Jennifer Miller, associate professor in the Humanities and Media Studies program, had her first Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) performance on October 12 at BAM’s new, sustainably designed black-box theater, the Richard B. Fisher Building. Miller's performance was flanked by the politically like-minded Dread Scott and Coco Fusco as part of the Brooklyn Bred trilogy curated by Franklin Furnace director Martha Wilson.
“Since 1985, Franklin Furnace has awarded grants to emerging artists selected from among hundreds of proposals submitted from around the world. Jennifer's Circus Amok has won this grant more times than any other artist or group,” said Wilson. “So when Joe Melillo, executive producer of BAM, invited me to curate a performance art series to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Next Wave Festival and the opening of BAM's new Fisher Building, Jennifer came immediately to mind!”
Miller has performed in many venues from public parks where families often join in to the Coney Island sideshow where she performed as a bearded lady, which she, in fact, is. She also has done more personal solo shows like Morphadyke and Free Toasters Everyday. As typical for Miller, the BAM show focused on a current social justice issue, New York City’s controversial “Stop and Frisk” policy, which has been under fire of late for unfairly targeting men of color. The show makes the gentle connection to the prison industrial complex in Upstate New York. Miller agrees with the group Milk Not Jails, that Upstaters would be better served by redeveloping their farming economy instead of focusing on prisons.
In typical Circus Amok style, there were stilt dancers, jugglers, and audience plants. Miller’s clowns range from old school slapstick to Cathy, who, Miller asserts, is an “existential clown,” whose intermittent screams are met with peels of laughter.
The show is a fact and fiction narrative, where Victor, a circus member, is stopped by the police. Miller aims to avoid the preachy, trying to keep people engaged with a balance of fun and political awareness. The audience participates by singing and dancing to the song “Let’s Stop the Frisky” set to the tune of the Scissor Sister’s “Let’s Have a Kiki.” They are told what to do if stopped by police: “Stay cool, stay calm. You have the right to remain silent. Don’t run, don’t resist or they will throw you to the ground. And get their badge number. Keep your hands where the officer can see them.”
Miller’s show included her Circus Amok performers as well as postmodern dancer Steve Paxton, a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, a troupe that once included Tricia Brown. “Paxton is the father of contact improv,” explained Miller. “It was historic for us to bring Steve in. I was exploring the extremes of bringing together postmodern and pedestrian-based movement forms with the popular showbiz forms of the circus."
”It was an honor to be at BAM and perform in a line-up that included two like-minded artists. It was a lovely experience,” Miller said. “It was perfect for BAM’s new theater. Not so many shows at BAM are breaking the fourth wall and saying ‘Hello Everybody!’”
One would think the upcoming Halloween would be a big day for someone like Miller, but apparently it is a busman’s holiday for her. When asked what she was going to be, she responded: “Nothing. When is Halloween? I tend to stay in. You do when your job is dressing up.”
The show had another Pratt connection—many of the costumes were designed by Pratt fashion professor Melanie Schmidt and her students. Miller is currently teaching a course on the New Circus and Introduction to Performance Practice.
Text: Bay Brown
Image: Rahav Segev