Transcript, The Dance Edit Extra Soft Launch: Andrea Miller on The Alchemy of Performance

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to the very first episode of The Dance Edit Extra! We are so excited to be launching this new audio venture—or audio adventure, rather.

The Edit Extra is a companion to The Dance Edit’s weekly news podcast. And I don’t want to confuse you: This first episode, which you’re seeing in your regular Dance Edit Podcast feed? It’s what we’re calling a “soft launch.” Going forward, listening to Edit Extra episodes will involve subscribing to a separate podcast feed. But we wanted to kick things off here, to give all of you listeners a sense of what will be on offer.

So, what can you expect from the Edit Extra? In this premium series, we will be bringing you interviews with the dancers, choreographers, educators, administrators, entrepreneurs—all of the above—who are shaping the dance world’s headlines. We’ll have new episodes dropping on Saturdays every couple of weeks.

In this inaugural episode, you’ll be hearing from choreographer Andrea Miller. I talked with Andrea a few weeks back, when she in the process of creating the choreography for You Are Here, her innovative installation on the Lincoln Center campus. Fast-forward to now: The performance portion of You Art Here actually kicks off tonight, July 24th. You can find out more about that at restartstages.org.

I hope you enjoy Andrea’s beautiful words of wisdom! And please visit thedanceedit.com to learn more about The Dance Edit Extra and all of The Dance Edit’s offerings.

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Margaret Fuhrer:
I am very excited to be here now with award-winning choreographer Andrea Miller. Andrea, thank you so much for joining today.

Andrea Miller:
It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is so lovely to have you as our very first Dance Edit Extra guest. Andrea is the artistic director of the movement-based production company Gallim. And her work has been presented…pretty much everywhere, but here’s a highly condensed list: It’s been at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Kennedy Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Joyce, Jacob’s Pillow. And very soon, from July 14th to 30th, Lincoln Center will be presenting a new sculpture and sound and performance installation by Andrea titled You Are Here. And we’re going to talk a lot more about that work today. But first, to get started, Andrea, can you actually tell our listeners what you think they should know about your dance story?

Andrea Miller:
My story, starting from the beginning. I mean, thankfully my dance story is very close to my life story in many ways. Dance has been part of my life since I was three years old. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, where there are lots of children and lots of dance studios. But I feel like I had a special, I don’t know, blessing to be part of a school that was created by Virginia Tanner, who was the pioneer of modern dance. And then moved to Connecticut, and, when I was about nine, trained in Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman materials, choreography and technique, until I attended Juilliard, and went to dance at the Ensemble Batsheva in Tel Aviv after.

And then after leaving there, I wanted to start my own company. Well, I didn’t know if I wanted to start a company, but I wanted to choreograph, and they sort of met each other. A company emerged out of a result of wanting to create opportunities to choreograph and build an amazing experience of working with incredible artists. And we shaped what we dreamed dance could be for ourselves, and what we wanted to be doing in the studio and doing with our craft, with our relationship to audiences. And it just kind of kept growing. And I think about five years into the company I started…maybe it wasn’t just five years in, because it’s been always my dream from the beginning as a choreographer to work inside and outside of the theater. And believing that that was a really important place for interaction and I guess, meaning making, of our life, of our culture, of our bodies, of dance, that it could be really, really exciting in other spaces outside of the theater. So I’ve been working a lot more in films and site-specific work as artist in residence at the Met. That was a huge, huge moment where it kind of clearly marked a line of transition—not away from the theater, but just adding to my curiosity about these other spaces and collaborations. And now we’re at Lincoln Center doing a sculpture, sound and performance installation with community members. Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m sorry to go backwards, but I have to ask. So you trained in Humphrey-Weidman technique starting at the age of nine—that is so profoundly unusual! What was that like? How did that shape you as a young dancer?

Andrea Miller:
Well, my teacher was Ernestine Stodelle, who was 80 years old—I trained with her from when she was 80 to when she was 90. And she was doing full on pitch falls and hinges at 90, better than any of us. She kicked our butt! And also I had another teacher, Gail Corbin, who continues to set Humphrey’s work, who’s a huge inspiration. I think it was really… It’s an unusual training, but it was really like a sacred kind of training. Because, I guess, when you work with legacy, there’s just this feeling that this person found like a gem or something, discovered some secret garden, and you want to hold it really closely and guard it, and feel very focused about what its meaning is. And so I felt like going to training in this way was like being in a temple in some ways. And it changed how I think about dance and how I related to dance, in this sacred way, which is very, very present.

