Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
Lauren Bakst talks with choreographer Beth Gill and the six women who perform in her latest work,Electric Midwife, about the perceptual possibilities of doubling and the depths of understanding sameness and difference.
New York Live Arts presents
When I enter the space of the Chocolate Factory Theatre on June 22nd to witness Beth Gill’s newest work, Electric Midwife, there is a palpable tension in the room—no doubt created by the engulfing sounds of Jon Moniaci’s score emanating into the lobby and the fact that I am one of only twelve audience members sitting in one of twelve carefully positioned chairs, a limit specified by Gill herself. I quickly realize that being one of such a small audience (just twice the amount of the six women performing) heightens my responsibility as a witness and necessitates that I am active in my spectatorship. As I watch the piece unfold from my clearly delineated context of perception, I am carried by the feeling that each and every moment has been deeply cared for, a sensibility that manifests Ellen Dissanayake’s notion of art as the practice of “making special.”
Resting on a structural premise of symmetry, Electric Midwife is a dance of doubles that reveals the ontologically flawed nature of mirror images. Six women clothed in bright colors and soft fabrics form three pairs that move in oppositional unison, each duet divided by two lines of silver tape demarcating a central axis of symmetry. The result is a constantly shifting kaleidoscopic tableaux that unfurls before me; a simulacrum in which each side exists as both the “real” and the “copy”—that feminine paradox of forever living inside of and in between images.
I had a chance to sit down and talk with choreographer Beth Gill and the six dancers, Anna Carapetyan, Danielle Goldman, Jennifer Lafferty, Tara Lorenzen, Nicole Mannarino, and Marilyn Maywald on the eve of their last performance. They had been performing the work five nights a week, twice a night over the past three weeks. As we began to talk, it was clear that the practice of making and performing Electric Midwife had created something quite special among them, a kind of mysterious and indescribable energetic connectivity. It comes as no surprise to me that when the 2011 Bessie nominations (New York Dance and Performance Awards) were announced, the list of esteemed nominees included Beth Gill for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer and Jon Moniaci for Outstanding Sound Design.
Lauren Bakst So, how does it feel for it to be the last night of such a long run?
Beth Gill I can say for me that I definitely feel a lot of things about it. In some ways, it’s been hard for me to fully access or label what my feelings are. I think often what happens with a shorter run is you don’t get to access your feelings very much, it just sort of happens, whereas with this run I’ve been able to really have a presence inside of the experience. I feel very grateful right now and I feel excited for tonight.
LB I was wondering if the experience of performing the work has started to take on a kind of ritual form because you’ve been doing it twice a night over the course of three weeks. Has the experience of the piece or the meaning of it for you changed over the course of performing it?
Tara Lorenzen I think at the beginning of the run, as a performer, it was like, Did I execute everything to the best of my ability? It was very much about the solo ego, and I think as we got into the second week and this week, it’s been mostly about, How did Danielle and I do? Which is definitely a different way of thinking. This is what it is. (Tara circles her hands, motioning in the space between her and Danielle.) Instead of, Was I on my leg or did I stumble? It definitely became more about our experience in it. And I think we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even need to talk about it afterward, we just know how it was—
Danielle Goldman —I think after our performance last night I said to Tara, “How many performing experiences do you have when you’re aware of how your dance partners are swallowing?” That’s actually the level of awareness.
LB That leads me into bringing up some ideas and questions about the structure of partners within the piece and the process. This might be a bit of a tangent, but something I’ve been thinking about is the phenomenon of twinning. There have been a lot of news articles recently about conjoined twins and I also saw this TED talk with Alice Dreger who is a patient advocate. She talks about how a lot of times surgeons will want to separate conjoined twins even though it might be more medically dangerous to do so. They do it because it’s about fitting into the construct of the individual and the way the world is made for just one body on their own. When I saw this piece I thought about that because the structure is organized around pairs working together rather than individuals. Beth, what was your original interest in creating that kind of awareness between two people? And for all of you as performers, what has the experience been of working with this doubling? Does being so intimately connected to another person in the work have an effect on your perception?
Jennifer Lafferty I have this incredible connection with Anna on a performance level. On a memory level, the dance would be so different if I was just to do it by myself right now. I feel confident that I know the material, but there’s such a reliance on my partner, and then I’m also thinking of Beth’s body and the way she executes the movement and having that as a kind of a goal.
Anna Carapetyan We got to do two or three showings of the work in progress, and I think the first time we did a CATCH Performance Series I felt personally bonded to Jennifer. We didn’t know each other before we started this. I actually did feel like it was, like there was something—
DG —But, throughout the process?
AC Mmhm. I like to try and understand someone else’s physicality. I feel like part of dancing for someone else is doing that for the choreographer as the informant, and I think I had a second informant, a second source of understanding in Jennifer.
