When working in small blackbox theaters, dancers are confronted with a necessary choice: acknowledge audience members, who are near enough to touch, or find a way to erect the proverbial fourth wall. The latter seems to be in vogue right now. Most contemporary dancers, when working in intimate venues, gaze glassy-eyed over the heads of onlookers. But not the members of Gallim Dance Company, which premiered founder Andrea Miller’s I Can See Myself in Your Pupil in the 74-seat Joyce Soho. Apparently the title was meant literally; Miller must have told her dancers to pick out members of the audience and stare them down. Rarely have I felt so nakedly or seductively watched.
Miller, a Juilliard graduate, has danced for the past three years with Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Her movement vocabulary, which juxtaposes athletic explosiveness with articulate, dancerly variations on everyday movements, is plainly influenced by the work of Batsheva director Ohad Naharin. And like Naharin, Miller is endearingly unpretentious, cutting moments of thick seriousness with humor. But Miller is more theatrical than her former mentor. While Naharin’s works look deliberately unaffected, as if his dancers woke up moving that way, Miller’s dancers are self-consciously putting on a show. I Can See Myself In Your Pupil feels like a cabaret: it is performed, to an audience and for an audience.
The cabaret analogy is useful, too, in that it describes the work’s circus-like quality. Miller and her six dancers (most Juilliard and/or Batsheva alums) go through several costume changes, sing along with their music, and are dramatically lit, often by oh-so-theatrical footlights. The pace is breathless. Brief dance sketches whiz by like cars on a train—linked, but distinct.
Press materials described Pupil as “inspired by the humor, fantasy and awkwardness of intimacy,” but rarely did the dance imply relationships between dancers, or even involve touching. If this work is meant to be introspective, it is a self-conscious introspection; most of Pupil’s energy stems from its dancers’ relationship with the audience. In the evening’s centerpiece, Snow, the cast’s four women (Miller, Francesca Romo, Troy Ogilvie, and Belinda McGuire) walk haltingly forward, their bodies in profile, arms raised uncomfortably behind them like broken wings, as Tony Gatlif’s track screams, “It’s an emergency—an emergency! Emergency!” This is an anguished moment, an illustration of some inner turmoil—yet the women’s heads are turned towards us, their eyes searching us, almost smirking. “Isn’t it beautiful?” they seem to ask. “I dare you to enjoy my delicious suffering!”
Miller is even better when she’s funny. The second half of the show opened with the cast shaking, twitching, and fidgeting good-naturedly to Balkan Beat Box’s skittish “Meboli,” like kids on a sugar high—perfectly silly. And Miller is not afraid of slapstick comedy, either. A duet for Romo and John Beasant III to another Balkan Beat Box song, Cha Cha, has the zanily (or perhaps drunkenly?) desperate Romo throwing herself on, at, and around Beasant, who would rather strut penguin-like about the stage alone. When he stumbles backwards to the floor, she launches herself at him and ends up suspended upside-down on his outstretched legs; yet even from this inconvenient position, the single-minded Romo is able to find Beasant’s face with her hands and caress it before he kicks her away. This was the closest Miller got to her stated “awkwardness of intimacy” theme, but the whole episode still felt audience-dependent, propelled by our gleeful tittering.
Pupil is as audacious and fun as it is unsettling. Though still unmistakably influenced by Naharin, Miller is beginning to develop an appealing choreographic voice of her own. And Miller’s cast is hypnotic in its unmitigated commitment to her work. If I must be watched, I want these dancers to be the ones watching me.