In discussion with: Beth Gill

This discussion with Beth Gill about her piece Electric Midwife, took place on Sunday, October 23, 2011.  The next day, Beth won two “Bessie” Awards for the work, and composer Jon Moniaci was also honored with a Bessie for his design.  Electric Midwife premiered at The Chocolate Factory Theater in June 2011 and featured lighting by Madeline Best and performances by Anna Carapetyan, Danielle Goldman, Jennifer Lafferty, Tara Lorenzen, Nicole Mannarino, and Marilyn Maywald.  Electric Midwife returns to The Chocolate Factory January 5-9, 2012.

Sarah Maxfield: I have to start by asking about the symmetry.  Was that an initial, driving factor, or was that something that came out of the process of making it?

Beth Gill: I think [that] Electric Midwife, in a lot of respects for me, was a last stab at attacking certain ideas that I had been already playing with in previous works.  The symmetry is one of those.  [When] I made Eleanor and Eleanor in 2007, I was reading a lot about diptychs, and I was looking at visual art, and I really wanted to build something that seemed to divide the space in that way, without relying on some kind of architectural element to do that, but [something] that in its nature, in its relationships, severed the space.  I had these images that I had taken, from a beach boardwalk, of the wooden panels and planks.  Now I look back and [see that] they were totally symmetrical, obsessive patterning.  Somehow, a conversation about symmetry got woven into this conversation about diptychs.  In the diptych, I started looking at building unison and the next thing I knew, we were looking at symmetrical structures.  I got excited about this idea of overlaying two different pairs that were dealing with this divided space in different relationships, so one [pair] was in unison and the other was in symmetry, and those existed on top of each other, and so they were trying to negotiate the space in different ways.  It sounds really boring as I’m saying this, but I think that piece [Eleanor and Eleanor] was important, because I think it was the first time that I really let myself get hooked or excited by a kind of formal approach to composition – letting a certain sense of architecture or be a motivating factor.

SM: As opposed to some other content-driven idea?

BG: Yeah.  I don’t think I really understood that at the time, but I really see [it] now, looking back at this block of early, formative work.  When I look at all of that, what I see is work that is really inspired by space and an experience of space, and so I think ideas of architecture and form are a big part of that.  And then, in the work after Eleanor and Eleanor, (what it looks like, what it feels like at the Kitchen), I still had elements of symmetry that were creeping into the work, and I was starting to see ways that they could do different things than what they had done with Eleanor and Eleanor – ways that they brought up issues of sameness and difference inside of a sort of perceptual realm.  In that work, I felt like the element of symmetry really characterize[d] the dancers.  So, I had this sort of range of partial experiences of what that form [symmetry] does.  I think the biggest motivator for me, going to Electric Midwife, was that I wanted to build dance.  I really wanted to strip down my intention to really focusing on movement creation and design and assembling.  “Choreography 101,” in a way.

SM: Working with just the “essential elements” of dance.

BG: Yeah, yeah.  I felt really distant from that.  So, I used the symmetry. I think initially the symmetry was a container for me to really study that, and a way for that focus, or that interest that I had, to rise to the surface and become more visible.  I felt like, were you just to watch one half of the dance on its own, you wouldn’t have the same attention to some of the construction.

SM: Was there a period of time that you felt you had to give the audience, to attune us to looking at that level of detail?

BG: Yeah, I think that for the whole first section that has this series of repetition, this phrase, to me it’s really a process of immersion for the audience and almost like a warm-up for seeing, you know?

SM: I had that experience watching it.  I was initially, like “Ok, this is what we’re doing.”  And then, I got frustrated and bored with it, and then I got past being frustrated and bored.  It went on long enough that it was like, “Here’s this idea of this thing.”  And then I was past understanding the idea, and I felt like, “I get it; ok, I get it.”  And then it continued to go on, and I was like, “Oh, no, ok, I actually hadn’t got it – until now.”  It’s risky in a way to brave boring the audience to continue towards a deeper idea.

BG: I think that is a mechanism that I’ve employed in the past as well.  I feel like I’m really attuned to my own experience watching work and those kinds of rhythms that happen, as you’re watching, and I feel like it’s important to me when I’m making to anticipate those rhythms from the audience and really signal in some way that I’m making space and there’s a real intention for that whole range of experience to be there – that idea of “journey” or “arriving.”  That sense of timing was a big part of a lot of the earlier work that I made, [which] was super-super sparse, and I think that was allowing me to really focus in on the impact of gestures in space and in time and understand what the experience of that is.  I knew that for this piece [Electric Midwife], I wanted to ultimately build something that was much more thick, [that] really had more density in terms of its tapestry.  But, I also think that my experience during the process was that the eye just can’t process all of that information necessarily.  So, that’s also where the repetition came in for me.  There might be elements that feel boring over time, but there were nuances and subtleties with each repetition that were starting to embed within you.

