“The worst thing about making choreography is that you get one chance to experience the novelty of something new, and then you get a million chances to practice recapturing that experience… The biggest criticism I have of my own work is that it’s always on the brink of dying.” Bessie Award–winner Beth Gill makes choreography that is spare yet playful, stark yet beautiful. In the Walker-commissioned work Brand New Sidewalk—performed May 5–6 in the McGuire Theater—Gill teams up with composer Jon Moniaci and lighting designer Thomas Dunn as she questions the value of formalism in dance. This evocative piece for four dancers explores themes of alienation, erasure, and power, illuminating the compositional pleasure of the Merce Cunningham legacy. In an interview with performance scholar Danielle Goldman, first published in the Walker-designed catalogue Merce Cunningham: Common Time, Gill discusses audience-performer intimacy, choreographic density and complexity, and releasing control of the creative process in search of “liveness.”
Danielle Goldman: When I reflect on your creative practice over the past ten years, I don’t often think of Merce Cunningham as being an explicit reference for you. But since you were commissioned to make a new piece for the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, perhaps we could begin by talking about Cunningham’s investment in “pure dance” and formalist abstraction. I often think that discussions about these aspects of his work fail to reckon with the ways in which he recognized the idiosyncrasies of his dancers. When discussing his Suite by Chance (1953) some years after its premiere, Cunningham said: “It was almost impossible to see a movement in the modern dance during that period not stiffened by literary or personal connection, and the simple, direct, and unconnected look of [Suite by Chance] (which some thought abstract and dehumanized) disturbed. My own experience while working with the dancers was how strongly it let the individual quality of each of them appear, naked, powerful, and unashamed.”1 How do you think about the encounter between dancers and form?
Beth Gill: Some of my love of Merce’s work—and, really, much of postmodern dance—has to do with the way he uses form as a foundation, as a structure, as a canvas, as a kind of supportive system in which one can perceive the individual contributions of the dancers, or—as I understand the quote—to perceive the individual dancer in a kind of naked, authentic state. I have that experience with Trisha’s [Brown] work as well. There’s some kind of relationship or contractual agreement that the dance coexists with that also makes possible the viewing of the individual dancers.
The closest I’ve come to that experience in my own work, though with more murky results, is in Electric Midwife (2011), in which three pairs of dancers, divided by two lines of tape on the floor, mirror each other’s movements. The overarching structure of symmetry creates a kind of feedback loop with the perception of the dancers. Watching the work, I’m pushed to consider how the form is affecting my understanding of who I’m seeing. So the notion that I can witness an authentic self becomes questionable, and for me that uncertainty is a powerful layer in the piece.
Goldman: Were there any particular works in which you were investigating the mechanism for questioning who or what it is that one is seeing?
Gill: When I was making New Work for the Desert (2014), I started to tailor roles to a specific dancer. Not just aesthetically but conceptually—thinking about what that role’s particular relationship to form should be in terms of style, history, and representation. I was using certain dancers symbolically or metaphorically only through the manipulation of their physical material, as opposed to costuming or visual design. I think my understanding of what form encompasses is expanding—it has more plasticity to it now. But it’s hard to talk specifically about this. When you talk about form, what are you talking about?
Goldman: The various ways in which the dance is structured: line, gesture, the compositional elements of a work, timing, the ways in which embodiment is structured and designed by your choreographic eye. For example, the New York Times described Electric Midwife—which I danced in at the Chocolate Factory—as “highly formal,” and there was certainly a very clear interest in geometry as one form that we as dancers were negotiating.2
Gill: Right, there are many layers of form, and it’s challenging for me to extract and examine any one of them in isolation from the whole. Similarly, the discussion of the dancer as separate from the form is equally difficult, because it implies that the form can somehow stand on its own. What maybe makes it possible to have that discussion about Electric Midwife is how the symmetry forces the viewer to hold an understanding of both the ideal and the real experience. So we can separate out the ideal as the form itself and the dancers as being in negotiation with it.
