Gallim Dance, the four-year-old baby of Andrea Miller, based in New York and causing quite a stir as a "contemporary" new dance company, refused to be boxed in Friday night at their opening Spoleto performance of I Can See Myself in Your Pupil at the Memminger. From the moment they opened Act I, the seven company members (three men and four women) bounced up and down in opposite intervals and three rows. The understated effects of their movements were deliciously pleasing. To say they danced outside the box would be too cliché for this troupe. It would be more appropriate to say they dance inside out. Miller, of course, prepared us for this when we interviewed her several weeks ago. She explained that the Gaga technique that she learned in Israel with Ensemble Batsheva, under Ohad Naharin, taught her that it was possible to "take what [she] had inside and put it outside." We had no idea she meant this literally, yet it is obvious onstage at various points throughout this performance. When you're wondering how she even thought of some of these movements — so much of it seems exploratory — her secret lies in carefree improvisation that is crafted into our small notion of what "dance" is.
In Act I, dancer Troy Ogilvie is left alone on the stage after all the synchronized bouncing. She moves fluidly, one isolation at a time, and it is clear that her body is capable of much more, but she's trying something new. She could be any young organism discovering movement and learning to walk for the first time, but it is more animal than human. She discovers the endless possibilities of her limbs, while the audience watches, fascinated, the whole theater silent. She doesn't know anyone else is watching. It's like watching the Discovery Channel. Ogilvie is a bendy one, so few twisty contortions are out of her reach. She finds a way to waddle on her haunches, looking strangely like a frog, and then flips onto her back instead and travels this way, reminiscent of a crab. She is trying to end up alongside another woman who has walked onto the stage and sat down, back to the audience. The determination of this organism to make a connection is palpable. This is a repeated theme throughout Pupil — making a connection. There is also the understated hilarity of it all that also courses through the vignettes of this show.
In one male/female duet, a romantically linked couple fights the inexplicable magnetic force that draws them together, even as they are struggling to push each other away. A particularly riveting female quartet seems to be about four imperfect women in the same place at the same time all feeling the same thing, while pulsing aboriginal music thumps in the background. The four move as if desperate and trapped — one breaking out spastically and then needing to be restrained by the other three — and at other times as if drugged and resigned, marching around like beautiful zombies. The sense that each woman moves of her own accord, the way no section is meant to be danced in perfect unison, reaffirms Miller's unorthodox experimental style.
There is a sense of fast-forward, rewind, and repeat in many pieces — a methodology. One dancer stands in a spotlight onstage wiggling and writhing with the music, and after a count of eight, another will join. The seven of them eventually make two whole rotations of this spontaneous convulsing, creating the image of a conveyor belt of people shaking out their sillies. It looks just as comical as it sounds, and it doesn't get old. Shortly, it is reversed and the dancers leave the stage one at a time, the same way they came on, and a lone man stands in the spotlight once again. This sense that the cycle has been repeated and completed is felt at many different times, and it is just one more delightfully cohesive element that makes Miller a stellar choreographer. The whole body is recruited for every single movement made by Gallim Dance.
They make no bones about jumping about the stage like a crew of crazies, but it's the individuality of each dancer that keeps you glued to every leap, kick, and lunge around the stage. And the Memminger stage, while we're on this topic, is the perfect setting for this company. It is deep and open with a blank, white backdrop that catches the dancers' shadows (an intended effect) and enhances the experience. The theater is intimate enough for us to see their facial expressions and hear them sing or grunt and groan in unison, but large enough to sustain the feeling that you are watching — no, gaping — at the dancers behind the glass. Not unlike the zoo.
Miller is clearly not about the monochromatic, whether that applies to music, colors, costumes, or choreography. In the curtain-less wings they add and subtract sequined jackets, neon-pink leggings, earth-toned short onesies, and lime-green dresses. Nothing is particularly sexy nor ostentatious. Everything screams: "Here I am; take me or leave me."
It is rare for more than two people to be synchronized onstage at any one time. Each dancer is unique in how they dance and what they feel, but they all share a common goal and come together at surprising moments to remind us of this. Imagine you placed two young children on a trampoline and told them they could play whatever they liked for as long as they liked without parental supervision, and then you hid in the bushes and watched. They would be simultaneously jumping with abandon, yet exploring their own newfound capacity for height and lightness. This is how it feels to watch Gallim dancers together, their kinetic energy flying every which way.
The music is refreshing, quirky, exotic, and tribal. We spoke to Miller after the show and she explained she had just made some music changes to the first act and felt it was too identifiable. But unless you are a music aficionado, this soundtrack will surprise and delight you. With songs heavy, tantric, desperate, and also comical and classical, it is impossible to become bored.
Balkan Beat Box comes at just the right time towards the end of Act II, and in this female trio, it's apparent how much freedom Miller must feel while choreographing. The three women move wildly, with a sort of spastic grace that is free and honest and devoid of pretentiousness. At points throughout the song, the girls sing along, their mouths opening wide, over-pronouncing each syllable in a way that is comical, yet without meaning to be. They never stop moving, weaving their movements together for seconds at a time. The women look like petulant children running around the stage, arms and hands flailing, one woman leaping loosely, another making herself dizzy. Sometimes they step lightly, on tiptoe. They cannot hide their expressiveness.
This is when we remember something else Miller explained to us about Pupil. She told us that what she was feeling while choreographing this show was "explode." Her dancers just might explode if they push and reach any further. Take your eyes off the stage for one second, and you will miss something.