While the first performance I saw at the River to River Festival—Maria Hassabi’s “SHOW”—was very much of the streets, Beth Gill’s “Electric Midwife” took place on the very edge of Manhattan. Pier 15, jutting out into the Hudson River from the South Street Seaport, provides an incredible setting for a performance, with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Brooklyn Heights skyline as the backdrop. While this venue drew a more intentional audience than “SHOW”—a large crowd gathered before the performance—it also had its incidental observers: I heard a child playing on the level above ask “What is that?” and a Circle Line tour operator point out the “modern dance” to his passengers.
The six dancers (Anna Carapetyan, Danielle Goldman, Jennifer Lafferty, Nicole Mannarino, Marilyn Maywald, and Rebecca Warner), all women, entered in pairs, three from each side of the stage, dressed in solid-colored layered pants and tops and white sneakers. Upon arrival, each pair assumed a different pose, forming a tableau. The only sound was the water all around us. Eventually, two of the dancers turned to each other and lifted their arms in unison, as if holding opposite ends of the same string. This initiated the symmetrical movement that would characterize the entire piece, the dancers mirroring their partners on the opposite side of the stage.
Dancers mirroring one another is one of the most basic components of classical corps de ballet choreography, and yet what a different valence it took on in this context! The neat grid the performers danced upon accentuated the geometric qualities of the structure. The dancers retained impassive expressions throughout the piece, at times facing their partners, but often maintaining their synchronicity without seeing one another. While often fascinating, particularly against the contrasting geometry of the Brooklyn skyline, the performance’s formality often came off as detached.
The dancers’ initial movements were slow and easy, but focused, with Cunningham-like arm positions. I’m not sure at what point I became aware of the score (by Jon Moniaci), but, just as I had with Hassabi’s piece, I suddenly realized that the low-frequency sounds were not the rumbling of airplanes overhead, but were coming from the speakers. In outdoor settings like this one, the score both competes and interacts with the sounds of the city. As the score eventually intensified, so did the dancing, becoming quicker, bigger, taking up more space, and advancing all the way to the front of the “stage” for the first time. Swinging—of limbs and bodies in all directions—became the dominant motif.
After a long freeze, in another tableau, the dancers began to move off the grid that formed their stage. This was not the end of the piece as I first had thought, but the beginning of a final section in which the score became more melodious and the choreography involved more contact between the dancers: a hand resting on a shoulder, a head leaning on a standing leg. Two of the dancers periodically ran to the side, leaning out over the water as they hit the pier’s railing—literally testing the boundaries of the performance space—and then calmly walked back to the center. With this expansion beyond the grid, there was also less focus on the creation lines and angles, as movements became more fluid.
Finally, as dusk approached, the dancers left the stage, two-by-two as they had entered. They descended the steps toward the water and disappeared to a level below, leaving us looking at the bright moon over the Brooklyn horizon.