Observing BMC.Erin Thompson

“As a soloist all we have is you. So you’re moving or not moving. It is about the rhythm of how we see.” 

– Bebe Miller

In early January, after being away for a few months, I came home to Columbus for a week. Bebe asked if I wanted to shoot video of her rehearsals with Erin Thompson, an incredible mover and a McKnight Dancer Fellow from Minneapolis who commissioned Bebe to create a piece on her for the SOLO Fellowship she received. I am always down to work with Bebe. I’ve shot video to document Bebe Miller Company (BMC) process before and this time we had two cameras. With one stationary wide to catch the improvisation they often learn as choreography, I felt free to get inside the exploration with my own handheld, moving closely around Erin and shooting what interest me. Since 2012, this inside camera is often part of my own rehearsals and performances, sometimes with a projected live-feed. 

I have three days of rehearsal to document the beginning of their process for this piece. Observing the two of them is truly inspiring. Erin and Bebe danced together in the early ‘80s in Nina Weiner’s company and then Erin danced in Bebe’s work after she formed BMC. Both are Bessie award-winning artists and Erin has been a stronghold on the Minneapolis scene since she left New York in 1990. Acknowledgment of time passed and memory permeate their process. Things I can sense but know nothing of spin between them, from forty years ago and the present, simultaneously. They dance and speak the language of my own body, “… the shifting amount of weight, the depth of weight, the immediacy of that action… the terrain of the center of weight… cosmic to mundane… “. On a water break I ask Erin, “So you just keep getting better as you go?” expressing my admiration of her ability. “Yeah, I think so.” she smiles. I am in awe of her body’s range, skill, and knowledge. I feel kin with her curiosity and work force. Hours and hours and she just keeps dancing. It makes me want to dance with her to say the least. I shoot video and move around the two of them, beaming. Bebe is used to me fawning over her brilliance – I keep no praise back from those for whom I feel it. I hope Erin feels supported by my presence as I am taken by her beauty, intrigue, and by her sheer, sure love of dancing.  

Day 1 is spent improvising. I move with two cameras to capture a trade of solos between them, which flows into Bebe directing Erin with ideas of the rhythm of weight, of time, of change. It seems I chase Erin as she carves space and her body crafts its exploration in front of me, just out of reach. Bebe declares “the two of you are fun to watch.” I am so happy to be in the room, contributing. It goes on for about four hours. Erin does not stop dancing.  

Day 2 is spent learning a short improvisation sequence from video as choreography. After a bit of wrestling with technology they view the video of Bebe – a short and detailed weight-shifting, gestural thing that seems to have been recorded a few years ago or last year at least. Bebe doesn’t recall the sequence so along with Erin, she is learning. Erin voices how helpful it is to have Bebe moving alongside, since decoding the initiation and interruption of movement is easier to observe in her actual body rather than an image of it on a screen. I have been in this process before with Bebe – learning video of her improvisation as choreography. It feels fruitful. Focusing on one phrase in which there are so many short sequences of shift and attention and detail and dynamic change. As I film them I want to jump in, to help figure out the switches and help with memory – I learn the phrase and do it imperceptibly, camera in-hand. Bebe knows and invites me toward the end of rehearsal to join them and dance the sequence. I decide though, to keep filming. 

Day 3 is back to improvising. Erin continues her warm-up as I arrive and set-up. I push record and suddenly they are in it already. “What was that?” Bebe asks. Erin goes back a few seconds in her improvisation and repeats. From there the rehearsal unfolds, building on Erin’s choices with Bebe’s questions, ideas, and both of their dancing. Erin shows Bebe a few phrases she’s created for class or for another piece. Bebe speaks of the scene in a Meryl Streep film that she likes – the hands, the wit, the perspective trick. Their backs and knees talk to them. The light plays, makes shadows of the movement, marking their ideas on the room. They end with a gentle improvisation and heightened awareness. The focus flutters then becomes still. 

As they sit down on the floor with their notebooks and begin to write, they remind me of children at the end of the day, calm and grounded and very serious about their play. They both take notes, trading main ideas from the last few days. Bebe reiterates, “Butterfly focus… What attunement do you have to the corner of the space as opposed to the center? … Interior body is not finding, it is there – ask of it – which is different than exploring it. Skill and the risk of skill-set as well as knowledge of it. You accomplish what you set out to do so mine it past where you think it can go but also, as you’ve accomplished it, you’ve accomplished like seven other things so where might your attention be taken, including stopping – arresting. It’s a powerful tool, because as a watcher I get to catch up with you.

“As a soloist all there is is you, so we see you – it is about the rhythm of how we see you.” – Bebe Miller

Erin Thompson is a McKnight Dancer Fellow. McKnight Dancer Fellowships are a program based at The Cowels Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in Minneapolis, and are funded by the McKnight Foundation.

Find out more about Erin Thompson at www.mcknightdancechoreo.com and www.mcknightdancechoreo.org/solo (updated soon)
U of M faculty: https://cla.umn.edu/about/directory/profile/thomp065

I have the great honor to work with choreographer and dance artist, Bebe Miller. I served as Administrator for Bebe Miller Company from 2011-2014 until graduate school at The Ohio State University where I took every course that she offered in Improvisation, Composition, and Technique. Bebe served as my committee chair until she retired, and I graduated, in 2017. She is a mentor to me and now feels like a big sister, like family. Sometimes she invites me to play in the studio. She’s sewn us matching green velvet pants and once made a dance film of me. Her and David’s dog Wilson is one of my best friends. After all of the sacred and mundane, I remain fascinated at how dancing lives through Bebe, how it understands itself in her body, and in her curiosity. I am witness to times and trains of thought that are uncompromisingly “Bebe” and just being around her expands me in ways that change how I see.