It's unnerving to feel you're the only one in a crowd who's not in raptures, which was my situation at the performance by Bebe Miller and Company at the Dance Place Saturday night. The discomfiture is only increased when you honestly admire most of what you see, but remain unenthralled by it at a gut level.
Miller, a New Yorker and a member of Nina Wiener's company for six years, has been showing work of her own since the early '80s. Small and wiry, she's a wonderful dancer, virtuosic in her speed, sharpness of attack and gestural subtlety. The others of her troupe share these qualities and add individual accents -- rangy David Thomson a pantherine dexterity; Renee Lemieux, pert crispiness; Shelly Sabina Senter, impudent cunning; and Amy Lieberman, buoyancy and breadth.
There's much about Miller's work that recommends itself too, including interesting mutations of tempo and dynamics, the casual but intimate rapport of the ensemble passages, and a rhythmic complexity that's never at a loss for surprise. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Miller's style is a jazziness based not on conventional jazz dance moves, but on sassy syncopations, ripples and rolls that answer to the jazzlike traits of the music she chooses.
"Trapped in Queens" had nervously percussive music by Scott Killian and Jonathan Kane, and a set by Robert Schefman, a long, narrow mural depicting the ticky-tack fronts of row houses. The five dancers were first seen literally up against the wall; later, after sporadic flurries of spins, stampings, twists, lunges and slides, a voice shouted out the words of the title. But despite the manifestations of rebellion, at the end the dancers sauntered off stage nonchalantly, as if escape from this environment was, after all, no big deal.
The other three works were more pervasively abstract. "Spending Time Doing Things," Miller's beautifully executed solo, danced partly in silence and partly to Ellington, featured snaking arm gestures and a recurring swing of the leg, brushing the floor to and fro in a teasing arc. Hands were stuffed in pockets, a mouth opened in a mock scream, and fingers cocked like pistols amid the rapid-fire exchanges of "No Evidence," for four dancers to Lenny Pickett's "Duet for Kathy." "Gypsy Pie," again for all five company members, was the jazziest of all in the exuberant flux generated by Mike Vargas' pulsating score.
These were kinesthetically engaging dances, no question. My trouble with Miller's choreography had to do with the blandness of its expressive character. There wasn't any particular effect to the movement -- it was like watching a workout, a quirky and inventively contoured workout, but with no more feeling tone than your ordinary calisthenic session. The suggestive motifs, like the pistol fingers in "No Evidence" and the dashes to the wall in "Trapped in Queens," led nowhere and seemed extraneous to the main action. Yet the very presence of these hints, together with a lack of structural focus, argued against accepting these works as essays in "pure movement." The title of the solo, "Spending Time Doing Things," aptly described all four pieces, but what things and to what end or effect remained disturbingly elusive.