The choreographer unveils Electric Midwife.
Mon Jun 13 2011
Photograph: Beth Gill
In Electric Midwife, Beth Gill is trying something new: to unveil a dance that retains, as much as possible, the sensation of what it looked like in the studio. Delving even deeper into ideas about perception and symmetry, with a vocabulary of minimal, precise movement and original music by Jon Moniaci, Gill has created a formal work for six women or, as it happens, three sets of twins. At the Chocolate Factory, where Electric Midwife will be shown beginning Friday 17, Gill replicates the vantage point that she experienced while making the piece: She places the audience, in other words, dead center. For a choreographer like Gill—she knows what she's doing—it's a good fit.
What was your idea for Electric Midwife? Is it somehow an accumulation of what you've developed in the past?
I think so. The seed of this project resides in a couple of different places. In [2007's] Eleanor and Eleanor, there are ideas about dimensionality, like a kind of playing with a two-dimensional form inside a dance. And then there's a trio that was a "dance" trio in that piece; that was more of trying to unearth a choreographic mode for myself. I wanted to dive into it more than I did with the last project at the Kitchen [what it looks like, what it feels like]. This project has a direct focus that's about craft.
Did you want to dive more deeply into a choreographic mode specifically?
I feel like I can explain this in a more narrative way as opposed to just talking about the ideas. By the time I got to what it looks like, what it feels like in 2008, I was looking back and seeing a kind of consistent output of projects for myself over the past five years or so. I saw a real progression of how movement was being dealt with; it was being stripped and edited out of my work. I was trying to understand certain choreographic components about space and time, and I was also trying to be very smart and efficient about how to make work in New York in this climate and economy, and one way to really quickly see material develop before your eyes is to use a language that is already common and understood, which would be a pedestrian language. Walk across the room, stop and sit down. I was still interested in a certain kind of subtlety inside of direction, but there was a practicality. I was training myself. But I felt very sad about it, too. I was simultaneously seeing that reflected not just in my own work, but around me. It seemed like I was in a period of searching for dance. So that's where I started to approach this work. I wanted to find a space for myself to move. I wanted to be moving again.
In the studio?
Yes. I wanted to basically put value back into that for myself, and the way I was able to do that was by a steady practice with my dancers of basically establishing and promising that every single thing we're doing matters. Execution really does matter and make a difference. So in approaching that, there's been this other idea in the past couple of pieces that has been evolving, which is a formal structure of symmetry. I think the function of symmetry in each of these pieces has been slightly different, and in this piece, it's working to reinforce what I just said. So symmetry exists in order to foreground the actual movement within the work. We are always watching an individual's physical expression, but we're more immediately watching the composition of the actual movement. I think that there is a natural abstraction that is happening because of the symmetry.
How are you using symmetry in this piece?
There is one overarching formal structure, which is mirrored symmetry, and what that means is that the dance never breaks from that structure ever. One of the many agendas that I had for myself was that I wasn't building a gimmick—I was building an intricate tapestry that would take me the rest of my life to construct. What that means, in some capacity, is that the audience enters into a space that is formally divided into a right and left side. And the dance takes place in that space and mirrors that mirrored symmetry, so the dancers are working with a very clear central axis that divides the space in half.
Do you feel like you built something with a gimmick in the past? Like with the mirrored floors at the Kitchen?
Actually, no. I think that it's not a gimmick. My experience with the mirrors in the last piece came from a very honest place, but it was such a massive undertaking that I feel like it was hard for me to control it and work with that material. It was a little lesson for me to make sure that you really think through the steps that you're taking and the commitments that you're making on a creative level. For example, one thing that is going on with this piece is that I committed myself to a formal approach and one of the first things that I really needed to spend time thinking about was, How do people see this work? One of the experiences that I fell in love with very immediately was the experience that I was having inside of rehearsal. I was situated immediately in the center of the piece. And I was interacting with the work. And the work was designed for that central viewing, so it raised a question: How do I bring this into a public showing and still preserve that experience for the viewer in some way?
What are you doing?
I am using a very limited audience and I'm trying to position them in relationship to that central viewing place in a way that will preserve that experience. It won't be possible for every single person to have that experience, but I think what I've constructed will still keep that alive inside of the room. But that idea of limiting or positioning an audience is something that feels—it's not an accusation at all [to say] that every time it's used, it is a gimmick. But I do feel like it is something that a lot of contemporary artists are thinking about. Contemporary artists are considering how people are approaching the work or even dealing with physical spaces and trying to figure out how to personalize a space for a project, and I think that can factor into those sorts of decisions. So I had to be very clear with myself about what those intentions were for me.
And the reason was that vantage point.
Yes. I feel like a lot of my work has actually been built with that vantage point. There was such a heartbreak for me—and an embarrassment as well—but I didn't fully anticipate the range of perspectives that my work was seen with. I wanted to at least give myself the experience of being able to control it; that if I spoke with every single person who saw the work, I would know that they really saw what I intended them to see, and that felt really important. My goal—I don't know how crazy I will be during the performance run—is to actually be a host, like I am every weekend [at the Williamsburg restaurant Diner], and to bring each of those people into the space and to their seat as a way to re-emphasize that their presence is beyond considered. It's necessary. Now I'm a couple of weeks away from the show, so all of this is coming back. I'm starting to reconnect with these ideas, and it feels good. I feel better about the fact that the project started with that kind of vision of how it enters the theater. Maybe a lot of people do, but I don't think that was necessarily how I was making work. Maybe this will be the only time.
It sounds different—or maybe you're more sure of what you're doing. Sometimes a huge Kitchen show can throw you off.
