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Theresa Madaus on Beth Gill’s Brand New Sidewalk

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer and dance artist Theresa Madaus shares her perspective on the world premiere […]

Beth Gill_rehearsal_051

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer and dance artist Theresa Madaus shares her perspective on the world premiere of Beth Gill’s Brand New Sidewalk last Friday night in the McGuire Theater. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Beth Gill’s premiere of Brand New Sidewalk was a slowly unfolding dancework in three parts, each set in a starkly different atmosphere and each with its own minimal cast. Opening and closing with a solo, a duet sandwiched in between, the dance appeared as a triptych—each part discrete but offering a larger story together, like polished stones strung together to create a spare and asymmetrical necklace.  

Situated as part of the Merce Cunningham:Common Time exhibition, I was tempted to consider how this work related to my limited experience of Cunningham. Something about the way the dancers carried their spines in the duet—an uprightness and funneling of gravity down a flexible but solid column—reminded me of Cunningham dancers. The precision of the movement. And something about the relationship of the elements of the work—the primacy of the costumes, the impact of the lights, the draw of the music, each imperative to the power of the whole—that made me think about Cunningham’s collaborators. But ultimately I have no desire to compare and contrast to Cunningham or to abstract or analyze. I want to stay in the dreamy unfurling state that I experienced while watching: an ascending (or descending) series of images (sonic and visual, of body/matter and light), the slow unfurling of a flower, the strange reveal of a moonscape as it rotates into light, the metamorphosis of the grave, decay and birth.

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill. Photo: Gene Pittman

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill. Photo: Gene Pittman

We begin in the arctic, a sole figure (Danielle Goldman) bundled in an icy gray quilted one-piece jumpsuit, bulked with layers, the white marley of the floor and the bright lighting adding to the frigid atmosphere. With low bound movements, always in service of the fabric, she starts a slow and steady shedding of her layers, unzipping her jumpsuit and peeling off sweaters with the prosaic pace of a beetle—no urgency, but the attention of something that must happen, the emotionless striptease of an insect. Set to the drone of a mechanical screech/hum, it feels both urban and remote, solitary and full, like quiet nights on the farm with a more-than generator.

This metamorphosis reveals unnaturally bright colors (crimson sweater, vivid purple leggings), moving into green and then earthier tones (tan leggings and brown shirt), and finally, the shiny black obsidian at the core of the earth, a foreshadowing of where the piece will take us. Each layer is simultaneously a dead exoskeleton and a birthing, shifting contexts as the clothing remains attached to her limbs, a growing morphing animal. The slow build of melodic horns increases my appetite for the transformation. And then, finally clad in her shimmering ore pants and at last on her feet, she and the horns disappear, leaving us with the continuing hum and expectant closed curtains.

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill. Photo: Gene Pittman

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill. Photo: Gene Pittman

When they open again, we have flown to another world. If we were in the tundra, now we are on the moon, pale green and cast in soft glow. Perhaps a space station in an orbiting colony. (I am struck, later, by the relationship of colony to both outer space and insects, and why would I fixate on this word when the piece felt so solitary?) Even in this duet I felt the loneliness (or is it simply aloneness?) The two dancers (Kevin Boateng and Joyce Edwards) are clad in genderless hooded sleeveless tunics and pants, giving me the sense of futuristic scrubs, perhaps sanitation workers or priests. Their perfect unison adds to the uncanny sense of that are not quite human, and the movement—measured, fluid, exact, gliding—suggests a ritual, a meditation, a familiarity of routine that is both worker-drone and holy. They contain themselves entrancingly, moving in precision without sharpness or edges. Here is where I notice the spines—their bodies held in a different relation to gravity—weighted centers never contracting while their arms float heavily, sinuously, as if they are moving through thick viscous liquid-atmosphere. Not effortless but not effortful. This is clockwork if clockwork were made of snakes.

When the hoods come down and hair is revealed, the dancers become human, and when they lie down, the abrupt end of the horns (which have been building again with a calm ascendance) calls to mind both death and a mistake. But death is a purposeful mistake and their arms rise from their chests in lieu of spirits; I think they are ready to be levitated, raptured, taken by the mothership. And when they stand and move towards the back, I think they might step through an invisible-but-about-to-appear portal. And when this section ends we are again left in quiet darkness to wonder what comes next. What comes after death/transcendence?

Beth Gill_rehearsal_175

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill. Photo: Gene Pittman

Oh, of course, the subterranean grave. The stage has expanded, consumed with velvety blackness, the floor slicked with three streaks of oil-like shine. A single figure again (Maggie Cloud), wrapped in layers of white shroud-like gauze. Less methodical, the movement of this solo seems dependent on shedding the fabric, but this time with less directed attention, more incidentally and with more stuttered movement, standing bent over, rolling on the floor, without the dexterity or focus of hands. I think of a corpse struggling out of her wrappings, moments of Poe, dead/undead, the white sunless bodies of larvae, still underdeveloped, pre-birth. When these layers are strewn about the floor and the dancer is at last upright, she still appears wrapped in a thin translucent skin, nylon skull cap on her head and wrinkles of innards showing beneath the pale tightly drawn fabric.    
The motif repeats; when she pulls off her head wrapping and releases her hair, she becomes human to me. In the dim atmosphere, beams of light strike her, sometimes shimmery and watery from the front, other times stark and painful from the side. As she gestures and almost mimes against the sidelight, an invisible wall, I wonder if this is Persephone, searching for a way out? Death is apparently literary. And when she stands in another watery beam at the end, I am ready for her to bite her skin off.

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill, was commissioned by the Walker Art Center and performed in the McGuire Theater May 5 and 6, 2017.

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