Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sunday Evening at South Street Seaport: River to River Festival presents Beth Gill's "Electric Midwife" on Pier 15

This evening we were on Pier 15 to the west of the major hubbub of South Street Seaport and got to see a spellbinding performance of Electric Midwife, choreographer Beth Gill’s most recent work.
Part of the great River to River Festival, this work premiered in 2011 and was originally performed at The Chocolate Factory's much more intimate and confined space. So it was interesting witness this highly formal and tightly structured dance in the open air surrounded by water.

Performed to a live sound score by Bessie-award winning composer Jon Moniaci, tonight's performance on Pier 15 took place at dusk so that the backdrop of sunset served as a natural light source.

Electric Midwife won the 2011 Bessie Award for Outstanding Music Composition/Sound Design for Dance for Jon Moniaci, the citation reading "[f]or transporting us with sound that seemed to reverberate from within the performers, gently exposing the bones of the dance and the hearts of the dancers." And the music and sound was indeed wonderful.

For this piece, Beth Gill also won the 2011 Bessie for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer: "For developing, over the past few years, a method and body of work that has rigorously examined the elements of choreography, performance and perception, punctuated this year with a dance of uncompromising vision whose precise, blossoming symmetries turned minimalist mechanics into a poetry of motion."

And also that year, Gill won the first Juried Bessie Award from an incredibly distinguished jury consisting of Elizabeth Streb, Ralph Lemon and David Gordon: "They were interested in her acknowledged determination to take the necessary time she needs to fully develop a new dance work and her intense consideration of specific ways an audience actually views that dance since she is known to exercise control over numbers of audience members and seating arrangements for any given showing of her work."

Given that, we thought it was adventurous to stage Electric Midwife out in the open at Pier 15 in front of a very much larger audience that sat mostly on the ground or in a few low benches or stood in the back or side. The crowd obviously had some passersby who'd never seen a dance/performance event like this before.

In a review in The New York Times, Roslyn Suclas wrote:
The titles of dances often seem to have nothing to do with their content. But the name of Beth Gill’s new work, which began a two-week run at the Chocolate Factory over the weekend, is “Electric Midwife,” and despite its non sequitur oddness, the title has a curious resonance after you’ve watched Ms. Gill’s highly formal, minimalist female sextet play itself out over 45 minutes.
There is an exactitude and fullness about “Electric Midwife” that suggests a long genesis. Nothing feels extraneous or forgotten; every movement seems to be the product of long development, although the piece isn’t self-conscious or stagey.
It is also rarely dull, although Ms. Gill presents a limited movement palette and maintains one central structural concept through the piece: symmetry. A trio on the left-hand side of the stage and a trio to the right perform exactly the same movements, using opposite limbs so that the effect is that of a mirror image.
Ms. Gill takes care to give us this perspective by limiting her audience to just 12 people, on centralized elevated seating at the entrance side of the Chocolate Factory’s whitewashed, bare-bones space. The idea of symmetry is established immediately as the piece begins, with each trio in a standing-sitting formation on opposite sides at the back of the space, half masked by a hanging fabric panel.
A low, rumbling sound (the score is by Jon Moniaci) gets louder as the women (Anna Carapetyan, Danielle Goldman, Jennifer Lafferty, Tara Lorenzen, Nicole Mannarino and Marilyn Maywald) rise in pairs and, with long, punctuating pauses, begin to move. At first the pace is truncated, slow. But gradually the individual steps smooth out into fluid sequences in which pairs move sideways, forward and back in a kaleidoscopic, repetitive sequence.
The choreography of lunges, walks and slow turns, arms curved overhead and knees slightly bent looks both sculptural and geometric. 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.
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?
Gia Kourlas, in Time Out New York wrote:

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.
And Gill told Kourlas:
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.
Beth Gill said in another interview:
I am always trying to stay connected to what feels authentic to myself. As much as I can, I try to operate within that realm and outside of a clear influence from these said communities. I really felt at the start of Electric Midwife that I was interested in doing something that I hadn’t done for myself, which was to work in an almost classically formal way. That felt outside of the trends I was seeing in contemporary dance. I needed to flesh that out for myself, see if I could do it, see if it was interesting to me, and have that experience of making dance in that way. . .
I feel like contemporary dance is very much in a dialogue with other mediums. I have always felt that the study of space to be a big interest of mine. I am in a dialogue with certain visual art practices, and it is very visible. That is part of how I think about the body, and using the body. Even in more recent work, the body is being used as a sculptural item with a real static nature. It has always been interesting to me to present my work in a visual art capacity.
When asked how she uses symmetry in Electric Midwife, Gill responded:
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.

It was an enrapturing performance for us and many of the people in the audience.
We're grateful we got to see Electric Midwife tonight.

*** UPDATE, Tuesday, July 2 - Our favorite dance critic, the brilliant Alastair Macaulay, has a review in today's New York Times

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