Celeste Miller is one of Atlanta's most accomplished homegrown performance artists. Since landing here in the early '70s, she's earned national recognition as a community-based choreographer and educator. Miller joins the ranks of a cadre of master artists who've chosen for their repertoire the rendering of a certain iconic subject: the Annunciation. Next week, as Christians start the nine-month countdown to Christmas, Miller will present The Annunciation...sort of: Mary says "no" at 7 Stages Theatre.
The Gospel of Luke and Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species provided inspiration for the choreographer. On the intersection of science and religion in the show, Miller says, "I'm not doing it to be provocative, but to present questions that encourage the audience to reconnect with their humanity." In her estimation, Darwin and Jesus were both revolutionary in shaping the course of human history and addressing the nagging universal questions of purpose and place.
In Annunciation, Mary says "no" to Gabriel, catalyzing a crisis of faith for the angel. He retires his wings and takes up a sales job hawking vacuum cleaners. There's an imaginary Mary and an embodied one. God Mama appears in tap shoes, along with Darwin and dozens of dancers who serve as a Greek movement chorus. Violinist Chip Epsten, performing an original score, threads through the action on stage.
Miller performs a series of monologues that merge esoteric ideas with mythical tales and personal history. These dynamic and skillfully developed scenes anchor the work and highlight Miller's strengths: her grounded voice, easy presence, and sense of humor. She has a knack for organically extending the life of her storytelling through gesture. Her graceful and provocative narratives elicit Mary's dimensionality: She is at once a frightened girl, an apparition, an expectation, and a dashboard novelty.
Miller describes the theatrical world she creates in Annunciation as a "multiverse" (as opposed to a universe). Rather than advancing through a conventional plot, the players and themes mingle in an assemblage of scenes. Characters have multiple iterations. Logic unfolds only to be undone as events shuffle, and meaning swirls in complex layers. The work embraces elements of abstraction prevalent in modern dance, notably the purposeful rearrangement of space and time. Miller achieves cohesion by loosely threading her themes and letting the viewer knit them together.
The large cast consists of about 30 children, teens and adults who range from novice to professional artist. Collaborating with people of many backgrounds and skill levels allowed Miller to inject her work with varied viewpoints, diverse movement preferences, and, ultimately, more points of entry for the audience. Miller says she's continually astounded at the choices nondancers make when they're empowered to tap their creativity. The process "keeps the artist honest," she says. "[The collaborators] teach me humility."