Yeah. The other thing that I haven't fully sorted out for myself is that I think I might not really understand making very long work, and I'm not doing that with this project. In terms of duration, this would fit into a half-evening-length work. I think that was a real obstacle for me with the Kitchen. I was trying to understand that leap in duration, and I'm just asking myself if that's a leap I want my work to be taking. I don't know. I think it's a bad idea to be taking that leap because of a kind of external structure that exists.
Why did you want to show it at the Chocolate Factory?
To be completely candid, when I was thinking about this piece, it was about the act of seeing. I really felt it should be in some kind of visual-art institution, but it seemed totally out of my means to make something like that happen. And I think it's better in the end that it has been built for a theater because so much of what's at stake for the work in terms of its beating heart is about dance. I really understand it as being related to a dance dialogue. And the Chocolate Factory, I already had a creative relationship with Brian Rogers, I think through Chris Peck. We did some Brooklyn Adult Recorder Choir stuff there, and Brian and I have always been friends. Brian, the way that he received me and what I wanted to do, was so incredibly inspiring and unexpected. I went in there basically with the attitude of, "I don't know, I kind of want to do this thing, it kind of doesn't make any sense in terms of money or effort or any of this kind of stuff," and I was expecting Brian to respond as a presenter, and he responded as an artist. He is an artist, and his response was in the form of questions, trying to help me understand what was important and why I was thinking about certain presenting structures. I walked out of that meeting and I thought, I'm going to make this project here because I think this is exactly the kind of support that I need right now.
How many people can see it at once?
What I'm working with right now is a structure that allows nine people.
Yeah. So one of the things that the Chocolate Factory was willing to do was to find a spot in their year where they had a bunch of [open] weeks pushed together, so I could stretch the performance run out.
How great to be able to perform that much, right?
I hope so. [Laughs] I hope my dancers feel that way. I think they will.
What are your other agendas for the project?
I think the biggest one was about really making sure that the microstructure of the working process was both reinforcing and being reinforced by a conceptual approach to the work. I feel strongly for myself that I'm interested in a form of composition and I'm interested in concept, and I don't believe that those things are separate. And I want the partnership of those two things to really be the dialogue of this work.
So one doesn't overshadow the other?
Can you talk about the movement itself?
Sure. That was an agenda. I had an expectation that I was going to be presenting a progression of style within the work, and that has changed.
I'm not sure I understand what you mean by a "progression of style."
Style is not the best word. One of the first things that I mentioned was an idea from Eleanor and Eleanor, which was about dimensionality—that was a way that I was seeing a conversation about moving through different dance styles. Or, dance forms became a similar conversation for me. I'm not saying that they are at all the same thing, but I actually kind of think that agenda, if anything, is something that I will continue to dig into in the future. So the movement blends different loves of mine. At times, it relates very strongly to architecture, geometry; ideas about composing landscape have always been a love of mine. I think my exposure to modern dance definitely fell into a postmodern dance technique, so I think that is clearly present in the movement. And what I've tried to do is to let these things—I think collage is the wrong word, but I've tried to make these different ideas exist in the same action at times. So the formality or tension within a geometric shape that moves in space with a sort of postmodern dance sensibility. Also, I'm trying to have a very fine-tuned eye and a specific tongue about how to talk about or label what I'm seeing, which I feel is a real necessity in a post-postmodern art-making realm. But at the same time trying to make from a very internal place. So to really draw upon these loves and influences. I think that's reflected. There are a lot of negotiations that have taken place between the dancers and me, not in an aggressive way, but in really trying to understand the mechanics of a movement: How they see it, what they can replicate and also sometimes what they can't or what I realize I don't want them to. And that's an interesting, complicated dialogue because it's not just taking place between me and one person, but each of them has a pair, so that conversation exists among the three of us.
It's always you and a twin.
Yeah. So there's a whole other experience of this work. I hope people will ask the dancers about it. They have a lot to share about what it means to really dance with another person. It's pretty amazing.
It's like a corps de ballet experience. How dancers breathe together.
Absolutely. That's a really beautiful idea. There's been a conversation within this group about the social function of making dances. I see the past seven years of my life—they're mapped out by projects, and the projects have a kind of social landscape that is designed by the people that I have been building and making with, and that stuff is changing me. I would like to believe that we are all affecting and changing each other throughout that entire time period. And so I think there is a real social dynamic that happens over the duration of a project, and in this piece, the work demands a certain level of honesty from the dancers. They really have to be honest about what they're putting forth. The work demands a certain level of communication that's happening on verbal and nonverbal levels, and it's happening in multiple directions, and it also requires us to really want to stick with each other. This piece cannot be made if one of those people decides that they can't do it. There's bonding that's happening simultaneously. It feels familial, and I've been talking to them like they are a family.
What is the meaning behind the title?
I think I spent half a year where every other week, I would come into the studio with the dancers and be like, "What about this?" And they'd say, "Yeah." Or "I think I like the other one better." No one was really psyched. And inside of that, we would have conversations about words and language and what I needed, as a title, to encompass what we were trying to do. [Laughs] Okay. So my grandfather passed away and sometime after that I was engaged in a conversation with his wife, my grandmother, and we were talking about family history. She grew up in what is now Harlem and her mother was a real-life midwife and her father was a real-life electrician. In that time period, her father being an electrician meant that he was a forward-thinking individual. One of his jobs was that he worked in a movie theater dealing with film projections. So there was a kind of interest in science. My grandmother holds a lot of that interest; she was part of the first female graduating class from Hunter and she had a degree in mathematics. And in thinking about her mother, who was a midwife—walking up and down these brownstone steps to help other women through that process, it's mystical and beautiful, real, scary, hard. I think I was at my parents' house when I talked to my grandmother about this, and I remember going to sleep that night and was just in love with thinking about my relatives who I've never met and the way that their lives were paving these ideals that mean something to me. That word assemblage stuck.