Student Spotlight: Dance MFA candidate dismantles space and environment by finding place for space outside of Space Place

Dance MFA candidate Zoe Miller dismantles space and environment through movement and audience participation in thesis exhibit


Photo contributed by Zoe Miller

Zhenya Loughney, Arts Reporter

Through the deconstruction of the environment itself, one MFA dance candidate’s thesis exhibit displayed an understanding of space by choosing an off-site location. Usually, dance students perform in the University of Iowa’s Space Place theater in North Hall, but Zoe Miller chose somewhere different.

Miller is a second-year MFA candidate in dance at the UI teaching modern and ballet techniques. Miller received her BFA in dance performance and choreography from Ohio University in 2021. Her performance, titled “[SET]”, took place in the Performing Arts Annex atrium April 6-7.

“Elements of this piece have been in development for two years,” Miller said. “This piece did not start to really come together though until this past January when I started rehearsing in [the atrium].”

Miller’s inspiration for her performance sparked in the form of a quote from Hubert Goddard: “‘I am in the space and the space is in me.” Miller said she focused on the study of scenography, and that the “relation of space in which we reside” became focus of her thesis.

The Performing Arts Annex’s atrium is a large room with a beautiful wood ceiling and a glass wall overlooking the river. During Miller’s performance, the audience was never stationary for too long — other than the accommodated seating — with the whole experience lasting about an hour.

“I expect a lot of people to be really confused and wondering what they’re watching,” Miller said.

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The performance of “[SET]” was split into four complex parts. The audience sat alley-style in the square-shaped space, leaving room for a runway for the first portion. Miller began with a monologue about the UI’s decision to demolish Halsey Hall, and how the dance department will eventually rehome at the Performing Arts Annex in upcoming years.

While speaking, Miller simultaneously picked up stacks of small bricks placed all around the space and separated them individually onto the runway.

“We are confronted with the smallest stage in the world,” Miller said while balancing on a singular brick.

The next few minutes consisted of Miller and several background performers, all clad in green or blue jumpsuits to look like laborers, balancing and crawling around from brick to brick to synth notes until one of the performers called out to “reset,” and the house lights flickered on. Each audience member was then given a brick to hold and were urged to follow Miller outside to create scenery by stacking the bricks against the glass wall until the group was comfortable with the result.

The second stage seated the audience in a round-style setting. While the audience was outside, the performers reset the seats indoors and wrapped rope around columns to lower the overall height of the space. Once the audience was seated again, the house lights dimmed. The next several minutes consisted of performers slowly leaning and pulling onto the ropes, testing the limits of how much they could manipulate the space by moving as little as possible.

When “Reset” was called again, the audience was urged to return outside while holding a rope Miller led like a train. The audience then placed the rope over the stacked bricks until they were comfortable with how the new scenery looked.

In the third portion, the performers had set up collapsible risers in a proscenium-style stage. The next several minutes consisted of slow gestures until Miller snuck outside and scared the audience by knocking on the glass wall. The audience returned outside for the third time, this time able to use dry-erase markers to draw on the atrium’s window panels, manipulating the scenery further.

The last portion sat the audience in scattered places throughout the space. The last few minutes consisted of the performers swiftly and robotically moving from corner to corner, while avoiding running into audience members. It ended with each performer exiting through the glass doors and the audience was invited to “reset the set that we have set,” as Miller instructed.

“The goal was to expose the labor of production workers in a performance and that slowly evolved into investigations of space as a way to understand me and my own personal relationship to space,” Miller said.