Gallim Dance's surreal Wonderland pries at pack mentality

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      Talk to Andrea Miller about the multiple sources that inspired Wonderland, and you can understand why the New York City sensation’s work speaks so directly to the here and now.

      The artistic director of Gallim Dance, last here with the rock-concert-like rush called Blush at DanceHouse in 2012, absorbs everything happening around her: cutting-edge contemporary art, politics, wars abroad—and the zeitgeist they all trigger.

      The stylized, disturbing world of Wonderland stems from Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s massive installation Head On, which she saw at the Guggenheim Bilbao. It depicts a roomful of 99 life-sized stuffed wolves charging and smashing into a glass wall.

      “I love that instead of a brick wall, he uses glass, suggesting that the contemporary walls we build are more invisible and less obvious than a brick wall—and probably more dangerous,” Miller tells the Straight over the phone. She’s on a lunch break in her troupe’s atmospheric headquarters in a historic, high-ceilinged Brooklyn church. “It was a time when I was questioning our involvement in Iraq, and September 11, which I was in New York for. It brought us to a point of alarm.…I felt very fooled, I felt horrible. I felt like one of those wolves, basically.

      “It’s the idea of the movement of wolves in packs, and that pack mentality: people’s ethics change when they move as a mass. They’re less empathetic and they make less ethical choices.”

      When you see Wonderland in its upcoming Vancouver debut at the Chutzpah Festival, don’t expect any literal lupine interpretations: instead, Miller conjures a dark, surreal circus arena where the herd instinct can play out. Think bizarre acrobatics, drum rolls, body suits that are a mix of turn-of-the-last-century corsets and Esther Williams swimwear, archetypal characters, and eerily exaggerated grins.

      Gallim Dance artistic director Andrea Miller.
      Peggy Jarrell Kaplan

      “I thought of the masks of circus as different kinds of smiles: propaganda smiles, politician smiles, Coca-Cola smiles, authentic joy, the one that’s hiding something—fear or insecurity is cracking through,” she says.

      As ever, the artist’s work relies on the full-on commitment of dancers willing to travel to sometimes brutal extremes with her. “There’s a sense of urgency from what we want from our artistry, from our bodies, and our collaborations,” she explains.

      It’s all part of a consciously different approach to the art form by Miller, who trained at both Juilliard and Israel’s world-class Batsheva Dance Company. “I want to make a language that is going to make sense to anybody watching, so I’m moving away from creating dance phrases and making more of a series of events,” she explains matter-of-factly. “I want to make work that is legible for nondance audiences and technically virtuosic and surprising and exhilarating for dance audiences, so I’m not dumbing it down. I’m just not interested in, I don’t know, keeping up what’s already happened in dance.”

      Her philosophy is revealing, but it only goes partway toward explaining the impact of her work when you watch it. Miller is getting at something real and pressing, and that’s the main reason she’s created such a buzz since launching her company in 2007. These days, Gallim performs its raw, visceral dance before 20,000 audience members a year at venues including the Joyce Theater, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. What’s unique, though, is that Vancouver audiences, who first saw her work at Chutzpah in 2010, have been able to follow Gallim’s rise.

      “There’s really no other place...where we’ve been able to grow as a company outside of our home base,” Miller says, “so I’m grateful Vancouver has become a home for us.”

      The Chutzpah Festival presents Gallim Dance’s Wonderland at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre from next Thursday to Sunday (March 10 to 13).