Thursday, October 10, 2013

Beth Gill: The Elusive "Why"

Beth Gill
Performance of Electric Midwife at The Chocolate Factory
(photo by Steven Schreiber)

Beth Gill: The Elusive “Why”

by Komal Thakkar

Bessie Award-winning choreographer Beth Gill came to dance at age 3 when, after sitting through an entire PBS broadcast featuring Baryshnikov, she informed her parents of her desire to take ballet class. She would go on to study ballet under Rose-Marie Menes--formerly of the Ballet Russe--at the Westchester Ballet Center in Yorktown Heights, New York and make her first dance when she was just thirteen.

“Rose-Marie was a traditionalist,” says Gill. “She was extremely proud of her own lineage inside the ballet world, but she also created an environment where we were exposed to other kinds of dance. I studied Bharatanatyam, tap and jazz in her school.”

Tami Horowitz, a dancer trained in Limon, introduced Gill to modern dance at age ten through her Limon-based classes for young students at the Westchester school. Gill credits Horowitz for integrating creative movement exercises into her classes.

In love with the idea of dancing and choreographing in New York City, Gill applied to college programs in dance. Each one rejected or waitlisted her, including the brand new Fordham/Ailey BFA program. But Gill insisted on attending Fordham, and they accepted her a few months later.

“[Ailey] was a hard fit for me. I was grateful to have a place to go, and I wanted to attach to those pure dance forms they were teaching, but in a way I was invisible,” she says. “At Westchester Ballet Center, I formed an identity of making things, but there weren’t many outlets for that at Ailey. I transferred to NYU.”

Gill’s experience at NYU proved to be formative.

“I was surrounded by a group of people who were, in our own small context, trying to be experimental, or radical,” she says. Although she doesn’t feel like they were making anything extraordinary, she certainly recalls their excitement at the time.

Reflecting on her adolescent years, she explains her fascination with avant-garde culture. 

“I tended to be much more safe in my own expression, but I was attracted to people and art that seemed to be living outside of the mainstream.”

After graduating from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, she felt a deep concern about continuing in the world of dance and choreography. It was what she had always done. Nevertheless, Gill seized the opportunity to make a work for the Movement Research Improvisation Festival, a small step that propelled her in a decisive and lasting direction.

Eight years after graduating from NYU, Gill received a 2011 Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer, and the first ever Juried Bessie Award. The jury panel, comprised of noted choreographers Elizabeth Streb, Ralph Lemon and David Gordon, stated that Gill’s work, Electric Midwife, “demonstrated rigor in its process and challenged its audience’s perceptions.” The panel commended her consideration of the specific ways an audience views a dance.

Scene from Electric Midwife
(photo by Beth Gill)

Electric Midwife consists of three duets mirroring each other with a movement vocabulary of rounded arms, lunges, slow turns, and simple poses. Phrases of movement interrupted by long pauses eventually transition into longer smoothed out, continually moving phrases. The duets symmetrically weave through each other at changing tempos and in various planes throughout the space. The dancers exhibit control and a lack of affectation. They have cultivated mature skills through years of performing.

Gill originally created this work for The Chocolate Factory, a performance venue in Long Island City with a narrow and short space. Electric Midwife frames that unusual space so that one’s focus becomes evenly split.

Roslyn Sulcas writes in The New York Times, “The sense of three-dimensionality is heightened, as is our sense of the space itself, its depth and width, its rough walls and its windows at the back, looking like large eyes. Even the women’s casual outfits--leggings and loose tops in orange, green, blue, red, black and gray--form blocks of color that are reminiscent of Mondrian paintings.”

Sulcas concludes by asking, “Which is the left brain, which the right? Are the movements in fact identical, or are they permeated by the tiny individual differences that each human body produces? Which side is real, which side the mirror?”

Scene from Electric Midwife
(photo by Beth Gill)

Some of the work’s spatial relationships and patterns can get lost in transplant to other venues, but this helps Gill think about her work differently for each setting. In a large black box theater in London, the work can take on an unexpected theatricality. The walls of the stage space are gray, and the floor is black with white Marley in the center. The resulting visual intersection of white, gray and black color fields and the audience on a steep rake far away from the dancers create a viewing situation where the audience looks in on the piece as opposed to being within the piece.

Gill expresses concern over the possibility that her audiences most relate to a possible gimmick in her work, focusing and responding solely on the symmetry of the piece. Dance performs a vanishing act, this choreographer believes; that’s part of its challenge--and its appeal.

“Putting your experience into language after seeing a show is very difficult,” Gill says. “So often, I feel like this medium is evasive to language.”

“What it provides you as a maker is the two-fold ability to become completely obsessed with how to construct a work and also the ability to see it as a transient form. You’re moving through it, and it is moving through your life. The ephemerality of the medium is one of the most beautiful, tragic and powerful elements that I experience.”

While showing Electric Midwife in London, Gill met a man who described himself as a professor of perception, an expert in peripheral vision. At that moment, she felt as though she had made this work specifically for him.

Gill's meeting with this man created an opportunity for her to speak with someone who possessed concrete, scientific knowledge of the process of sight and observation, which Gill does not.

“When you’re seeing peripherally, your gaze is receding,” she tells me. “It’s as if your eyes withdraw into your head. When you look into a narrow space, your gaze is more honed in to a specific point, and your eyes are right at the surface of your head. Thinking about how I physically see work makes me more conscious of my body.

“I am fixated on notions of space and perception and different forms of materiality affecting our experience of space.”

Gardening is her other favorite passion. She reveals that her fantasy job would be in landscape architecture. Gill recalls meeting an artist deeply engaged in architecture who told her that she often feels as though she is a choreographer stuck in another field.

This question raises a similar one for Gill. “Am I only exploring these notions through choreography because I’ve been a dancer since I was young?” Yet Gill remains engaged with the art of dance.

In an interview with Christine Jowers of The Dance Enthusiast, Gill, once again, queried her own motives.

“At the onset of every new work is a familiar battle to reconnect with why I keep making dances. The only way this continues to be a relevant language, medium and identity for me is if I am questioning its necessity at every juncture.”

Has she ever found the answer?

“At this point in my life, my perceptual experience of the world is deeply integrated in my physical being and the sense that I have of my body. The information I take in funnels through physical receptors, so it’s hard to imagine being in a different mode.”

As she continues to question, perhaps, one day, the way she answers herself and the content of that answer will change. Until that day arrives, Gill is very much what she has always been: a maker of dance.

See the trailer for Beth Gill's Electric Midwife here.


Beth Gill is a New York based artist, who makes contemporary dance and performance in New York City. She has accumulated a body of work that critically examines issues relating to the fields of contemporary dance and performance studies, through an ongoing exploration of aesthetics and perception. Gill is a 2012 Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship recipient, a New York City Center Choreography Fellow for 2012-2013 and an inaugural member of The Hatchery Project (2012-2015). In 2011 she was awarded two New York State Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer and the Juried Award: "for the choreographer exhibiting some of the most interesting and exciting ideas happening in dance in New York City today." She is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and has been a guest artist at Barnard College, Eugene Lang College the New School for Liberal Arts, Arizona State University and the New York State Summer School of the Arts. She is currently developing New Work for the Desert, which will be premiere at New York Live Arts March 19th-22nd 2014.

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