But I think there were also some limitations, because my teacher was very uncomfortable with me doing other techniques. Because she grew up in that time where it’s like, “Well, if you’re a Humphrey dancer, you don’t do Graham.” Or like, ballet is like another… So it was this really weird and anachronistic kind of reality to live in. And so when I went to Juilliard, and I started seeing that there’s living choreographers and there’s pop music you can dance to—it was really mind blowing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. The dance studio is a sacred space—that’s really it. So, coming back to the present now. What has your life and your creative world looked like over this past year, during this pandemic period? I mean, so much has changed, but what were the constants that got you through all the uncertainty?

Andrea Miller:
Uncertainty was a constant. And I think it was a very necessary year. A necessary time for me personally, to slow down everything, to stop. I mean, just not even slow down, to just stop. The speed and the…. I’m tripping over my words, because thinking of last year—or the year, it continues—thinking of this pandemic, I find myself speechless in many ways. It’s hard to describe. It was really difficult to see the dance community and to see my own company and to see the dancers, my friends, family, people dealing with significant trauma. And I think that what kept me going was probably my family. Having the opportunity, as a mother, to really be with my children in a way that honestly I hadn’t been able to do until this year, in this way, was actually a really big, big blessing.

And at the same time, I felt like creativity really doesn’t stop. It fills different spaces. And so you’re in a studio, you fill that space; you’re in a film set, you fill that space; you’re in your fantasy, you fill that space. And I think being able to see my creativity, being conversation in spaces in which I hadn’t been, with incredibly inspiring people, was just very exciting. It was a very exciting experience to build a new conversation, new community. Even if it’s not new people, it’s familiar people, but a new level of connection grew. So that was really special. And we did that through making sure to stay present and have a digital life, whether it was just teaching free classes on Instagram, or we have our happy hours where I got to interview so many inspiring artists. So yeah, that was kind of the muscle that we built.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And speaking of digital life, you’ve done several film projects during the pandemic. And I’m wondering if you’d talk a little bit about that work. Looking at movement through that different lens—I mean, literally through a lens—has it changed the way that you think about it at all? Or has it not?

Andrea Miller:
Yes. Film is surprisingly not as similar as I might’ve thought it to be prior to working more in it. It’s so visceral when you’re watching it—you feel like it’s you, and so it’s like, how can that be so different than the room I’m sitting in or the way that I’m moving right now? But it’s really… It’s its own world and it’s its own art. And I felt at first very humbled, but I had a lot to learn and thankfully was learning with some really incredible filmmakers and artists, cinematographer, and building a language together.

I think the biggest differences are how loud everything is. That little plug in the corner that you wish you had somehow not put in your frame, how loud the lighting is in the moment in the day, and how it changes in one second, how loud the color of your costume is. It’s really working with volumes that are usually much more muted in the theater. And it felt really exciting to reframe those things. And also, I think, narratively to be able to be much more playful with how you can edit to create narrative instead of being in a real time. So those are just two examples of, I think, infinite that kept coming up for us.

We redid a piece called BOAT, which is a piece that is—much of the material evokes and the idea of water. And then we filmed it in water. And I found it’s very ridiculous to evoke water when you’re actually in water. So, the choreography didn’t work anymore. Like, you’re not in Kansas anymore. And it’s a very exciting adventure to me, to be had as a result of it. And I love it. And I just want to do a ton more.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ll include the link to BOAT in the show notes—it’s a beautiful work. I know, it’s funny how film is both more and less literal than productions in a theater in a lot of different ways.

All right, so getting to You Are Here now. The press release for You Are Here says that the work “continues your investigation of the human pursuit of understanding through the alchemy of performance.” Which I thought was so beautiful. And I’m hoping that you can elaborate on it a little bit further. How has that idea shaped your career, and how does it shape this piece?

