Offering a carefully calibrated, nearly static universe, Beth Gill relies on the audience’s imagination to fill in any question marks
Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, May 11 and 12.
By Marcia B. Siegel
Minimalism has many possible definitions, and the category has expanded since its inception in the 1960s. As adopted by dancers, it meant limited resources, a certain objectivity of performance style, an extended sense of time, and a lot of repetition. The audience’s patience for this austerity was limited, and soon the dance minimalists were pursuing box office appeal with more traditional embellishments. Those who stuck to the minimalist doctrine continued to satisfy their original cadre of loyalists and they inspired academics to elaborate on concepts of critical theory.
The rhetoric surrounding Beth Gill’s work is heady but not necessarily illuminating to a dance audience primed for immediate thrills and physical expertise. Gill doesn’t give us those. Offering a carefully calibrated, nearly static universe, she relies on the audience’s imagination to fill in any question marks. I hadn’t seen her work before Friday night, and I had few expectations. As it turned out, the piece, Brand New Sidewalk, didn’t really resemble other Gill works I looked at on the Internet.
Though Gill acknowledges Merce Cunningham as a stimulus, she seems to share neither Cunningham’s inexhaustible urge to dance nor his reliance on the unpredictable workings of chance operations to impose structure on the dance. Whatever else you thought Cunningham was doing, it couldn’t be anything but dance. Gill’s work on Friday was more like a series of images that moved only when they signified something else.
Brand New Sidewalk consists of three separate scenes or interludes, each with a different cast of performers. They never come together. Aside from its limited movement vocabulary, the dance’s minimalism was intensified by its flat structure: it had no beginnings or endings, no dramatic climaxes or subsidences of intensity, no floor patterns with easily grasped implications.
When the dance begins, we see a grey mound in a bare space. The mound turns out to be Danielle Goldman, in what could be a silver-grey snowsuit, curled over with her back to the audience. The erstwhile object rolls to a sitting position and begins to unzip one pants-leg, then a sleeve of the snowsuit. Underneath them is a deep green garment. Slowly she unpeels several layers in different colors, disposing of them without leaving the floor. Some of the layers are made of stretchy fabric and she pulls them out between her legs or arms. Some she folds down; others she wraps around her head. Others get discarded on the floor. When she gets to the bottom layer—pants made of black plastic—she crawls away and the lights go down.
In part two, the lights come up on a green space (lighting by Thomas Dunn) with two glowing white apparitions that turn out to be a pair of dancers, Joyce Edwards and Kevin Boateng. Wearing identical sleeveless tunics, helmet-like hoods, and above-the-ankles white pants, they stand in place and gesture in unison. Their arms describe big enigmatic arcs and angles. They could be doing a dance whose sequence they both know, but they give each other no obvious cues for keeping together. There are few signals from the music either. By Jon Moniaci, it supplies a low mechanical drone and an almost random set of chords from a brass quintet, with an organ that slips in underneath.
At some point the dancers have pulled the hoods down in back, revealing their faces. They stride together in big circles around the perimeter of the space. After a long time, they turn upstage and mime as if writing something with one finger. After another series of gestures beside a wide strip of Mylar along the edge of the stage, they lie on the floor, spreadeagled. The idea of some kind of religious ritual entered my mind, perhaps a primal memory of the baptismal scene in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Before the lights go out, they’re back upstage “writing” on the air.
For part three, the lights come up again on a portly, stooped-over figure wrapped in bunches of white fabric. She reminds me of an old woman in a Japanese play, Kabuki or Noh. As the figure begins to move, bits of gauze drift off her body. A long time later, when all the layers have come off, she emerges as a dancer, Maggie Cloud, in a body suit made of some earthy, substantial material. She stops circling the space, faces offstage, and gestures intently: scooping, gathering, pulling, swatting. But the gestures have no reference points the audience can see, so they could be simply abstract, or they could refer to something entirely in the dancer’s mind. At the end she stands, facing into a bright spill of light coming from behind the audience.
What Brand New Sidewalk suggested to me was the early days of postmodern dance, when the whole idea of dancing was under examination. In plazas and museums, civilians would notice some activity that looked ordinary but was slighly odd or out of place. In Lucinda Childs’s Street Dance (1964), the audience looked down into an urban streetscape and found two people moving in front of a line of storefronts. Both the performers and the audience were working with a set of carefully timed instructions, so it would have been hard to tell, five stories up, how spontaneous or rehearsed the performers’ ordinary-looking actions were. A few years later Trisha Brown was making Leaning Duets, where pairs of people grasped hands and leaned away from each other until that support structure gave way and they had to recover before they tumbled onto the pavement. Brown and her partners behaved as if there wasn’t anything unusual in what they were doing, but an audience of pedestrians stopped to inquire.
People watching is an age-old sport, an entertaining performance created by the watcher. The actors come into view, play their part, and go away, without offering any clues beyond the specifics of their own dance. The watcher can record these specifics—how fast they were going, where they were looking, how they avoided collisions and other street hazards. Or she can use her imagination to wonder what kind of people were passing by, what stories they could have told.
I think Beth Gill is a little bit of both types of people-watcher. She encourages us to see how much there is in how little is there.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.