During one section of world-renowned choreographer Bebe Miller's modern dance piece, "Prey," two University of Montana students recreate the taking down of a water buffalo. It's not what it sounds like; not even close.
For the audience, it simply looks like an intense duet between Lauren Belland and Stevie Teran. She approaches him from behind, climbs atop his back and ever so slowly positions her weight to drop him gently to the floor. The delicate balance between Belland and Teran, and Teran's subtle switch to submission, looks anything but a scene from some late-night Animal Planet special. "Prey" may be inspired by imagery from the wild, but Miller says the piece deals with experience of everyday struggles.
"There is something about submitting to the utmost of what a situation calls for," says Miller about the piece, which debuts as part of the UM School of Theatre and Dance's Dance In Concert performance this week.
Miller's work with the students marks a rare opportunity for the department. Considered one of the preeminent modern dance choreographers today, and the founder of a critically acclaimed company that bears her name, she traveled to Missoula after a three-year effort to secure grant funding. "Prey," which features 12 UM dancers, will be part of a nine-piece performance this weekend that showcases work from UM faculty and students, and then will travel to local schools throughout the state. [Full disclosure: dance professor Nicole Bradley Browning is married to Indy editor Skylar Browning.]
Miller began dancing in New York City at 5 years old, mostly by accident. When her mother began taking dance classes in the community settlement houses on the Lower East Side to help with her arthritis, the rest of the family attended, too.
"We were not a family that had babysitters," Miller says.
By hanging around the studio, Miller ended up learning modern dance from the likes of Murray Louis, a postmodern dance pioneer known for his radical approach of dehumanizing the body. Louis and another luminary, Alwin Nikolais, just happened to be teaching children's dance classes at the time.
"I was exposed to deep, classic modern dance in abstract forms even before I could read," says Miller, now 60. "I had a really creative background. I suppose I started on a deeper level. But I was also from New York and probably exposed to opportunities I might otherwise have missed."
Miller studied modern dance until her teens, then found her way back to the art form while attending Earlham College in Indiana. After college, she returned home to New York just as a wave of independent artists began appearing on the performance scene.
"One thing led to another," she says. "Dance led to art, art to dance and I got back to New York, where I'm from, at the beginning of a boom for indie artists like me. I grew up artistically with people like [black contemporary choreographer] Ralph Lemon. A lot was happening when I was happening."
Miller's work is personal, the themes of which arc from the experiences of a black woman to political unrest—or, in the case of "Prey," relenting to a certain situation. She's praised for taking complex issues and making them accessible through vivid, physical choreography. "Miller's movement is so full of human frailty, so hot and messy," wrote the Village Voice about her work. "On a deep level we know what they're trying to do, and we watch as if this were, for the moment, the world's most gripping story."
Miller's storytelling with dance led her to launch the Bebe Miller Company in 1985. She and her dancers have toured the world and won numerous awards for her choreography, including a Bessie (dance's version of the Tony's) for innovative achievement in 2005.
These days, Miller balances her company's schedule with being a full-time professor at Ohio State University. Teaching and performing dance for most of her life, Miller has seen the discipline evolve, but working with students, including those at UM, she recognizes themes in dance that run across decades.
"We are a physical tradition," she says. "We hand down ideas. The culture in which artists are emerging shifts. And the reason for making work shifts. We engage and maneuver in all kinds of forms. What remains is what young artists are here to figure out."
Dance In Concert continues at the Montana Theatre nightly through Saturday, March 6, at 7:30 PM. $18/$14 seniors and students/$8 children.