Andrea Miller:
Yes. Well, there’s two thoughts there and they’re interconnected, but it is movement and its relationship to learning and understanding, and the event, and all of the changes that happen when you create, or when you construct the circumstances for performance to be conjured. Like performativeness or the witnessing and performing, that shared space. And how all of those things are, in my opinion, and part of what I’m most excited about, related to an essential part of humans’ desire to deeply understand themselves and each other.

I think we have limitations of understanding ourselves and each other through logic. It only goes so far, and it’s an extremely flawed language. And I would even say, movement can… You can describe it the same way, but at the same time, movement isn’t a construct like logic and language. Our movement is just innate and necessary. And we learn how to understand the world through how we touch and see and feel and move in this body. So I think that from the beginning, there’s this very pure and honest space of learning that movement and the body have shared from day one, like in embryo. And so it’s like a home base. It’s a home base to always return to.

And going to performance, thinking of performance: The word alchemy is something I use a lot actually, because the act of creating to me is this believing in something very magical that doesn’t exist. It didn’t exist the second before. And you make it out of nothing, like making gold from dirt or whatever an alchemist maybe uses to make that gold. And so I think the performance is this special relationship that we’ve set up to try to witness each other, to try to bear reality and to try to bear our hopes and dreams, and to try to hold it together in a way where we can kind of agree to watch and hear things we might not do in conversation, or we might not do in any other space.

And so, to me, it really is this need to try to understand. And I’m not thinking that we’re trying to understand things like a thesis, like we’re trying to prove something—in no way, at all. The understanding that comes from it is as mysterious as the pursuit. So I just really get excited about these two spaces, because I think they’re very naked and revealing of how we try to understand the world around us. It’s a very exciting and intense opportunity that we don’t have in other spaces in our world.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Reading this, the word alchemy was the one that got me too. And I think it’s interesting, right? Because in a sense, all art is alchemy. It’s identifying that magical something. But dance is one of the few arts where there isn’t another material onto which you are projecting something, it’s just the body—this thing that we all have. So when you’re talking about creating understanding, well, we all have bodies. Inherently, there is a route to understanding there that’s different than maybe in other media.

Andrea Miller:
You struck me with the way that you described alchemy. It’s something that I’m still learning about, how I want to communicate it. But it seems to be like the most perfect word to describe dance. I don’t know. I’m so interested to hear that you feel that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can you talk a little bit about how You Are Here came to be? What was sort of the point of generation for the project? And then how did it evolve from there?

Andrea Miller:
Absolutely. Yes. So I was rehearsing at New York City Ballet. Not at New York City Ballet, because it was a pandemic and it was closed, it still is a pandemic. But we were making a film—which is such a great thing for, I think, the company to have explored in this time, and I think something that they had done, but isn’t necessarily part of their creative vision. And I just feel like maybe after this time, it would become maybe more part of it. Because it’s such an accessible place to get in, to get to see them and get to feel them.

So anyways, we were doing this film, and I was filming in Hearst Plaza with New York City Ballet dancers. And we were rehearsing, and the security guard saw us. And she just started dancing right alongside us in the Plaza. And she was amazing. She was so beautiful. She was inspiring. And I just felt like maybe she should be in the film, but that wasn’t possible at that at that moment. She kind of disappeared, and we were thankful for that special moment we had.

But I came away really thinking about how a lot of my concern has been about all of us that are wanting to get back on stage, but that really, it’s a huge, huge, huge, huge family of people that make it possible for people to be on stage. It’s the security guard and the ushers and the volunteers and the educators and administrators. And it’s a huge family village. And I felt that I hadn’t been thinking about that as much. And it really turned my focus around, especially seeing how beautifully she danced. And so I just came up with this idea of maybe asking all of the constituents of Lincoln Center to… Maybe I could find a performer and an administrator or security guard. Or, as I said, an educator. Someone else, who’s not a performer in their constituency, but who is a big part of it, or who they know is somebody who likes to sing or who can tell a good story or could tell a good joke, and to nominate two people. And that I could maybe create a piece for all of Lincoln Center with the performers right alongside another person in the organization, who’s doing as meaningful work. And then it started expanding to wanting to work with… Well, I might stop there because I don’t know how far you want me to talk about the piece. But that’s just where it started.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I actually am interested to hear more about it, because there’s some information in the press release and I’m sure that our listeners know a little bit about it. But I’m curious to know how it grew and built on itself, because it sounds like that’s very much what happened.