JL There was one CATCH, or I think it was at Roulette, and Anna wasn’t performing. I literally—I mean this might be my craziness as well— but I went up to Beth and I was like, “Are you sure you want me to do this?”—(laughter)
BG —And I said, “Yeah.” (laughter)
JL It just didn’t feel right without her, I felt like this weird limb that was just hanging out. (laughter) That whole sensing was gone.
Marilyn Maywald I feel like we talked about things as partners but more so as mirroring rather than as twins. So there’s this question of having this demarcated center where across it is your mirror, and it’s about whether you’re imagining that as another version of yourself that you’re watching or whether you’re imagining that as another entity. For me there was a lot of fluidity and richness in playing with the differences between those things.
BG I feel like it’s important to discuss a little bit about how this concept existed in my mind when casting, because of course there were issues of sameness and difference. What seemed to resonate with me when I looked at pairs were instances where presence was either being confirmed by a kind of similar presence, or potentially a presence was being more defined or more highlighted by a kind of alternate presence. In fact, Nicole came into this process after a lot of the others and for a while there was a hole that we were trying to figure out who was going to fill. In a weird way, the only question I had when I found Nicole was available to do the project was that there was actual tremendous physical similarity between Nicole and Marilyn. That seemed almost like a potential for the ideas to shift into a realm that I was not necessarily interested in, but in truth, I think that just deepens the realm in which you could consider how your perception of sameness and difference is at play.
LB As an audience member, I didn’t feel like there was some goal of superficially creating three identical pairs, not just because you’re wearing different things but because of how the piece was created and because in a sense, even though it is this “perfection,” “perfection” is inherently flawed. It’s really interesting right now that all of you are sitting with your person, your partner.
We are seated in a circle in the Chocolate Factory Theatre’s performance space in the following order—myself, then Beth, then Jennifer and Anna, Tara and Danielle, Nicole and Marilyn. Beth and the performers laugh and look around to take note—if they hadn’t already realized—that each of them is sitting next to their partner, next to the woman who becomes their moving mirror image each time they perform Electric Midwife.
Because from what I’m hearing, this way of working has clearly culled something in the space between each of your bodies within each pair. There was a moment in the performance when the two of you (Anna and Jennifer) smiled at each other, and I realized that the whole time prior I had been trying to see the whole piece at once, and then that smile gave me permission to just look at you (Jennifer) and know that you (Anna) would still be there. That was an interesting moment for me because I was interested in how all of you were seeing each other.
BG I remember early on in the process, for that first CATCH show, Marilyn and I did dance across from each other. That was the only experience I had of performing in that relationship, but I do remember the potential for that feeling, an idea that your energetic line is somehow extending through space and making actual contact or fusing with someone else’s line. In a weird way, the reality of that experience confirms a lot of things that I feel really confused by, in terms of the capacity for…I mean, I’m already starting to tread into waters where I don’t really know how to talk about that, but, that experience was very powerful and it felt very real for me. Part of the power was when that experience happened without the tool of my direct eye focus, that there was a kind of sensory feeling of two forms being connected.
Nicole Mannarino I actually have had a couple shows where I thought about the idea of being some kind of conjoined force, just to help me connect energetically.
BG Pretty much ninety-seven percent of the conversations we have are about timing at this point. I’ve had a tremendous amount of education about the nature and the rhythms and the cycles of how timings establish themselves and how timings de-establish themselves and then re-establish themselves. One thing that I wasn’t anticipating, and I think it became this desperate mechanism that I started to use at one point, was a kind of singing or constructing melodies, because certain ideas of using counting weren’t always transcending from body to body, but somehow singing, externally creating a melodic source seemed to cement things. I thought that was really beautiful and spoke somehow to a kind of universal power that music has.
LB Yeah, it’s interesting because when watching, I would all of a sudden have these experiences of time travel. One moment I would be like, I’m in 1960, and then the next it was, No, I’m here right now. I think that has to do with my referencing a lineage of Yvonne Rainer and early Trisha Brown in the movement material and somehow in all of you. I was projecting onto it these multiple times in a way that the actual length of the piece suspended. I realized when the performance was about to end … . I felt it coming, and I was sad. Because I was like, Oh I have to go back into “real” time.
BG I’m just curious, did you have a sense of that kind of time specificity or reference throughout the duration or did you recall specific places that seem to resonate in that way?
LB There was one specific moment where I saw a Cindy Sherman photograph.
BG Can you say what it was?
LB Yeah, um, it was towards the end, you kind of lie like this, and it’s one of her first color photographs and she’s wearing an orange top and lying on a bed or something. And I also thought about Cindy Sherman in the beginning, when two of you look out the windows. I thought a lot about women and women in images, because of the mirror nature of the piece, and because of the title. There was this conceptual under current of a feminine existence or questioning that was an entry point for me.
