The most memorable moments in Bebe Miller's "Landing/Place" are those in which the ground seems to be whooshing out from under the dancers' feet, when their arms are pinwheeling, their legs stuttering, trying to gain purchase on nothingness. Though the tension, too, often gets lost, in these spots the sense of unmooring, of the familiar slipping away, is acute. The piece, just an hour and a quarter long, had been in the works for years; Miller traces its roots to her experiences teaching dance in Eritrea in 1999. But in light of the recent displacement of so many after Hurricane Katrina's flooding of the Gulf Coast, "Landing/Place" -- which had its world premiere Wednesday at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center -- feels especially poignant.
Miller's work has always been marked by sensitivity to what shocks the human psyche in big ways and small, how that turbulence feels, and how to give those feelings life onstage. The last time she was in town, seven years ago, it was with "Going to the Wall," a meditation on the little community that was her dance company at the time. It took an unblinking look at her dancers as people, working closely together but not always close, partners but not really friends. With a light touch and an artful eye, Miller offered no resolution other than the sense that airing differences was a step toward understanding.
Since that fruitful undertaking, Miller has left the New York dancemaking scene for the more stable world of academia and Midwestern life. She is now a dance professor at Ohio State University. The artistic success she enjoyed in decades of creating works for her own and other companies, the awards she won, no longer added up to much of an existence. With funding scarce and touring drying up, she gave up on the idea of maintaining either a company or a repertoire. She still choreographs, however, and every few years she gathers a group of dancers together for a new project, which is how "Landing/Place" came to be.
Like "Going to the Wall," the new work is deeply introspective, but it is even more abstract. Miller's subject is feeling itself -- the feeling of being lost in a crowd, in a city, in a community not your own.
Often, the five dancers are out of step with one another, moving a few beats short of unison, stopping to gape at the video imagery flashing by on one of two scrims onstage, then seemingly forgetting what steps they were doing. Or they try awkwardly to reenter the group, or sometimes drift away altogether like paper boats blown off course.
At times, however, it's the audience that is lost. In her blog on the process of creating "Landing/Place," Miller has written about her desire to explore the sensation of being "out of step with a foreign logic that surrounds you," a feeling that came over her in Africa. Yet even though you understand that the resulting work is about uncertainty and the unfamiliar, you still crave guidance through what sometimes feels like an eternity of confusion. Miller's chief problem is that, in attempting to evoke shadowy sensations of memory and disconnectedness, she does not give us enough reason to get emotionally involved. Her touch is just too light; there are too many times when you can't recognize enough what is going on.
The unemphatic ending sums up the overall impression a bit too perfectly: After a lengthy solo, a dancer ambles aimlessly offstage -- actually, she just kind of wanders into the shadows, not really making an exit. What she leaves behind is not: Wow, what an experience, but: Huh? Is that it? On Wednesday, it took a minute or two for uncertain applause to start up.
Surprisingly, it is frequently the technology that seems most alive here. Miller collaborated with Ohio State's Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design to put motion-capture technology, video footage and computer animation onstage. The black-and-white images -- childlike drawings of buildings, a house and a dog; flocks of birds flying in formation; doodled stick figures that eerily mirror the dancing -- add visual interest without distracting. In their abstract quirkiness, they enhance the mystery of this work. They feel, indeed, animated, pulsing, adrift like the dancers and, like them, slightly out of place and in step with the out-of-stepness, a considerable accomplishment for the choreographer as well as for animation artist Vita Berezina-Blackburn and video artist Maya Ciarrocchi.
The performance repeats tonight.