SM: Yeah, that was my journey.  Initially, I wondered why I was being asked to watch the same thing over and over and over again, and then I was like, “Oh, this has been different every time,” but I didn’t register the subtle differences in the details, until it had been going on for quite a while.

BG: I also felt like the function of that first section was [to address] this experience that I have whenever I go to see group work, where I feel like I’m meeting the family.  I’m like, “Oh, look, and there’s that person and that person and that person,” and you don’t even really process what’s actually happening because you’re just getting used to looking at these people, and I felt like, especially in this format, where I was pairing people off, there was going to be so much attention for the audience’s need to evaluate each of these individuals and just look at them and take them in.  That phrase was constructed in a way that it moves them through space, but it also “territorizes” the space.  It keeps [the dancers] in certain places and locations, so that you can start to get used to who they are.  I’m also, hopefully, imposing certain ideas about those pairs.

SM: Yeah.  I’ve been thinking about this in a different context recently.  I feel like there’s a certain, post-Judson emphasis on individual performers, and the “self” of a performer as a “character” always being visible on stage as something that we really have to contend with in contemporary work.

BG: Who you are in life is the same as we are…

SM: Exactly.  Some of what you were doing with Electric Midwife was extremely formal in a way that, for example, in a ballet context you wouldn’t have had to contend with the identities of the individuals in the same way.  I mean, there have always been ballet stars, but there’s more of a tradition of the individuals being others on stage, rather than themselves.  Also, in ballet, the corps is available.  There is an “anonymous” group of people who can be utilized to explore space and image and shape.  We don’t have that “downtown” because everyone is seen as an individual person.  So it’s interesting that you were addressing that so specifically, by taking such time at the beginning: “Take a look at the people, get to know them, and then move beyond what you just looked at.”  Do you feel like, after you set that up, that the hope was for the piece to continue to evolve in that direction, away from the dancers as individuals, or were you bringing that back in throughout?  What was the interplay that went on?

BG: I wanted to have this progression in the space, where the piece essentially moves from upstage to downstage.  That idea was really influenced by this vision that I had for the audience being this small central group and wanting the piece to go from this frontal, visual experience to an experience that was engaging broader sensation and perception, where your peripheral sense is being engaged in some capacity.  So, I started to imagine the impact of the level of intimacy that the audience [has] with the dancers.  [The audience] can start in a really distanced place and really think of [the dancers] as sculptural elements, if they want.  “Sameness” can be over-emphasized in that moment, but then as it gets closer to the audience, hopefully that starts to get a bit more confused or washed away, and just by the nature of not being able to actually have that visual frame to look at the whole work, you can’t actually experience those people in that way [as sculptural].  You have to deal with them a little bit more on an individual basis.

SM: You’ve made a lot of allusions to visual art, and I had a sense at the beginning of the piece that it was somehow flattened or two-dimensional.  You weren’t just dealing with symmetry.  You were also dealing with planes of space as you’re describing, there wasn’t a lot of exploration of depth initially, so it almost felt like watching a screen.  As the piece came forward, some of it was also left behind, which increased the visual depth, almost changing from two dimensions to three.  I’m remembering particularly when the bowls of water became involved.  That really changed things for me.  I felt we were then involved in the piece in a different way.  Our space was included, and it did humanize what was happening.  Also, that section made me think about the title very specifically.  I remember thinking,  “I wonder what Beth was thinking with the title.  Was it the same as what I’m now thinking?”

BG: What were you thinking?  Do you remember?  How did it [that section] seem to reference the title?

SM: There was a reference to midwifery and birthing, and it was interesting to me when that element was introduced because it felt so separate from what had been happening until that point.  And the modifier of “electric” for “midwife” implies a certain separateness.  These are two ideas that you wouldn’t typically think of as going together – one is the ultimate humanity and the other is inherently separate of humanity, but I’m curious from you how the title plays in, and if it was something that came in later as a way to frame what you were doing, or if it was something that was part of the initial, generative process.

