hebrew for “waves"), gathered a few more dancers, and soon Miller's work was getting seen around town. It started small—a choreographic workshop here, a showcase there. Snow, a female quartet, was presented as part of a Joyce SoHo program of works by a dozen choreographers, and led to the 2008 engagement there where Pupil had its premiere. New pieces poured forth at an intense pace during 2009 and 2010—Miller was commissioned by Ballet Hispanico, Juilliard's dance division, Ballet Bern—and Gallim performed at Jacob's Pillow and Spoleto Festival USA. Late last year brought performances at White Bird Uncaged in Portland, Oregon, and Gallim's first overseas tour, to Spain. Romo, reflecting on all that has been happening, likens it to “an avalanche, running quicker down the mountain, gathering momentum."
In the new dance, inspired by the artistic distance Gould traveled between his two vastly different recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations, she was aiming for “a piece about self-awareness, and not necessarily as much about my fingerprint as a choreographer; more about the dancers I'm working with—who are they, and what kind of choices they make." Fermin called it “a vehicle through which we're investigating different aspects of ourselves. It's unlike anything we've ever done before."
This spring finds Gallim in residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where Miller will develop a new work that involves very contemporary and high-tech music. “Every new piece Andrea embarks on is a new adventure," Romo observes.
For Miller, who stopped dancing a few years ago, the choreographic process is as intense as the resulting works tend to be. “I always feel like every piece I make kills part of me, destroys something—and then it also invigorates something else. It feels like a reincarnation—like a very visceral, violent experience for my body, to create."
All photos by Matthew Karas.