“To Be a Rumor”: A Collective Homage to Sam Miller

Remembering a great, illusive, sly, curious, brilliant thought leader and champion of the arts.

Eiko and Komo, Ralph Lemon and Sam Miller. Photo courtesy of Margaret Jenkins.

Earlier this month, a name kept appearing in my social media feed and in the in-person conversations around me. The name was Sam Miller and it seemed much more familiar than I could actually place. The loss seemed more profound than I could personally feel.

As I read about Sam, and as colleagues and friends told me their stories about Sam, the more I became inspired by his biography.

Sam Miller (1952–2018) was instrumental in the lives and careers of artists, curators, arts administrators and organizations, especially in dance. His legacy and his achievements are far reaching. You could call the impact that he had on those around him almost poetically personal.

I have compiled a series of tributes to Sam from a dozen individuals who knew him well. I wish I had known Sam, but after receiving these beautiful memorializations, I feel almost as if I do.

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Ellen Chenoweth
Interim Director and Curator, Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago

I didn’t think it made sense for me to attend the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University. I can’t remember what Sam said to change my mind.

He might not have said anything.

But I graduated a couple of years ago and I learned a few things from Sam along the way:

Just keep trying.
Think bigger, longer-term.
It’s OK to care so much.
There are many different ways to be present.

He was a visionary who could make his visions come to pass. How rare, how wonderful!

I last saw him after a performance at American Realness. He surrounded by four former students, all talking about what we had seen and would see. We all said warm goodbyes, collectively marveling a little bit at his Sam-ness, as you had to each time you got to cross paths.

Rachel Cooper
Director, Global Performing Arts Cultural Initiatives, Asia Society

An architect of systems of activation dancers, presenters, producers and philosophers, all galvanized by Sam’s vision. He was a chemist; maybe better stated, an alchemist —  recombinant DNA, putting us together in just the right heat. Mapping the scene. Seeing geographies as a canvas of creative action. Letting loose the spirit. Structures graphed with that addition of intuition — a knowing (I always suspected that he was keeping the full plan close to the chest).

He created models of interdependence, an ecology drawn on a graphic on the back of a program note or a dinner napkin. in Cambodia or China or Boston. In art, science, social justice. Over 24 years I have been interwoven into that tapestry, working with Sam.

He had an equally personal, specific impact on each person who has written on social media or who I have sat with, or cried with, or remembered with sanctifying something that has become sacred to our lives. His imprint on our/their being, deeply affecting, held close in embrace. I look up and I see Sam nodding, “Tried setting it up for all of you, now do get on on with it.” That smile and him looking at me; that is what I imagine. Passing the baton.

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“J.R.” Glover
The Carole and Dan Burack Director, The School at Jacob’s Pillow

In 1993, Sam was Director of Jacob’s Pillow and I joined the staff. He led me on journeys that began with abstract seeds of ideas drawn on napkins or paper scraps that evolved into fully formed concepts and projects that funders and government agencies supported.

Sam kept his pulse on what was happening and who was making it happen! He masterminded connections for the art of dance that steadied precarious situations and energized forces far above and beyond what individual contributors could have generated. He got a thrill securing funds and resources to make art happen. However, his energy, inspiration and aspirations came from helping dance artists. He was profoundly moved by dance, and worked tirelessly on its behalf. Around Sam, there were always more questions than answers, more undefined scenarios than details. Yet, as we moved forward with the work at hand, there lay the clarity of his vision for the future; a more sustainable, more impactful, more inspired one. At its root were the abstract seeds from earlier, yet now they embraced the past and present, connected the dots between the stakeholders, and lead to meaningful, memorable art.

Margaret Jenkins
Founder and Artistic Director, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

Sketch by Sam Miller. Photo: Margaret Jenkins.

Fire in the bones, the cells, the soul, an indomitable strength, a quiet force, a determination which kept him with us for a while, not long enough.

Thank you for the enormous, almost unfathomable range of your heart and your capacity to invent and let soar, for your recent courage and tenacity, for your wisdom, your genuine love of our field and for the fleeting moments when you made us all feel alive, made us feel that anything was possible and made us eager to continue, absolutely sure we would find a way.

  • Sam carved through the tangles of keeping on;
  • Sam sliced and solved the unsolvable;
  • Sam gathered the shards and invented a whole;
  • Sam threw ideas into the wind, for those who dared to take flight, parachute down and catch the myriad falling thoughts on a napkin or two;
  • Sam had a golf app on his iPad!

Sam said: …“each grant is a prologue to an epigraph; choreographers imagine future invasions of air!”

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Laura Paige Kyber
Research Associate, Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC)

I met Sam in Philadelphia at an information session for the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University, but I’d known of him for much longer. I approached him to express my interest in applying to the program, and he didn’t hesitate to schedule a follow-up call to answer my questions further. When I was accepted to the program in the months that followed, I was heartbroken to be unable to attend due to unforeseen circumstances, and had to defer my enrollment. It would be another two years before I was able to return to ICPP.

During those two years Sam was an ever-present voice of wisdom and encouragement. He would call my cell phone — unannounced — just to check in. Sam had my back, believed in me when I didn’t. While I am honored to have been a recipient of his support, I see it more as an extension of his deep commitment to the field. Now, I am so happy to have been able to complete the first year of ICPP with him as a mentor. I will mourn that he is not with us as we begin this second, hard, thesis year, but it will be an honor to practice his legacy of curiosity, close listening, and solutions-oriented, artist-led support. I will forever ask “What would Sam do?” as I move through the world.

Ralph Lemon

Sam was there from the beginning for me.