BG There’s definitely six women in the piece, and that choice was always very clear.
MM I feel like the progression you (Beth) talked about of going from this skeletal and momentum based architectural material into more blood, pulse, flesh feels to me very much moving from something linear to something that is cyclical, and like a movement toward more ideas that are associated with femininity.
LB Also the rag and the water and the wiping of the wall kept that line of thought present for me.
BG I think that this project had an overwhelming number of agendas at the onset. I was certainly staying within a kind of personal and known location that was related to gender and my experience, but also cross weaving that agenda with wanting to access a dance lineage or history that was also really informed by a kind of female identity. Those are just two of the kinds of agendas, but also this progression that we talk about in terms of the quality of the movement, bringing forth a more embodied state that’s about flesh and effort and blood. The work exists in a minimalist aesthetic comfort place for me where I want choices to be layered with all of those interests and agendas. I want a formal choice to exist on top of that and encompass all of that, hopefully. So then it creates the potential for the audience to really access what they want to access or can access.
MM Or that the formality can be a frame that chorales the ideas.
LB I think that’s what was refreshing and exciting for me about seeing this piece—the feeling that dance, as choreographed bodies moving in space, can access all of these things, that with this formal movement aesthetic throughout, it can still drop down into those ideas. Dance cando that, can interweave the sensory questioning with the gender questioning, or the conceptual whatever questioning.
MM I think that thing about Beth being the basis for the material is really interesting and really true. I’ve been reminded a lot in this process of Plato’s perfect chair. Plato had some philosophy about, In heaven, I’ll say—I’m fucking butchering this—but there’s the perfect chair, and the reason there’s so much variation on Earth is that Earth is trying to achieve heavenly perfection but we never do. And I just think about that all the time, like Beth kind of being the perfect chair—
BG (laughter) —It’s so fucked up—
MM But actually not because I feel like it extends more. At first, it was a lot of just listening to what Beth was doing on every level, skeletally and perceptually. Now it’s more about living inside of this structure that is much bigger than me because I am a body, and there have been bodies throughout history, and there is a lineage of dance. There are so many histories that these shapes and these patterns access. So it’s this bigger thing that I’m enacting. And for me, a big part of that also sprung from having a reference point that wasn’t my own body or wasn’t my own organs.
DG I think you (Beth) spoke about this in an interesting way in your interview with Gia Kourlas where you said something about how the standard emerged, the process between the pair and you, this kind of triad of articulating what the standard was. Maybe you can pick up but I seem to remember you saying something about realizing things that we couldn’t replicate or in some cases, things that you maybe didn’t want us to replicate. Ultimately it came from you, and I think there were certain ideals or ideas that you tried to hold us accountable to but I think there was also some give—
BG —Yeah totally, totally. I think at some point it became clear to me that holding back from enforcing a kind of exactitude was an artistic choice as well.
AC Up until the performance, I didn’t expect performing this piece to be an expressive experience because it feels so restrained in some way, like choosing restraint in order to give my personal expression over to a group experience and a pair experience. But I have actually felt that it was a more expressive performance experience than I expected. And I don’t know if it’s just loving the act or if there became, I think it might have been a pair bonding. It actually did feel personal.
NM I feel like in some ways this experience of performing has been more exciting as a group than other pieces I’ve been in. There are more moments when I just feel this power as a group. They are really blissful, and then there are other times when I’m performing it and I’m just like—(gasps)
AC —It’s also terrifying.
NM Yeah, it can be really terrifying sometimes and I’ll be kind of stuck, so the feelings I have performing it feel very extreme.
AC I feel like we’ve all talked about a fear or desire just to be like blaaghh! (laughter) Which kind of feels like part of it actually—the act of being on the outside and inside of it at once. There is a slight tension.
MM Something I’ve heard from other people is that watching this dance actually makes them see us more as individuals than in other dances where we’re just doing our own thing anyway. It’s like you see the differences between Anna and Jennifer because they are doing the same thing—
DG —But I think the differences that emerge are maybe of a different scale. I think one could dwell in kinds of differences that aren’t often apparent when you’re just doing your other thing because there are so many grander differences or narrative differences. I think this has to do with the different registers in which you can talk about sameness and difference.
BG Yeah, like there’s a kind of innate tone that each of you has and it’s not about me and couldn’t be about me. You embody that naturally and it’s formed by who you are. I think those things actually really are, they are always present you know, but I think, this is totally coming out of my reading of this Robert Irwin book right now, but he talks about how physical spaces have an innate presence and for a period of time in his work he would go into spaces and he was really trying to think about simple gestures that would bring out that innate tone or that innate presence. I’m not suggesting that is what I did but I think the form naturally creates this platform to see those things.
Lauren Grace Bakst makes dances and organizes conversations.
Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.