American choreographer Beth Gill has risen dramatically from of the New York underground scene. Commissioned by New York fringe venues such as The Chocolate Factory and The Kitchen, Gill has received two Bessie awards in recent years and gained a foothold on the international stage. Her newest group piece, Electric Midwife, makes its European premiere in London this October as part of Dance Umbrella 2012. BELLYFLOP decided to pick Gill’s brain on how Electric Midwife was made, what matters to her – choreographically speaking – and what life is like the other side of the pond.
Interview by Flora Wellesley Wesley
You call your work, Electric Midwife, ‘minimalist’ – do you think of it as being part of a minimalist tradition?
Maybe. Although it has never been my intention to connect myself to any specific art tradition. I do tend to like the work of minimalist artists, but any desire to emulate them has always been very light.
In a way it was kind of a mistake to refer to Electric Midwife as a minimalist dance, because in fact I think it’s more accurate to say that it is in dialogue with minimalism. The piece uses structures that are familiar to minimalist art such as repetition, however the context of how these mechanisms are being used within the work changes over the course of the piece allowing the initial facade of the structure to fade or shift.
You once described Electric Midwife as a year long process of ‘culling our skills into a rare dance’. What guided this process of selection?
Hmm. You know when I first read this question I sort of cringed because that language feels very heavy handed to me now. For better or worse, a lot of the language around a piece develops in the early stages of a process when ironically the experience of the work is more about not knowing exactly what it was. I guess what is useful about this reality is that the language can become an artifact.
When I read that language now I realise that at that time I was in the thick of working with my dancers inside the symmetrical structure and learning just how difficult it was. The symmetry was both extremely challenging and rewarding in the way that it forced me to really see each dancer and understand their personality and physicality as well as their approach to communicating and learning.
The ‘culling of our skills’ was a delicate process. Of course, there was editing, which was necessary to achieve a sense of visual symmetry, but sometimes these kinds of edits felt like sacrifices of personality. Balancing the levels of editing and preserving the nature of the group collective was a slow and steady process, which I learned as I went.
How is the dance ‘rare’?
The use of the word ‘rare’ sounds a bit self-aggrandizing to me now, however I also understand why I chose it. The editing process that I described, and just the general structure, required not only a physical commitment to performing symmetry, but a psychological or conceptual commitment to becoming symmetrical as a group. It was really clear to me throughout this process just how difficult that can be.
Do you aspire to make work that is beautiful? What is beauty for you?
Well, yes and no. I make work that registers with me and at times this feels like it is because of beauty. To be more specific, I like watching beautiful moments mainly for the experience of watching them disappear. There is a sadness and truth about ephemera that is so well expressed in this medium and, in my opinion, incredibly beautiful. This is perhaps one expression of beauty for me… It’s not static and neither am I, so it evolves as I do.
While your dances appear to be pure in their structure and movement content, their titles resist them being read entirely abstractly. How do abstraction and narrative relate for you?
I’m sort of fascinated and confused by notions of abstraction and narrative within dance. In a totally counterintuitive way I am often trying to confirm a separation of these notions both in practice and conversation, when really my experience in dance is often that they are simultaneously engaged. I would never consider my work to be purely abstract. If I am engaging with images of abstraction it is most likely because I am trying to subvert an initial reading and/or expose some other experience.
If physical spaces are often a starting point for your work, is relocating a piece in a different site from where it was made problematic?
Well, yes. Although in this case the piece is somewhat self contained within certain dimensions. However, it is problematic in that I built it for the theatre it premiered in, which is The Chocolate Factory in NYC. The color, texture and dimensions of that space are very specific and were a part of the original design. With regards to touring the work, the question you bring up is one that I’m sort of monitoring for myself. I am hoping that the fundamental or primary experience of the piece is retained in the transplant and that with each venue there are new opportunities for the work to respond to the specific qualities of that space. Also, each tour provides more opportunities for the work to engage with different audiences, which feels really important for me right now.
How does the audience figure in your choreographic thinking?
Well in this case, I was hyper aware of how they would be visually approaching the symmetry and the work as a whole. The original audience capacity was quite small for each performance, which allowed me to control the way the audience saw the work, but it also allowed them to really feel their presence as a participant.
I understand you have been living and working in New York for ten years. What’s the scene like there? How does the short supply of money available to fund projects impact on the dance ecology?
You know it’s really difficult to talk about a scene here because the dance community is quite large and diverse, but of course there are artists that I feel connected to here, and who I am in a dialogue with. In general, I find New York artists to be really inspiring. The kinds of obstacles that you mention are very real and can feel less like obstacles sometimes and more like a primary experience. But…what can I say… I’m still here, as are many other artists. Why? It is such a good question, and one that I find myself asking often. Perhaps there is a legacy or lineage in this city that is difficult to separate from.
New York City is incredibly expensive and there is very little funding available. So, artists work other jobs. For me, I’ve worked in a restaurant since I graduated from school. I have no idea how or when that will stop being the case. It means that I make dances over very long stretches of time so that my group and I can rehearse around our various schedules. It means that I have to be very organized with my rehearsal time because there’s not a lot of it, it’s expensive, and I can’t always pay people so I have to respect the donation of their unpaid time. Writing this can feel a bit depressing, but I guess the flip side is that socially and artistically it is possible to be incredibly moved by your peers and artistic community in this city.
What do you think of London?
This will be my second trip to London. The first was a long time ago – very short and not well planned out – so I can’t say much right now, except that I am very excited to be a part of the festival and to have some time to explore the city!
Electric Midwife will be performed on Tuesday 9 & Wednesday 10 October at 7pm and 9.30pm at Platform Theatre, UAL: Central Saint Martins. For tickets £8 (£6 student concs), book here.