Some of my earlier, more minimal works, like wounded giant (2005), have a clearer relationship to the Cunningham quote because the viewer’s primary encounter is with the performer. In the work I’m making now, Catacomb [premiered May 2016 at the Chocolate Factory, New York City], the complexity and density of the form can have a smothering effect on the dancers. There’s a lot for them to sift through.
Goldman: I was intrigued by your comment that there is a kind of contractual agreement at the outset of a process. Were you talking about an agreement between the dancer and the choreographer?
Gill: I think there are always contracts or agreements that get set up, of course between the choreographer and performer but also between the performer and the viewer, whether consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes a performer is asking to be seen in a particular way, or to not be seen at all. That’s something I’m really curious about as a director. From a psychological standpoint—what is the expectation they’re setting up and what is my role in shaping this? What I’m trying to address now is all of the work that’s happening inside the dancer’s mind beyond the management of body mechanics—what they’re thinking and imagining in addition to the moves.
Goldman: I was thinking recently about dancer Eleanor Hullihan in your work Eleanor & Eleanor (2007). I remember watching from the wings, mesmerized, as Eleanor, over the course of several minutes, gradually shifted from a full and engaged presence to a seemingly drained-out form, all while standing in a stationary spot onstage. There is tremendous complexity in the meeting of her interior space and that rather minimal formal proposition. It was seemingly so simple, yet very alive and shifting over time.
Gill: Catacomb is also an interesting workspace with regard to the dancer’s interior landscape, mainly because I’m trying to visibly render different modes of representation for each of the four roles, and I’m doing so by setting up different formal but also behavioral conditions with the dancers. This means building customized—I’ll just continue to use this word “contractual”—ideas for each person. How visible the differences are depends a lot on the viewer. For me, it would be most successful if it were clear to most viewers that there are distinctions, that these roles are not the same, and that the differences reveal a level of intentionality about how I constructed the form of the work.
Getting back to Cunningham, there are many differences between what he made and what I make, but certainly our individual relationship to control is radically different. For me, his willingness to let go of some of his control in the creative process is inspiring and something to strive toward.
Goldman: Maybe another way to think about control is in terms of care. You’ve taken remarkable care to control or structure the viewer’s encounter with your work. In Electric Midwife, for example, you decided to limit the audience to twelve people, and you became a kind of host for the work. I remember your attempt to personally escort everyone into the theater. You’ve talked about that as a gendered kind of care, in some ways similar to the paid work you’ve done at the Williamsburg restaurant Diner. Can you talk about that?
Gill: At the time I was making Electric Midwife, I had another identity as a waitress who would sit down at a table with customers and hand-write the menu for them while simultaneously describing each dish. I was using language—I would even go so far as to say performance—to give them a sense of how the ingredients were coming together. I always felt these encounters to be very intimate exchanges. I was also hosting at Diner, and that role in particular made me think a lot about care and responsibility. I learned a lot about how a guest’s initial experience could set the stage for their ability to enjoy the Diner culture I described earlier. People were often more open to the experience if I could find a way early on to make them feel cared for, seen, and special.
So I brought all that experience to Electric Midwife. I wanted guests at the theater to feel my care for them, to feel welcomed, and for the work to reaffirm in every aspect that I wanted them to be there. The seating in particular was the clearest example of this. We worked to build platform heights that would ensure that each person had a clear sight line. We arranged the seats in a triangle with the point closest to the dance to maximize people’s sense that they were the center of this symmetrical work.
Goldman: I wanted to ask you about some remarks you made in fall 2015 during a panel on Trisha Brown. You were sketching your development as a choreographer and the way your interests have changed over time. You mentioned that, early in your career, timing was where you first felt a sense of your own voice. Can you say more about that?
Gill: I often think that timing has a direct effect on the act of seeing. Slowness and stillness instigate expectation or waiting, and waiting has a pressurizing force on a viewer. As a result, the viewer is leaning in—not literally, but leaning in a little bit more attentively to the work, because the work isn’t overdelivering to them.
Goldman: Your notion of a spectatorial “leaning in” seems apt when I think about my experience of watching your work. It suggests an active viewer but also a kind of intimacy, a spatial experience of vision.