Andrea Miller:
Yeah. Well, the first idea actually was not that people would perform. The first idea was that I would record audio portraits, and create a portrait that could be heard in speakers, where we could just hear about how the year had gone, how people were coping with this past year. And how, if at all, the arts were part of their processing. If it was a story or a piece of music or a song or anything. And so it started with really wanting to think about these audio portraits. And then I said, well, so much of audio portraits could be in the site, so you could walk around in the Lincoln Center campus. Because it was at a time in which we really needed to find more places to be able to be outside. And, there’s only so many times you can go to the park.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Spoken like a mom.

Andrea Miller:
Exactly! Just wanting to claim Lincoln Center as a place that’s still a place to find that creativity and meaning-making and everything that they do as a performing arts home, mecca. And so just, I wanted to be a sound installation that would be there, that people could feel like they could walk at their own pace and they could experience it safely. But then I started getting uncomfortable with the idea that everything that we have been doing has been digital. Everything that I have consumed in culture has been through a screen or through ear phones. And even if it’s on-site and I’m walking, I’m excited about that, but it’s still…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Not real.

Andrea Miller:
…the body is not there. It’s amputated. It’s undone from the voice that I’m listening to. So I felt like that these audio portraits should evolve into live performance of the portraits, so that we can be back in embodiment together. So it grew into that. But honestly, I pitched that whole idea all in one as a concept to Lincoln Center, and they felt it. And they wanted to make it with me, because it’s very co-collaborative. I’m asking a lot from also the organization to create it together with me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And I want to talk about some of your artistic collaborators too, because you have Mimi Lien making sculptures, you have Justin Hicks, the sound artist. How did they come on board?

Andrea Miller:
So Mimi was actually someone that Lincoln Center suggested and asked that I would work with her, which obviously is like a hundred percent yes, that’s fabulous. Thank you very much. She’s wonderful. And we didn’t exactly know what we would be doing together, because at the time I imagined that the sound installation would be coming from speakers, just regular speakers, which now we know are sculptures that she’s creating, which is a hundred percent more interesting. And the placement of them… I mean, she’s basically been there from the beginning. So it’s much more than creating the speakers, but really talking through this concept together.

And then Justin was recommended to me and I heard his work and felt that he had just completely… This is exactly what he does. He really gets into the identity and then the uniqueness of a person, and somehow makes a whole world from their story, from their voice, from his voice in his thoughts. So I was just really excited to work with him. He’s been brilliant.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And how did you conceive of the movement specifically for You Are Here? What is that process been like?

Andrea Miller:
Well, I mean, our first day on site is tomorrow.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, my gosh.

Andrea Miller:
So the movement is really…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Stay tuned!

Andrea Miller:
Stay tuned. I know in many ways the dance is really providing a very important role. It’s different from my other works, where it’s entirely the role, it’s entirely the hero of it. But in this case, the heroes are the portraited community members. Which we have 20—26 people from 13 constituents of Lincoln Center, the Met, the opera. I mean, the Met and the Opera, Phil, New York City Ballet, SAB, the Film Society, Chamber Society, New York Public Performing Arts Library. We also added accessibility and education to be two constituents. And actually the security guard that I saw that first day, she’s participating. She’s one of the people who’s being portraited. So really they are the heroes of the work and their story.

And the dance is, I imagine them like a Greek chorus, they are stepping through the landmarks. They’re stepping through these really important moments in the work. And they step through in hand with the audience as we pass through these different stories. And so they’re holding a lot of the space and the tension and the creating, because it’s an outdoor space in the daytime. So, they’re actually creating that alchemy, that this is a moment we’re going to witness something, and we’re going to be together. And we’re going to create a sort of pitch in the room, and in the Plaza, of listening and giving value to every little detail. So that’s kind of the way that I’m hoping their role is, as well as also bringing some rhythm and lightness and changing the verbal part of what the portraits are to a non-verbal experience.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That actually ties into my next question, which is about accessibility and inclusivity, because this piece is designed to be inclusive to those with disabilities. And that seems very much of a piece with the idea we were talking about earlier, about the pursuit of understanding through alchemy. Because yeah, that magic of art is that it can help everyone understand the difficult and the profound, as long as it consciously welcomes everyone. So how did that idea of inclusivity sort of shape the development of the work? Two part question: The second part is, how do you see inclusion as part of your creative philosophy more broadly?

