First Breath

Amy Miller rolled out her yoga mat at Lifesource Yoga in Fairlawn as she typically would on any January evening. Only this time there was a new instructor, who led the class through a series of more exaggerated breathing exercises than she was used to. “As soon as we started doing this breathing together in this very rhythmic way, I just said, ‘Wow. This could be a performance,’ ” she recalls.

Six months later, Miller, an artistic associate at GroundWorks Dancetheater, began the steps for bringing her vision to life. Her piece premieres at the Akron Icehouse Sept. 11-13 and Sept. 18-20. “I’m trying to take a simple idea and not mess it up,” she says. “It always stems from some simple, recognizable thing that a lot of people can relate to.”

DanceDiary: A Work in 8 Steps

12 Weeks Ago
> Miller meets with Peter Swendsen, assistant professor of computer music and digital arts at the Oberlin Conservatory, to discuss the dance. Potential ideas: speaker placement in the parking lot or amplification of dancer movement through microphones.

8 Weeks Ago > Miller enters the studio without any preconstructed dance routine. The dancers experiment with gestures representative of breath. “Each person brings his or her own perspective to it,” she marvels. “You’ll get four or five ways that I would have never thought about it.”

6 Weeks Ago > After keying in on certain movements or what Miller calls “nuggets,” she toys with the sequence of the dance while filming it all. She reviews it after the day’s practice.

5 Weeks Ago > Notebook in hand, Swendsen scribbles shorthand notes to remember fleeting musical ideas and key gestures of the dancers at his first practice. “Even though we’re both at this very early stage and I’m not seeing five or 10 minutes of finished movements, it’s helpful for me to see how the dancers produce those and how the ideas are manifested in there,” he says.

4 Weeks Ago > Practices reach peak lengths with a little more than half of the four-hour days at GroundWorks’ studio devoted to Miller’s piece. Phrases of dance and music lengthen. The finer details of recurring motifs are placed. Staging of performers begins. And even now, decisions are a collaborative effort between Miller and the dancers.

2 Weeks Ago > Janet Bolick, the costume designer, tailors a look that is simple and pedestrian-esque. “The costumes I like to do for my pieces don’t overly inform what’s being said,” Miller says. Two or three fittings take place, leading up to last-minute fixes of trouble spots such as rips or stretched-out fabric from a costumed run-through.

1 Week Ago > Dennis Dugan, the lighting designer, joins the practice to dream up illuminating solutions. After attending his first practice, he suggests colors, placement, timing and spotlights. “He choreographs the lighting like we choreograph the steps,” Miller explains. And his area of work, like the costumes, complements but does not overpower. “He has a real good sense of how to light skin tone on stage so that it looks natural yet amplified, not looking like a Broadway show lighting,” she adds. “It has more humanity to it.”

Sept. 1 > The dance is finally at its last stage, tying together movement, music and the timing of it all. Cast and crew move to rehearse on-site at the Akron Icehouse, which includes all major elements. “How it all comes together is really a mystery, because each day you really only take a baby step forward,” Miller says. “But it’s that leap of faith that each little baby step forward is going to indeed stack on top of each other, and you will reach a summit eventually.”
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