Gill: Intimacy is really about connection, merging, closing the gap.
Goldman: In one of our earlier conversations, when you were beginning work on Electric Midwife, I remember you talking about a desire for more density within a single figure, which I understood to mean more complex choreography for each dancer. I don’t know whether that happened to the extent you initially imagined, but there certainly has been an increase in compositional density in your work. It’s funny to be citing Cunningham on this subject, but I flagged this: “The eye tries to recognize what it already knows. It is like security. Everybody does that. It takes anybody a long time to really see something new.”3
Gill: I think that’s a powerful part of Cunningham’s legacy. He had some capacity to wrestle with his own attachment to what a thing is, and potentially to let go of that attachment and let the thing change. That’s another area where I hold him in very high regard. It’s very difficult to perceive change. It takes an investment of time and labor to see something differently.
For me, the experience of seeing things differently is happening in my relationships with the people I work with. I’m getting to work with the same dancers over a series of projects, and it’s a total blessing when you’ve known someone in a particular way and then you get to encounter them differently. I feel like we are deepening our relationships to each other. The worst thing about making choreography is that you get one chance to experience the novelty of something new, and then you get a million chances to practice recapturing that experience or getting something different out of it.
Goldman: If you don’t, it’s dead.
Gill: Exactly. The biggest criticism I have of my own work is that it’s always on the brink of dying.
Goldman: Can you say more about that?
Gill: Sure. As I have gone deeper into the issues we’ve talked about—density, complexity, or care for all the levels that constitute a work—that means that I am digging my hand into all those different places, making choices, and then asking the dancers to be held accountable to those choices.
Goldman: Earlier you used the word “smothering.” Is that what you mean?
Gill: Yes. The performers have to deal with the kinetic, imaginative, and sensorial obligations of the piece, as well as this notion of presence and how to relate to the audience—not to mention the structure of the dance and of course how to be in space and time with the rest of the dancers in the “correct” way. Being held accountable for all of that can be smothering. When the dance starts to lose its liveness, I understand that to be directly related to this overload of expectations.
There are a few different ways to think about liveness. Do we, as an audience, expect to see a kind of liveness that might not actually relate to the experience of being alive, or are we just hoping to experience the euphoria of novelty? And do we feel this liveness in our encounter with the work or with the dancers themselves? I don’t know! But it can feel very depressing or deadening to watch somebody just tackle the thing they did yesterday. I don’t know how much I can create a kind of trickery to take that away. That’s one of the things I’m thinking about right now.
Goldman: As you know, Cunningham invited many composers and sound artists to create new music for his dances, and he set no parameters on their work. I’m curious about how your collaborations with sound artists compare to his. A way in to this topic might be to talk about your work with Jon Moniaci.
Gill: Jon and I have a really incredible collaborative relationship, but our collaboration is not the same as Cage and Cunningham’s. Cage’s sound was independent of Cunningham’s choreography, whereas Jon’s compositions are very responsive to the dances I make. I often bring him into the process after I have been working for a period of time. We talk a little bit, but mostly just to share what we’re thinking. I never step into his process of choice-making. We let the dance and the score develop alongside each other.
Goldman: It’s striking to me that the company structure Cunningham was working with doesn’t exist anymore. Yet long-term relationships seem to be important to you—with Jon, with individual dancers—and maybe it takes that kind of time to develop the particular virtuosities that interest you and also to allow you to release control. It’s a magical thing when something has been built or gathered between people. And held across bodies.
Gill: It’s so powerful for me to see myself reflected back when I watch any of the people I’ve worked with perform. Because I know there are times when I articulate my ideas clearly, and times when I don’t. They are the real detectives, putting the pieces together.
1 Merce Cunningham, Changes: Notes on Choreography, ed. Frances Starr (New York: Something Else Press: 1968), quoted in David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, ed. Melissa Harris (New York: Aperture, 1997), 69.
2 Roslyn Sulcas, “Symmetry and Geometry, in Mirror Image,” New York Times, June 21, 2011.
3 Merce Cunningham and Jacqueline Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance (New York: M. Boyars, 1985), 131.