53 Biba Bell


Born Sebastopol, CA, 1976 / BA, University of California Santa Cruz; MA & PhD (Performance Studies), New York University / Lives in Detroit

On a sunny Sunday afternoon last July, several hundred people crowded the Dequindre Cut, a popular recreation path in Detroit, to watch a dance. The performance, one of three public dance labs programmed to accompany “Here Hear,” the Cranbrook Art Museum’s celebrated exhibition of Nick Cave soundsuits, included music by Frank Pahl and choreography by Biba Bell. There is no telling what, exactly, the audience expected. What they witnessed was a distributed dance, a de-centered performance event, in which any vantage point along the Cut’s long, linear footprint offered a different view of different groups of dancers, some of whom slinked by in sinuous silence, while others posed, elegant and remote, above the crowd. Others danced a mannered duet involving the ritualistic exchange of their black or white soundsuit costumes, and the rest, by the end, were dancing in furious, ecstatic unison. When all was said and done, no one present had seen a complete dance, or the same dance. Everyone, however, had seen a dance by Biba Bell, an artist who specializes in the unexpected.

Because Bell is such an urgent, accomplished, and prolific dancer and choreographer, it is perhaps surprising to learn that at one time, she considered another career entirely. As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1990s, Bell was studying glacial geology when she encountered a dance that completely altered her professional trajectory. She’d grown up training in ballet, but ultimately just “didn’t have the body” for a career as a ballerina, and so had largely moved on to science. Then she saw a performance by Mel Wong—a one-time member of the Merce Cunningham Company—which she recalls as sprawling, beautiful, and campy. At once deeply personal and tinged by science fiction, it involved dancers both nude and elaborately costumed, and took place both inside a dining hall and outside of it, on a hill leading down to the Pacific. “This,” Bell remembers asking, “is dance?” In short order, she’d switched majors and begun studying under Wong, whose influence has proved profound.

As Wong’s pupil, Bell is a direct descendent of Cunningham—in whose long, lithe shadow contemporary dance still, to some degree, labors—and she has undoubtedly inherited the penchant for boundary-blurring that is the legacy of her ancestor and his illustrious coterie (Cage, Johns, Rauschenberg). It is somehow incomplete to call Bell a dancer or choreographer, merely, as she has long worked within multidisciplinary artist communities. She is that rare choreographer who moves with ease between the typically demarcated territories of Art and Dance.

A formative period was her association with the tail end of the Mission School in San Francisco in the early 2000s, where a largely visual art scene concerned with amateurism, street art, and rawness of material had burgeoned after the first tech bubble burst. It was in this milieu that Bell staged her first solo work, Who Me House (2004), during which she occupied a storefront window for one hour every night for 15 nights, performing various domestic acts. Shortly thereafter came Peacocks (2005), a dance for six that was staged in Adobe Books, a locus of the Mission School art community, and inspired by its colorful denizens.

Peacocks points to a fundamental concern of Bell’s, something she calls dance’s “promiscuity,” that is, its ability to happen anywhere, anytime that bodies are present. While she has worked in institutional contexts, audiences are more likely to witness her dancing outside of them, “in the world.” She explored this infiltrating tendency with vigor during her time with MGM Grand, a performance trio she co-founded in 2005 that toured original dances across the country, like a band, and performed “everywhere”— in “spas, backyards, gardens, people’s homes, gift shops, bars, a llama barn, the beach….”

It was with MGM Grand that Bell came to Detroit for the first time in 2008, and again in 2009. By 2011, the year MGM made and toured Nut, their last piece together, Bell had been living in Detroit for a year. Since then, she has brought her own inimitable choreography—charged and visceral, formidable and fractured—to a variety of Detroit spaces, including the Jam Handy Building (THE BELLS, 2012), a Corktown backyard ((Cont.), 2014), her Lafayette Park apartment (It Never Really Happened, Part 1, 2015), the Cranbrook Art Museum, MOCAD, and the DIA, among others. In Detroit, working within another diverse artist community, she has begun to excavate a new interest that foreshadows intriguing work to come: “What is the boundary between the highly trained concert dancer and everybody else just getting up and dancing?” she wonders. “There’s an edge there, a periphery, that becomes an interesting pathway for choreography to happen.”

Matthew Piper, June 2016

Copyright Essay’d 2016