NY Times: Joan Miller, Lehman Professor and Modern-Dance Champion, Dies at 77

April 5, 2014 1:00 am In the News

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Joan Miller, a dancer, teacher and enduring presence in modern dance in New York since the 1970s, died on March 23 at her home in Manhattan. She was 77.

The cause was complications of diabetes, said Audrey Ross, her publicist.

Ms. Miller was the founder of Joan Miller’s Dance Players and the founding director of the dance department at Lehman College of the City University of New York.

Her signature works, rooted in the avant-garde and black consciousness movements of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, leavened sharp social commentary on issues like race and identity with a wry wit. Ms. Miller billed her troupe in its early years as the Joan Miller Dance Players: A Dance Company With a Sense of Humor.

In her autobiographical “Pass Fe White,” its title a play on the traditional pas de deux duet, a solo black dancer spins and heaves onstage as if at war with herself, discarding clothing and accessories in the process, including a blond wig, which she had used to “pass” for white. Ms. Miller’s dances often tackled sensitive issues — ghetto violence, class divisions, what she saw as American military aggression — in dances she gave whimsical titles, among them “Earth Wind and Flying Things,” “Jungle City USA,” “Boots, Backtalk and Beyond” and “Caged Bird Singin’ and Swingin’.” Her dances unfolded on urban landscapes as seen through Ms. Miller’s eye for the absurd.

“I consider myself a city person, and I like to deal with the problems of the city,” she said in a 1993 interview with Newsday. Despite the spirited titles, she added, the theme permeating her dances was “man’s inhumanity to mankind.”

“I hope that through my work,” she said, “people might question what it’s all about.”

Joan Miller was born in Harlem on Sept. 30, 1936, to parents from Jamaica and St. Lucia. She graduated from Brooklyn College and received a master’s degree from Teachers College at Columbia. She studied dance at Juilliard and privately with the modern dance pioneers José Limón and Doris Humphrey.

For several years she performed in Mr. Limón’s troupe and with the Judson Dance Theater, a Greenwich Village incubator of talent in the early 1960s, as well as with the companies of Anna Sokolow, Ruth Currier, Rod Rodgers and Rudy Perez. Ms. Miller began teaching at Hunter College in 1966.

Lehman College, in the Bronx, where she later headed the dance program, became the official residence of the Joan Miller Dance Theater from 1980 to 1990.

No immediate family members survive.

In 2007, when illness forced her to stop working, Ms. Miller was honored with a gala performance at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. It was organized by her many former students, protégés and fellow choreographers, including Abdel Salaam, director of the Forces of Nature Dance Theater; Eleo Pomare; Sheila Kaminsky; and Chuck Davis, founder of the African American Dance Ensemble.

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