BG:  I think that section is still the one section that I look back on, and I’m like “It’s not totally happening in a way that completely works for me.”  But, interestingly enough, it seemed like it was very important.  It really functioned, and it was important for a lot of the audience.  That was a lot of the feedback that I got.  Initially, that gesture was in my mind, it was going to be more formal, a kind of visual design in the space.  I wasn’t thinking about what the actual [painted concrete] walls are like at The Chocolate Factory.  I was imagining something more like cheap plaster, and I was envisioning what it would look like for these wet rags to be drawn in a line along the wall, and have that painted, wet stripe dripping down.  I was focusing so much on trying to build an imprint, a sense of depth in the space, that I then wanted to wipe it backwards.  Initially, I was working with that.  I think I had titled the work by the time I was working on that section.  I had gotten that image, and I liked the crossover, and, of course, I sensed all of the things that you referenced, but I felt comfortable that my initial interest in it was not coming from a place of narrating or explaining, but rather that it could kind of shift the tone of the work, maybe – the fact that it was referencing those things.

SM: I think it did.  I think the title was a useful element of the piece, as much as any of the other elements, because it didn’t initially feel very literally or strongly connected to the material.  It gave me something to figure out, even as the piece began.  If the title hadn’t been as intriguing, and if the piece had just begun as it did, there might have been less work going on for me from the very beginning, and I like having that kind of work set out for me: “How does all of this exist in the same system?”  I thought the mystery was useful.  Then, finding elements where it felt more anchored were nice discoveries, but it never felt narrative, which, as we all know, is taboo!  Avoid narrative at all costs! (Laughs.)

BG: You were talking about the flatness in the beginning.  If you look at the choreography of that beginning section, I did intentionally flatten out all of that phrase work because I wanted to give the work a sense of line, like on a paper or hieroglyphics, or something that felt like these forms were starting to develop a kind of iconic nature around them, especially with the repetition.  They started to become more than just the shapes that they were making.  The shapes started to become the thing that was coming to the forefront, but that when the work starts to get closer to the audience, I tried to build shapes that were more three-dimensional and rotating, provid[ing] more ways of viewing the actual physical body.  And somehow that feels wrapped into what you just brought up about narrative, because it’s really fascinating to me how certain forms and structures fall in different places on this line between abstraction and realism, and the way that those signifiers somehow also seem wrapped up in ideas of narrative – how you start to form understandings of who any of these people are – what their roles are.  That was a part of it too, but it’s true: it is a sort of “no-no” to work with narrative.

SM: I think it’s something that people are addressing now.  I think it was more of a totally taboo thing a few years ago, and now maybe we’re interested in it again, or starting to decide that it’s ok to play with it.  It’s an interesting relationship.

BG: I like thinking about narrative as strains.  It makes me think of scents, like a perfume – different things that feel specific yet have an airiness about them, in terms of those qualifiers.

SM: There’s a sort of trigger that you build in that creates certain reference imagery in the audience, but it’s not a specific beginning-to-end structure.  You said at the beginning that this was your last effort in some ways. Why last?

BG: I think I was a little depressed after my show at the Kitchen, not because it was really perceived in any way as a failure, but I felt like I was not pushing myself hard enough, or something.  It takes so much effort for anyone in this city to make dance.  That was really my first full-length piece, and it was so clear to me after I did that show that there’s no reason to be doing this, unless you’re really doing exactly what you want to be doing, and it took me a year after producing that show to just – in this really dumb way – form those words for myself, and then by the end of the year I was like, “Holy shit.  If I don’t really stand in front of the mirror and say, ‘What do you actually want to be doing?’ then it’s not really making sense.”  It’s not making sense for all the efforts that exist in my life to be doing this.  I’m not on some fast-track to wealth and…

SM: I don’t think there is one.

BG: No, there isn’t.  That doesn’t exist.  So, that I think I was in this real self-constructed “do-or-die” place at the beginning of this piece.  I think that kind of mind-frame is necessary sometimes to push a thing out.  But now, I think the things that I’m excited about exploring are things that I feel like are not really addressed inside of the work that I just put out, and the work that I was making before then.  I never really got there, but I had this idea that I wanted the content of the end of [Electric Midwife] to be like if you could make a weird hybrid monster of all kinds of pop and contemporary dance forms that exist in a lot of different realms.  I wanted something that felt more alive in that place.  I still see my work as existing inside of a really specific community, and there’s something that’s kind of boring and frustrating about that, so I want to try to fight against that a little bit.  It seems hard, because I think, ultimately, I’m a really intense editor, and so when things start to feel even a little bit unusual, I tend to edit them out, so I want to … It’s going to be super-inarticulate right now because I’m not totally clear on what I want to do, but I’m interested in that.  I’m interested in thinking about a more sexualized body, because I feel like that aspect of the body doesn’t seem to come up in a lot of the work that I’ve made, so it’s just a question mark that I have.  I feel a little lost because I don’t really have a sense of a structural approach that’s interesting right now, but I guess what I have is that I don’t really want to work with symmetry.  So that kind of leaves everything open.