Andrea Miller:
This is, I think one of the things that is really important about getting outside of the theater. Which I think now, theater is becoming a little bit more aware of this, but when you make a work for public space, kids are there, seniors are there, people with accessibility needs are there, people who don’t want to see you are there. People who wanted to sit down in that chair that you’re now dancing in are there! So it really just totally changes your status, which is, when you’re on the stage, you’re dominating the space. You are telling people to sit down and listen and watch. And obviously you can totally play with that. And I think that I described it in very cartoonish ways. But when you make a work for a public space, you have to think about everybody and you have to do your best to try to think about everybody.

And that really excites me and it inspires me, and I have a lot more that I want to do and learn with that. And I’m just at the beginning, this is just the beginning, but it’s a space that is… I want to be in, because that’s exactly where the movement that I’m making and the conversations that it requires are pushing to grow and make more connection with our world and our lives.

So I think that this is… We’re working with Lincoln Center, who obviously takes great care in doing this right. But I think what’s really fun is also just being able to be creative about it. And see what can bring most pleasure and most fun or most comfort to people. It’s been really great to have that as part of what we do. And just wild to see how much you actually really… In these 26 portraits, how I see myself in all 26 people. I mean, of course we have completely different lives, but it was just very special to feel more connected than disconnected in the end. Which I think is ultimately the goal of inclusion, too. We all feel we’re connecting, we’re getting closer.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And I love the idea of inclusion is not just something to be checked off a list, but something to incorporate into your practice in a way that feels of a piece with the rest of the work that you’re making, that feels like it’s contributing and enhancing this art that you’re making, as opposed to, “Yeah. I’m meeting all of the requirements.”

Andrea Miller:
Yeah, for sure. That feels crappy. It feels weird. I will say when you’re doing these things, you realize that there’s just a lot more that you want to do. And there’s a lot more you want to try to do. And it’s frustrating sometimes because the steps you’re taking aren’t as big or as radical, or as… Some feel really big, some feel massive. I mean, I know that there’s huge, for me as an artist, a revolution happening, but still you’re like, “It’s not as… There’s more we can do.” But that’s great because then you’re going to make more work. God willing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much for taking the time today to talk. Where can people go to find out more about You Are Here?

Andrea Miller:
Yes. It’s part of Restart Stages, where there’s a lot of really exciting things happening almost every day. You can visit restartstages.org.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Andrea, thank you so much again. I really appreciate your time and your consideration.

Andrea Miller:
Oh, it’s really exciting for me that you’ll include this in what you’re doing. I’m really grateful and thankful to have it with you. And it’s just so good to see you! I didn’t ask you at beginning—how you are and how have you been this year?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, thanks—that’s kind of you! I think I’m about the way a lot of us are—where I’m personally okay, and it’s that sense of feeling, well, it hasn’t been that bad for me relatively speaking, so I don’t have a right to be sad about things, but then also being sad about things. And I think a lot of us are in similar places. Thanks for asking.

Andrea Miller:
Yeah. Someone described it in one of the audio portraits as “languishing.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. That is exactly it. But lots of glimmers of light happening.

Andrea Miller:
Yeah. Well, thank you for all that you do. Thank you for having us.

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Margaret Fuhrer:
A big thank you to Andrea, one more time, for her candor and insight. A few more details about You Are Here: Ticketed live performances begin tonight, July 24th, and will run through July 30th on the Lincoln Center campus. As Andrea mentioned, you can visit restartstages.org for more information about the whole project.

And thank you all again for listening. We will be back soon for the next installment of The Dance Edit Extra, which will drop in the separate Edit Extra podcast feed—please visit thedanceedit.com for more information about that. In the meantime, be sure to catch our regular news podcast, The Dance Edit Podcast, out every Thursday. Have a great weekend, everyone.