Suzanne and Mindy Yan Miller. Photo: Daniel Paquet

Montreal dancer creates unique vocabulary using symbolic gestures based on the alphabet

A dancer stands in the middle of the stage, folds one forearm over the other and lifts and lowers her elbows in a sultry wave, forming the ebb and flow of the letter “S”. A chilling voice sweeps over the stage in a whisper, dissipating like ashes on the wind: “Suzanne.” Her arms extend above her head, a zig-zag for a “Z,” hands clasp together to form the letter “A”. I strain to decipher each letter making up the words but the movements variate with each one. 

The choreographer is also the dancer, Suzanne Miller. She uses gestures, twists and half-turns to communicate with the audience. Her performance is a language made up of symbolic gestures that match the 26 letters of the English alphabet — in a kind of alphabet dance. The performance is a bit more complex though, the letters are written on the body, above, centred deep in the belly and below the waist. The dance entices the viewer to participate, to solve the puzzle, and the performance becomes interactive. 

Instead of watching the performance you’ll try to read it. The movements are more like cursive writing, packed with emotion and flourish, the capital letters strong, tall and broad and her whole body becomes invested in the tiniest letter. “B” is a handle, “C” is a cradle, “D” is a circle and a line, and “E” is a seed and so on, to the end of the alphabet. 

Miller’s movements are limited and at times purposefully robotic. She has to stay in one place or risk wrapping herself up in the skirted trail of her v-neck dress. Her body is the centrepiece of the dress attached to a patchwork-quilt skirt spread out in a circle around her like the wings of a Monarch butterfly pinned to a backboard. Too heavy to manoeuvre, the skirt is laid out flat on the floor but for the piece that is being stitched by her sister-in-law Mindy Yan Miller, a faculty member of the studio arts department at Concordia University. Mindy is onstage for the entire performance adding pieces to the growing quilt of unwanted garments; a pair of blue jeans, a baby sleeper, a skirt.

Each stitch and gesture keeps pace with a whispering voice (Tim Middleton) reciting the names that are also written and erased on a board by (Michelle Miller) Suzanne’s younger sister, and projected on video screen, the contents of which were edited by Suzanne’s brother (Marcus Miller) and punctuated with vocals by Ainsley McNeany as part of a sound design composition created by Suzanne’s long-time partner in work and life, Allan Paivio. Paivio mixes electro-acoustic piano with operatic voices, an unnaturally steely whistle of the nightingale against industrial engines to create a chilling effect that elevates the performance piece. 

The letters spell out the names of the first 600 victims recorded in the Pages of Testimony, a collection of forms with personal information of who they were and where they came from, sometimes with pictures from family members to help identify Holocaust victims. The book is archived in the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center, a museum and memorial site in Jerusalem. 

Needle and Thread consists of an extensive vocabulary that developed over time and from decades of Suzanne and Mindy working together. The concept for this piece originated from Suzanne’s commemorative piece Rebecca, Lilyan, Sarah (1991), which was created using 350 first names from the tombstones of women buried in Mount-Royal Cemetery in Montreal, where she lives, in commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the city.

The work has been performed, at different phases of its development, at Arizona State University in 2018 for the first time and most recently at the University of Saskatchewan in May 2019. The upcoming performance on Friday, Nov. 29 is in the newly renovated Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) in an open court, La Ratonde, as part of OFF Parcours danse. Suzanne says that people can come and go as they like during the lunch-hour between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m.

Needle and Thread: a commemorative performance
OFF Parcours danse
Friday, Nov. 29, 2019 — 12:30-1:30 p.m.
Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) — La Rotonde
185 St. Catherine St. W., Montreal


by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird

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