SM: It sounds like you’re interested in moving beyond your own habits.  You’ve developed this particular skill level at these things that you’ve naturally gravitated towards, and, if you want to continue, what is interesting to you is to look beyond that.  When you’re making work for a certain period of time, I think that happens.  When you first move to the city, you’re just trying to be visible, and then once you’ve achieved a certain level of visibility you start to think, “If I’m going to keep doing this…”

BG: Again it’s that sort of “do-or-die” place.  I feel like that happens after every project. Maybe that’s a real benefit to the situation surrounding contemporary dance-making in New York: it does force you to be really honest about why you’re making or what you’re making.  I’m going to try to hold onto that perspective for a while.

SM: It tends to return frequently.  Every time you look toward the future.  In terms of expanding the community that you feel you’re working in, are you thinking of presenting your work in a different context, or changing the content, or both?  What’s the strategy there?

BG: I don’t really have a strategy yet.  This thing happens to me every day when I walk to the subway.  I live in Ridgewood, and the path that I take goes through this little triangle square with benches.  It’s like kind of a shabby, weird park-space, but not really.  It’s tiny, and there’s a diner right next to it, and I feel like – I don’t know why in that space – but I feel like there’s this life and this intermingling that is happening in that moment, and sometimes I force myself to try to imagine what it would be like if I were to make something that would exist right in that space.  I am just convinced that it would be really challenging on all fronts.  So that is a place I’m just trying to meditate on right now and understand why.  What are the aspects that would be challenging about it?  I think it’s an exposure thing.  I love the neighborhood that I live in, and I’ve started to become close with some of the people that live on my block.  On an economic level, I feel very much aligned with all of those people, but in terms of our lives and our interests, and the choices that we prioritize… I’m surrounded by a lot of families that are either first or second-generation immigrant families.  They are raising kids, and that’s their priority.  That’s what they are doing.  And my priorities are totally different.  I’m funneling all of my resources and all of my energy into pursuing the arts, and I guess I’m just struggling to try and make sense of some of this, and try to integrate certain parts of my life a little bit more.  There’s a certain kind of segregated nature of contemporary dance, so I don’t know what that means because I don’t feel totally comfortable with the idea of “Ok, cool, well I’m just going to stage my dance in the middle of the Ridgewood square.”  That’s not really what I want, but at the same time … I don’t know if it’s actually about wanting to make work that goes out into other areas and into the street, or if it’s about trying to think about building something that could.

SM: Something that could have some relevance for that context, even if it’s actually presented in a different context.

BG: Totally.  I feel like the struggle is always to make sure that you’re not making for a group of 30 people.  You know?

SM: I think that’s a real question, and I think it some ways the physical location does play a part.  There are certain venues that exist in certain communities and certain people go to them, and that becomes habitual, and trying to get people who aren’t used to coming to those places to come to those places is a challenge, but then, at the same time, as you’re saying, it’s not enough to just take the same work and put it in another context, because then you’re not really engaging with that community.  You were talking about your neighborhood, so you could talk to your neighbors and create a broader context, rather than just “airlifting” the show into that space.  I think the way you’re thinking about it – bringing different parts of your life together – is an interesting approach to it, because you’re looking at where you already interact with a wider community of people than you interact with in your dance work, and you’re addressing how you might make your dance work more broadly relevant to the wider community with which you already interact.  I think there is some value to individuals developing ideas, even in isolation.  I think those things do reverberate, but I also think there’s some danger in having the realm of ideas become a totally closed system.

BG: Totally.  I think a lot of it is just the kind of rhythm that an individual artist can go through.  For myself, [during] those incubator early years when I was out of school, probably up until what it looks like, what it feels like, it was really important to be making in the way that you described – to be sourcing: “What are my skills, and to what degree can I really study those things in this very specific way, and what kind of personal structure can I build for myself?” That becomes an important part of this larger rhythm and journey, and then you reach a point where I think you need some new terrain.