We could talk about the Folkdances (1988-91), Persephone (1991), Killing Tulips (1995), Geography Trilogy (1997-2004), Scaffold Room (2014), Chorus (2015…) and all the works in between. The long arc of his support. Sam was the portal for Geography, which changed everything for me. I had fallen off the modern dance horse and he helped me get back on. Sam and I talked about books (mostly poetry), sports, movies and family more than we talked about dance. Sam would always say that he didn’t like dance, he liked choreographers. He liked hanging out with them and their obsessions. (He changed everything for most of us.)

I once asked Sam what was his greatest goal, when all was said and done, what did he finally want to accomplish? And he said, “To be a rumor.”

I’ve realized in the last few years that Sam was one of my best friends. I loved hanging out with him and his brilliant local, national and global obsessions.

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Liz Lerman
Professor, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Arizona State University

The day after Sam Miller died, I couldn’t stop thinking about him: this great, illusive, sly, curious, brilliant man. I was among the many fortunate choreographers to have his blessing and, with that, his ideas, his encouragement (which actually, at least in my case, was more like a verbal and visual gentle shoving match). He was always expecting so much. I loved being with him, especially when he was on the way to figuring something out. I loved that it wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t always clear, it wasn’t always about the thing most on my mind, and yet, months or even years later I could harvest the conversation.

I was lucky to be with him at Jacob’s Pillow when he presented The Good Jew? (a dance in which I was on trial for whether I was Jewish enough). It is one of my most experimental and controversial works and he gleefully put it in the Ted Shawn Theater. I was lucky to be part of the Center for Choreographic Research which has impacted my thinking and doing since then. Yes, I was very lucky.

Once we went to a Red Sox game and then ran for blocks in the rain. Once he made me walk with him across Manhattan to see a show. It was so far. He was oblivious to the distance. Our last conversation in early January included a somewhat heated conversation over whether artists should work with drones. He was always so surprising!

I wish him safe harbor and rest, wherever he is. And I miss knowing that he is off helping someone make something better, unless that is what the great ones do when they are Heaven-bound.

Victoria Marks
Professor of Choreography, Department of World Arts and Cultures, UCLA

I write to add to the collective memories; the considerable vitality and contributions of Sam Miller. Sam and I spent a lot of time together when Sam first came to Jacob’s Pillow and during his tenure as artistic director. I spent many weeks there each season, and our friendship grew during those years. Sam talked about poetry all the time: shared poets he adored, as well as poems that he’d written the night before. The way he looked at dance shared a kinship with the way he liked words to undo themselves, to give way, to transform, or to be simply be.

I liked to try seeing dances as Sam saw them. It created a double vision, and expanded my own sense of dance’s poetics.

I learned from Sam the power of silence, and the potential of a few carefully chosen words. Perhaps it is the same with quiet and a few carefully chosen actions.

These past years, I only saw Sam on my infrequent trips to NYC, or when he came to LA. I loved Sam. He left incalculable gifts to a multitude of us, and to the field. I grew immeasurably at his side those many years ago, and carry his expansive and passionate ways of seeing with me. It is hard to trust that we will carry on without him. But of course who we are, individually and as a community of makers and doers, will include him always.

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Tere O’Connor
Artistic Director, Tere O’Connor Dance
Center for Advanced Studies Professor in Dance, University of Illinois

Sam floated into my life like a reverie when I was young and was there until just now. He took my work in deeply, almost always viewing it twice. Few accepted my choreographic poetics more unequivocally than Sam. He offered this same grace to a range of artists creating functional programs and systems to support our alternative expressions. Not unlike many great dances, his ideas were difficult to comprehend at first because their gifts were born of temporality, their brilliance and usefulness made evident as they unraveled across time. We owe this outsized angel so much love and such profound gratitude.

Norton Owen
Director of Preservation, Jacob’s Pillow

I owe a great deal to Sam Miller and have never lost sight of that, even though it has been nearly 25 years since we worked together, and 28 years since he imagined a job for me and devised the title that I still hold. He understood the importance of archival resources, and the opportunities he offered me grew out of that understanding.

One of the assignments that he gave me early on was serving as artistic advisor for a performance project celebrating Ted Shawn’s centennial, known as Jacob’s Pillow’s Men Dancers. This high-profile project toured nationally and internationally in the early 1990s, and I was enormously proud of working with Sam to put it together. He was also instrumental in repurposing an old structure as Blake’s Barn, the building that today houses the Jacob’s Pillow Archives. So each day, I continue to have reason to thank Sam for so very much. And I do.

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Ali Rosa-Salas
Director of Programming, Abrons Arts Center

Sam Miller was an incredible mentor to me and so many of us. He was such a close, generous listener and solutions-oriented. I know I am not alone in being deeply grateful for the many times he sat down with me, scribbling notes on a napkin to help me make sense of my dreams. Due to Sam’s influence, I am charged with shepherding an ethics of care in all that I do.

Thanks to his founding vision for the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP), so many of us are now part of a family who support each other in doing our work with integrity.

Sam modeled curatorial practice to be a civic duty — a redistribution of resources — that is built on care across species, circumstances, communities.

Thanks for everything, Sam. You’ll be so missed.

Pamela Tatge
Director, Jacob’s Pillow
Co-Founder with Sam Miller, Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University

His students and those of us who were fortunate enough to be his colleague learned many lessons from Sam: how to be artist-centric, how to consider place and space, how to be entrepreneurial and build partnerships that generously and humbly support performing artists so they can make their best work. He taught us that we have the ability to move the field forward if we can successfully build and nurture a constellation of relationships aligned in their passion and belief that art and artists are vital.

He taught me how to be a mentor: how to ask hard questions and to always find the time for someone I believe in who needs my ear. There is a great deal of isolation in our field because the work we do can be hard and unrelenting. Many people cannot understand why we care so much. With Sam on this earth, I was never alone.