In Conversation with Suzanne Miller

We are honoured to finally present Suzanne Miller, Allan Paivio and Mindy Yan Miller’s work Needle and Thread at the 2022 Guelph Dance Festival! Originally planned to be part of the 2020 Guelph Dance Festival, the work is a commemorative performance that develops from the dance and installation practices of Suzanne Miller and Mindy Yan Miller. We spoke to Suzanne about the work and the upcoming festival:

GD: What about your work are you most excited to share with the audience?

S: “Needle and Thread” is a commemorative performance that starts from a list of 600 names of Holocaust victims collected by Yan Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Centrer in Jerusalem. The museum’s Pages of Testimony: are special forms created by Yan Vashem to restore the personal identities and to record the brief life stories of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices. Submitted by survivors, remaining family members of friends in commemoration of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, these one-page forms, containing the names, biographical details and, when available photographs, of each individual victim are essentially symbolic ’tombstones’. “Needle and Thread” arises from that list and from the endless and impossible task of recollecting and honouring the six million Jews killed in the Shoah. It is rooted in the installation practices of Suzanne Miller (choreographer/dancer), Mindy Yan Miller (artist/performer) and their ongoing collaboration with Allan Paivio (composer/sound designer). As the piece begins, two sewers (Isabelle Middleton and Sadye Middleton replace Mindy Yan Miller for the Guelph Dance Festival) sit and sew onto a large pieced skirt constructed from unwanted garments, adding their thoughts and labour, stitch by stitch. Suzanne wears the skirt and performs a series of embodied inscriptions, tracing each of the names gathered from the Pages of Testimony. Allan Paivio’s sound design deploys whispers and song as the names punctuate and weave through an ambient industrial undertone, contrasted with the calls of songbirds. A scribe and a whisperer (Michelle Miller and Tim Middleton), write and erase the victims names on a chalkboard, the dust from the chalk falls like ashes to the ground while a vocalist (Ainsley McNeaney) laments in a deep sorrowful song like a nightingale.

Photo by: Daniel Paquet 

GD: What was your biggest takeaway from the process of creating this work? Has the work shifted over the past few years?

S: Over the past few years, Mindy Yan Miller, Allan Paivio and I have presented Needle and Thread at several different venues including gallery exhibitions. Since its premiere in 2018 at Temple Chai in Phoenix, Arizona, we have added new elements to the production such as a video, a scribe, a whisperer, and a singer.  These additional elements reiterate the names through spoken, sung and/or written language. As we plan for future events, I underscore the value of a rigorous choreography as a means to bear the loss of the disquieting nature of the dance. With each rehearsal and public presentation of Needle and Thread, the metaphor of a needle and thread further connects me to the names and lineage – my Jewish forebears, language and Holocaust history.  

In 2021, Oxford University Press published my written piece “Moishe, Moshe, Moses” about “Needle and Thread”, (the catalyst for my current work; What belongs to us/Ce qui nous appartient) contributing to an anthology  – “Oxford University Press Handbook on Jewishness in Dance”. I am honoured to be featured on the books’ cover and grateful to be included amongst so many amazing authors.

Photo by: Daniel Paquet 

GD: This is the first year the GD Festival is showcasing both live and live streamed versions of artist’s works. Can you speak about the opportunity to perform in front of live audiences again as well as view your work digitally?

S: The opportunity to perform in front of a live audience during the pandemic (it’s not over!) is as precarious as it is nerve wracking. I am looking forward to performing at the Guelph Dance Festival alongside talented family members, my husband, sister, brother-in-law,  two nieces and our nightingale – Ainsley McNeaney. The live stream will cover a specific perspective – as the ‘eye’ of the camera directs the viewer’s attention and is radically different from the experience of the ‘live’ presentation, where the viewer has multiple choices of where to focus/look (or not) at any given moment. The success of a live stream depends on the quality of the equipment and the sensitivity of the film crew. It can go either way, make or break a work – I am grateful for the technology and have attended many successful and unsuccessful events over these past Covid influenced years.

You can see Needle and Thread by donation at our In the Church series, happening on Saturday, June 4th from 5:00-6:00 PM EST. Visit our festival page to see the full festival schedule and to get your tickets!

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