Though she's new to Columbus audiences, Beth Gill has been producing work since 2005, and her most recent piece, Catacomb, was singled out by the New York Times as one of the best dance performances of 2016 after it debuted last year at The Chocolate Factory. In advance of the Columbus premiere of Catacomb at the Wex April 7-9, Tresa Randall, Associate Professor of Dance: History, Modern, Ballet, and Choreography at Ohio University, spoke to the award-winning dancer/choreographer about the site-specific work expands on her previous efforts, and how it will adapt to a new and unfamiliar performance space.
New York–based choreographer Beth Gill and her longtime collaborators are bringing to Columbus her critically acclaimed Catacomb—a site-specific work that will be re-envisioned especially for the Wex performance space. While Gill has built a strong reputation for her highly disciplined and rigorous attention to form, Catacomb enables her to engage more emotional and vulnerable territory.
Gill is deeply reflective about her work and creative process, and in our conversation this week, she returned again and again to this theme of containment as a way to “frame a desire to break free.” In her Bessie award-winning work Electric Midwife from 2011, for example, four dancers moved in immaculate, mirrored symmetry. With Catacomb, she wanted to move into a more expressive and vulnerable space, and to interrogate the more personal content contained within the sculptural forms that she exactingly constructs. For quite a while, she told me, she has been “plugging away at the wonderful problem of abstraction in dance... I’m really interested in finding forms in the body that kind of hover in in-between places, where they don’t feel like they’re clearly representing one thing, but they don’t feel empty or neutral—they feel sort of charged.”
This notion of charged energy is a recurrent strategy for Gill. She set the beginning of Catacomb incredibly slow, for example, “to heat up the space.” A duet performed by Stuart Singer and Heather Lang gradually exposes viewers to the movement phrase little by little as it accumulates over time through repetition and retrograde. Gill etches the dancers’ bodies clearly in space and time, and you sense that some deeper content is unfolding. She describes this as “laying down experience over time.” Gill allows viewers to “live with an image long enough” that it enables them to “fall into the detail of what they are seeing.”
“One of the things that draws me to dance is the ephemerality of the medium,” Gill elaborates. “[The] inherent erasure that is always happening... inspires me and activates me to work against that, and really imprint image and experience in the space, for the viewer.”
When Catacomb premiered at the Chocolate Factory in New York last year, it integrated elements of the space such as exposed elevator shafts that lighting designer Thomas Dunn made to glow, like portals to a space beyond. In anticipation of coming to the Wex, Gill and her collaborators, including sound designer Jon Moniacci as well as Dunn and the dancers, took several months to workshop a different version of the piece. They considered what version of Catacomb could exist outside the Chocolate Factory’s narrow, white brick walls.
Gill explains: “[Dancer] Jennifer Lafferty’s role is tied very closely to the physical architecture of that room, so we wanted some time to work through—both conceptually and from a design perspective—what happens when that room goes away.”
She is excited to see how the work responds to a new space. Lafferty’s role in the work is to improvise throughout, making live decisions that relate to the underlying relationships embedded in the material and its connection to the space. The Wex version of the work will bring the audience closer to the action; at the same time, it will expand the overall sense of space and Lafferty’s freedom to roam. According to Gill, “This to me was a great example of how the constraint or challenge of moving a piece to another site can open up a whole new layer to the work and give the work a whole new life span.”
(Photo courtesy of Brian Rogers)