SM: Yeah. It makes sense to spend some time figuring out who you are, and then once you have a certain comfort with that and strength with that, then you can look outward a little more and ask, “How can I as this artist interact with the larger world instead of just continuing to look inward?”

BG: Yeah.  It’s scary a little bit, because I feel like I was really taken aback by how successful [Electric Midwife] was.  People really responded, and that was really exciting, and a little bit scary.  You know?  You have to constantly deal with and manage your ego and try to take on new ways of working and new ways of envisioning, and chances are you might make a real pile of shit.  (Laughs.)

SM: The stakes get much higher the more successful you become and the more visibility you have.  It gets harder and harder to take those risks outside of the things that you’ve had success with in the past.  We see that frequently with artists not meeting that challenge and continuing to make the same thing, and then there are people who are able to resist that inertia, but it’s a real pressure: success.  The more interconnected your work becomes with this network of support – press, venues, funders – the more difficult it is to step off track into something totally different.

BG: I think the goal for myself is [that] I don’t really want it to ever be super-calculated.  I feel like the duration of [each] project tends to be so long that it can encompass a real chunk of time in my life, and it can become a real container for a period of processing something specific.  I think that’s pretty common for a lot of dance artists.  I think that for me there are phases where there are certain things that I keep hitting my head up against, and that extends over a period of time, so I feel like the more you can just stay attuned to those signals and make choices in that way…

SM: I think you’re in good territory as long as you’re continuing to ask the questions that you brought up: “What do I want to make and why?”  Things get dangerous when you starting thinking instead: “I have these opportunities ahead of me and how can I meet these expectations?”  How did Electric Midwife function for you in terms of those questions?

BG: I think of all the gestures that I’ve made so far, that piece has the clearest intention, and it really was that way [from the beginning.]  There was such a long period of time, before I really stepped into the studio, where I was trying to prepare myself and ask those questions.  The whole process was like that scene in every Rocky movie, where he’s running on the beach, and he’s just like, “Am I gonna make it?”  You know?  I sat and meditated before I made this piece about this structural concept and all of the different layers that I really, really, really want[ed] to just become totally infused together, and then, as soon as I got in the studio it was like, “Can I do it?”  I’ve never really had a project that was like that before.  I feel like every other project I’ve made [was still] forming two days after it was made.  I really wanted to have a different kind of relationship to the idea of working [in which] I could really construct the working experience that I felt like I wanted, or I needed.

SM: Was that way of working more conscious of what you were creating for an audience than your previous way of working?

BG: I think there’s a certain amount of awareness and even self-consciousness that’s existed in all of my work, but this one definitely thought about the audience in more specific ways, in terms of: “This person is literally sitting here, and what does that vantage point [experience]?”

SM: Was the set-up of the audience – the limits in number and vantage points – part of the initial set of elements in your mind when you were metaphorically running on the beach like Rocky?

BG: Yeah, because [in previous work], I built these things, and I had such a deep experience or such a clear memory of sitting in the studio and having a certain frame in which I was looking at the work, and I don’t think I was really anticipating enough what it was like for 2/3 of the audience that was not sitting in that center space.  That’s a lot of people who have a perspective that I didn’t build. The nuance that I potentially saw and was trying to emphasize or embed inside of the work was not even really visible from those perspectives.  So, by the time I got ready to make Electric Midwife, I was like “Ok, I’m going to really deal with that, and I want every single person who sees this to feel like I really know exactly what they saw, and what they saw was what I really intended to give them and put there for them.”  [I mean that] less in a controlling way and [rather] from a point of wanting to feel more of a sense of intimacy with each audience member.  This is an exchange.  I really built this for you.  I pictured you here.  I pictured this seat. I work in a restaurant, and the whole year and a half that I was building the process, I had this one shift that I would work at the restaurant where I would host on Saturday nights.  It’s a horrible shift.  It’s the worst.  I was joking with Brian [Rogers] at one point that I saw my role during the performance run as kind of like that.  I wanted to be a host and bring these people into the space, if I could.

SM: That seems like a potential avenue for bringing these disparate elements of your life together.

BG: Yeah.  We do these performance runs.  You get four nights.  It feels like someone hits you over the head, you passed out, you woke up, and all of a sudden the party’s over and there’s shit everywhere, and you have to clean it up, and you’re like, “What just happened?”  You have no idea who was there.  [Approaching Electric Midwife], I was like, “Wow, what we do makes no sense.  How can I make this make a little bit more sense for me?”  I would like to be able to approach all of my future projects with that same level of consideration.

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