W H A L E: Andrea Miller’s Gallim Dance at The Joyce Theater

New York, N.Y.  Andrea Miller’s work is not for everyone. Case in point: when the performance of W H A L E, Miller’s latest work for Gallim Dance, reached intermission at The Joyce Theater on Sunday afternoon, half of the row in which I was sitting mysteriously emptied out. From what I was told by other audience members (admittedly mostly dancers themselves), those who stayed for the entire performance walked away with smiles on their faces and a renewed sense of wonder at the marvel that is the human body.

Photo credit: Nir Arieli

Photo credit: Nir Arieli

Miller’s work polarises. Delight and disgust coexist seated side by side in the audience. Similarly, a full gamut of human emotion exists on the stage when Gallim Dance takes it, particularly in this latest work. With W H A L E, Miller exposes questions about love, sex, and relationships that usually remain individual and internal: “How do you get it? What does it look like? Maybe it’s always there, but how do you recognize it?” Perhaps the only thing truly pedestrian about Miller’s work is the emotions put on display: wholly, inarguably, recognizably human.

For all that these questions sound pedestrian and, dare I say it, normal, Miller’s movement is anything but. From the first moments of the piece, the dancers take unconventional, daring approaches to whatever task they are attempting. Seven of the cast begin onstage, singing Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E” with childlike abandon. With an unfailing grin, an eighth dancer enters and knocks them over with assisted flying leaps that seem both effortless and impossible. This delighted abandon carries over into movement, the ensemble throwing themselves into the air, onto the floor, and against each other as though in the midst of a playful pillow fight in a room full of mattresses. This escalates until a comically awkward attempt at a sex scene leaves one woman collapsed on the floor. She only rises once the others still, dragging herself upstage on one hip and one hand, rising on her toes as though thinking of flight only to collapse in on herself, the entire unexpectedly raw solo perfectly conveying what it feels like to move when everything inside of you has become chewed up, unrecognizable.

Photo credit: Nir Arieli

Photo credit: Nir Arieli

W H A L E proceeds to take the audience through gasp-inducing duets and pounding sections in unison, still, quiet moments of pleading and intimacy to strange and beautiful structures to a pulsing, contemporary dance approximation of a nightclub. A male solo danced in the nude, an intimate trio that calmly accepts interruptions and interference. The nude man’s attempts to fit himself into the images created by the trio and their tender, yet somehow distant responses etch a beautiful portrait of the spaces between sex and intimacy and family to take the piece to intermission.

If the dancers’ physicality was impressive in the first half, they pulled out all of the stops in the second. The lights come up on the dancers shoving each other, the group pulling back to stand or sit on the chairs set at the periphery as solos emerge that manage to convey the impression that the dancer is still being pushed around by invisible assailants. One dancer arches on his stomach across another’s back, thrusting himself into the air with no regard for whether the person bent in half to support him will be able to catch him again; another tips over backward, spiraling off a chair on one foot as the other stretches above his head behind him; a duet is composed of one dancer doing everything in his power to keep his partner from ever touching the ground, no matter how hard she strives to fly or fall away.

Photo credit: Nir Arieli

Photo credit: Nir Arieli

The moments of intimacy and affection also seem more sharply focused and softly felt in the second half. Two men counterbalance each other, walking in circles for an extended period before one of them crashes to the ground. His partner, instantly contrite, pulls him to his feet and into his arms; they then take turns allowing gravity to tip them over backwards, one always catching the other’s fall. A woman runs in circles around a man, pulling him into embraces only to throw him away, looking at him only when she finally falls to the floor. She stands and crawls inside of his shirt, then his shorts, to embrace him. They slow dance to soft vocals, taking turns to hold each other up as the rest of the cast flows and jumps across the stage in various stages of undress.

The work ends on a jubilant note, the cast jumping, falling, catching, spinning, stripping, and smiling with all of the enthusiasm with which they began the piece and the maturity demonstrated in the spaces between. Though there was no ostensible narrative, there was a sense of a journey, of an understanding being reached. And, if nothing else, one could appreciate the absolute delight and fascination with which Miller and her dancers treat the human body.

Go to see Gallim Dance the next time they perform. Love it, hate it–at the very least you’ll have something to talk about.

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Courtney Escoyne is an assistant editor and contributor at Dance Magazine. A recent graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance, her writing can also be read in Pointe and on her blog, Thoughts From a Ballet Nerd.