Choreographer Beth Gill practices a subtle form of risk-taking. Her work certainly doesn’t elicit the kind of responses that have sometimes characterized the proposal of radical new ideas: there’s no booing from the crowd, storming out of the theater, or scathing reviews. Yet, she demonstrates a quiet kind of boldness, with each new work supported by its own distinct thread of critical inquiry. When the Walker began putting together the artists who would produce commissioned work for Merce Cunningham: Common Time, instead of Cunningham look-alikes they sought choreographers who honor Cunningham’s courageous trailblazing in their own unique way. While the tone of Gill’s work inhabits a very different world than Cunningham’s, her distinct creations nonetheless meaningfully contribute to the continuation of dance, albeit in a more understated way.
Her current body of work is part of a new era of abstraction in post-modern dance. Cunningham, in a daring departure from the emotionally-charged narratives of Martha Graham, set out to prove how dance could still be relevant, compelling, poignant, and exquisite without dependence on “meaning.” He brought the tremendous value of pure abstraction—which at the time was well-established in visual arts—to dance. The impact of his assertion was strengthened by the rigor of his abstraction; in some cases he sought to remove nearly all traces of his personal taste and motives by leaving even the most basic decisions about what a gesture should look like up to chance. Since Cunningham’s ideas first changed the way people thought about dance, countless artists have continued the discussion of what place meaning and abstraction have in contemporary performance. Gill is among choreographers who question the dichotomy of meaning versus abstraction by reclaiming the pursuit of meaning within abstraction. Her work has an undoubtedly abstract inclination with its compelling formal choreographic structures and ineffable visual environments. Yet, as with her last work Catacomb, she offers a tantalizing liminal space full of character and drama.
What Gill refers to as “abstract storytelling” allows the audience to experience all the depth and connective potential of meaningful storytelling in a space free from literal description. She maintains the multiplicity that abstraction allows, inviting the audience to explore their individual interpretation of the work, but without losing the possibility of experiencing something shared. In practice, this means using imagery and symbolism to foster association, creating spaces where there’s plenty of room to roam, but with concrete ideas to anchor you along the way. Gill is explicit about privileging the audience in her creation process, always attentive to ensuring they feel cared for and considered. She develops a special kind of direct communication with the viewer by meticulously considering the visual component of what she’s making and noting how the imagery can trigger personal associations. The results are rich and mysterious visual and temporal worlds, often described as immersive and disorienting. As New York Times critic Siobhan Burke, in naming Catacomb one of the best in dance of 2016, describes, “I remember less about the details of the work itself than I do about the moment it ended—a startling return to reality. What had just happened? Where had I gone?”
For her newest piece Brand New Sidewalk, premiering at the Walker next week, Gill is taking her visual prowess in a new direction. Instead of employing a slow-burning single structure she is seeking a coherence defined by juxtaposition. Starting with the question “what do I have?” she embarks on an in-depth inquiry of her cast members, honing in on particular vocabularies for each of them. With the creative contributions of her collaborators Jon Moniaci (sound) and Thomas Dunn (lights), Brand New Sidewalk presents a triptych of meticulously crafted domains that transform the McGuire Theater stage to the dancers’ individual logics. The format is one that she says has tested her skill set under very different circumstances, challenging her to define her sense-making through contrast. This kind of challenge in her creative process is part of how Gill confronts the idea of risk in a continual practice of personal growth and change. She aims to re-imagine herself with each project, taking inspiration from the likes of Robert Irwin, author of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. She stresses the importance of maintaining a shifting and evolving perspective, of allowing the work to change as she does.
The ethos of attentiveness and responsiveness in Gill’s work sheds new light on the formal abstraction that Cunningham originally presented. She offers a vision of post-modern dance which challenges the idea that meaning and emotion can’t coexist with formalism and abstraction. In the fertile, mysterious environments she creates we’re challenged to wonder: How can meaning be heightened when you can’t describe it with words? How can we connect deeply to abstraction when it is carefully and receptively constructed? Whereas Cunningham was in the vanguard in his purist commitment to abstraction, her own pioneering vision comes from nuance, subtlety, and the depth of opportunity available when we consider the question of how we find meaning in contemporary dance.