More than 2,000 years ago, the Temple of Dendur sat on the west bank of the Nile River in Egypt. Today it overlooks Central Park from a large, sunlit hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"It always hits me when I see the temple, what an incredible transition it's been through," says choreographer Andrea Miller, the museum's current artist in residence, a week before the premiere of her new work inspired by the ancient structure. "That lifecycle is something I can't avoid."
Standing behind a reflecting pool, she observes her 16 dancers—10 from her company, Gallim Dance, plus 6 students from Juilliard—swarming the large stone plaza in front of the temple during a run-through of the piece, Stone Skipping. Dramatic tableaux echoing the temple's engravings are juxtaposed with intricate solos and duets that highlight the grandeur of the site.
"This piece is very much trying to be in conversation with the temple and the space," Miller says.
Being in conversation with one of the world's great artifacts is one of the privileges of being an artist in residence at the Met. Miller is the fifth performing artist invited to create at the iconic museum as an artist in residence, and the first choreographer to do so with that title.
"I'm always looking for artists that have something very deep to say," says Limor Tomer, the general manager of MetLiveArts, who oversees the program. "Andrea is someone who brings a lot of depth and at the same time flexibility."
Tomer first invited Miller to create a 15-minute work at the temple in the fall of 2016. Afterward, she asked Miller: If you could do anything at the museum, what would you do? Miller said she wanted to further develop the temple work and then make a work that wouldn't respond to any other art but simply be a piece of art itself. Last spring, Miller was named artist in residence.
"One of my not-so-secret agendas is to change her process, to change her," Tomer says of the program's goals. In particular, "I thought the opportunity to break out of a traditional space would be an interesting challenge to her."
But a big part of the challenge is reconfiguring Miller's reference points, daring her, in a sense, to grapple with history and the highest levels of visual art. Or, as Tomer puts it, one objective was to "see the Met as a place of inspiration…a repository and source of ideas rather than a repository of a bunch of objects." In return, Miller takes what can feel like a static place and fills it with energy and a sense of momentum, helping visitors experience it in new ways.
Over the summer, Miller began shaping Stone Skipping, but when she brought in much of the material she had created in the studio, "it made no sense." She realized that she needed regular access to the temple, so she asked to rehearse on site, which the Met granted once a week during museum hours.
Suddenly, she had an audience, which helped her understand how movement can offer visitors a new layer of meaning to something as imposing as the temple. "I see their physicality change and the amount of time they spend in the space," she says.
The next piece that Miller is creating during her residency addresses the second part of her proposal: to make a work that stands alone, without playing off an existing sculpture, painting or artifact. That work, for eight dancers, is slated to premiere at the end of May and occupy the entire fifth floor of the Met Breuer, the museum's nearby contemporary outpost.
In keeping with Tomer's mission, though, Miller is taking inspiration from an upcoming exhibit called "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)." Miller's work will similarly engage with the passage of time, performed without pause throughout museum hours.
"It's going to be grueling," she says. The durational aspect is a nod to one of Miller's heroes, the famed performance artist Marina Abramovíc. "I recognize myself in her approach and her humanity as a woman," Miller says, praising Abramovíc's urgency and risk.
Miller's opportunity to explore that aspect of her own creativity seems to be having precisely the effect Tomer intended. Miller says she feels the residency is "completely changing my approach as an artist," from her definition of performance to the way she considers sites and collaborators.
"I can't be more specific, but I know it's happening. I just need a little more hindsight."