Amazons and Kaleidoscopes

Although I often think about chocolate, I don’t think about it when I go to see a performance at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City—unless, maybe, the dark, unsugared kind comes to mind. No scent of cacao clings to the building’s whitewashed brick interior to hint at its former status, and sweetness is only occasionally an attribute of works presented there.

Whenever I ride the #7 train across the East River to the Vernon/Jackson and walk to the place, I’m prepared to be surprised. Will we spectators be guided down a few steps into the basement instead of up the short ladder-like staircase to the main performance space? How will this dance artist and his/her colleagues transform the long, narrow room with two windows at the far end? Anyone who saw RoseAnne Spradlin’s beginning of something back in May will hardly forget entering to find most of the area taken up by a painted platform about 16 inches above the floor, with a naked woman sitting on the edge of it, quietly plucking a guitar. You had to pass very close to that woman (dancer Rebecca Serrell Cyr) to get to your seats: single rows of chairs surrounding three sides of the platform.

For Spradlin’s rousing performances, the place became something akin to a runway for Amazons, or perhaps a site for Bacchantes preparing to pursue their victims. Serrell, Natalie Green, Molly Poerstal, and Rebecca Wender strode and stomped and galloped and leaped about the platform with enough well-organized fervor to turn it into a percussion instrument. I’d never seen anyone cover so much ground by skipping. Disrobing and re-appearing throughout the piece in various extravagantly ideosyncratic outfits by Jennifer Goggans, the women—sometimes coolly determined, sometimes creaturely—could have been dressing according to their dream images of themselves.

Because of the platform, the seating arrangement, and the several mirrors on the walls, You looked at the heroic women with a voyeur’s gaze, yet when they came close to the lip of the platform and loomed above you, you could feel not just their power, but a curious, almost touching intimacy.

Beth Gill's Electric Midwife - Photo: Steven Schreiber

When Beth Gill’s Electric Midwife takes over the Chocolate Factory for two weeks, the space is unadorned. Just a big, white brick room with a white floor and two windows. Accidental scenery is provided by some mysterious colored squares glowing on the wall of the adjoining building. Gill has limited attendance to about a dozen per performance—another sort of intimacy. The chairs are arranged at the front end of the room like the prow of a ship that’s taking a slight nose dive. One person sits ahead of two, who sit ahead of three or four; the rows widen as they climb two risers. Everyone sees the action pretty much head on; no extreme diagonal views allowed, or possible.

When Gill began to show work (not long after she graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2003), she seemed bent on reducing dance to its essential architecture, and pretty basic architecture at that. She gave you plenty of time to watch still figures sitting, lying down, standing. She made you think about how the dancers’ bodies lined up with the walls or floor of the performance space, even as you were wondering when they’d next decide to stir.

But even choreographers who, like Gill, prize simplicity eventually itch to create dances that really move, no matter how stripped-down their aesthetic remains. Watching Electric Midwife unfold is like staring into a kaleidoscope; a handful of bright contents assemble into innumerable variegated patterns. Except that these contents aren’t glass pebbles but women who’re working hard and with intense concentration. These six fine and interesting dancers wear different sorts of practice clothes in a mix of well-chosen colors, but the subject is symmetry, and not a single misplaced gesture blurs the balance between what happens on the left of the center line and what happens on the right. Two short panels of unbleached muslin hanging opposite each other near the far wall provide a tiny token rebellion; when performers brush under them in passing, the cloths don’t respond identically.

Inkblot imagery is established from the get-go. The audience enters the space seconds before the show starts and finds the performers divided into trios, standing or sitting at the end of the space. Jon Moniaci’s excellently atmospheric score hasn’t started yet. I think of Marilyn Maywald (audience left) and Nicole Mannarino (audience right) as the Ones, since they’re the first to move; Danielle Goldman and Tara Lorentzen are the Twos, and Jennifer Lafferty and Anna Carapetyan are the Threes.

Is this beginning to sound dry? It’s not. To me, Electric Midwife is beautiful, sometimes magical—its bracing formal rigor a vibrant contrast to the sense of effort and growth it conveys and to the humanity of the dancers. The pace picks up, the patterns expand, the women’s faces shine with sweat.

At first, the movements are deliberate and punctuated by stillness. Lunge, swing an arm, turn to face a different direction, go to the windows and place a hand on the sill. Two by two by two—each pair following its own plans. But as Moniaci introduces a soft roar of sound and then some high tones, and Madeleine Best starts subtly adjusting the lighting, something becomes stunningly clear. Every position is two-dimensional, yet Gill— by juxtaposing the contrapuntal shapes and timings of the three pairs—is building three-dimensional structures, akin to those that sculptor Isamu Noguchi created out of flat, interlocking elements. When a formation assembles in incremental shifts, I feel as if I’m watching a series of doors open and close until the desired effect is achieved. Then the six performers repeat the whole sequence, and it’s amazing all over again.

Gill is skillful about changing the piece’s texture. The movement bolder; the women make contact with those in other pairs, spring off the ground, lie down, run. They make a pattern advance toward us, then retreat. Steps we have learned to recognize by now reappear in different contexts. It’s like seeing the components of a fascinating machine being rapidly and expertly disassembled and re-built into something else. Except that the components and those doing the work are one and the same. In the end, Electric Midwife unspools back to the quietness of its beginning, with the dancers curled into fetal positions against a rosy glow on the far wall. Then they get up and leave. Two. Two. Two.

I’m so busy revolving the piece in my head that I get on the #7 heading the wrong way. Happily for symmetry, I can reverse my path at the next stop.

© Deborah Jowitt

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