Mirroring on the Water: Beth Gill’s “Electric Midwife” at the River to River Festival

While the first performance I saw at the River to River FestivalMaria 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.

Danielle Goldman, Jennifer Lafferty, Marilyn Maywald, Nicole Mannarino, Anna Carapetyan , Rebecca Warner in Beth Gill’s “Electric Midwife”
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

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.

Dancers in Beth Gill’s “Electric Midwife”
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

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.

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Dancing on Wall Street: Maria Hassabi’s “SHOW” at the River to River Festival

This is the first in a series of reflections on dance outdoors–look for more to come!

The abundance of opportunities to see dance outside is one of the great pleasures of summer in New York. The River to River Festival (continuing through July 15) does not simply transpose the experience of seeing dance in a theatre to an outdoor venue, but asks choreographers to imagine or re-imagine their works in a delightful variety of unlikely spaces around Lower Manhattan. Placing dance in these contexts brings the works into direct contact with the city: offhand comments from unwitting passersby, the sounds of traffic, and commentary from a tour guide on a Circle Line cruise are not simply distractions, but become part of the experience.

Maria Hassabi & Hristoula Harakas in “SHOW”
photo credit: Julieta Cervantes

I got off the subway at Wall Street on a sunny Thursday afternoon, looking around for some evidence of where Maria Hassabi’s “SHOW” might be happening. The streets and sidewalks were filled with the crush of workers and tourists that is the Financial District, and then suddenly, two women, their gazes locked, sunk down to the sidewalk in a low, intertwined crouch. These two slight performers, dwarfed by the buildings around them, seemed to draw in and focus the dispersed energy of the street as the performance materialized.

Hassabi and dancer Hristoula Harakas were clad in skinny gray jeans and gray sleeveless tops. The outfits accentuated the grayness of the space around them: cobblestone, concrete, and somber buildings. With painstaking control, they moved in and out of positions—standing, lying down, crouching—at a glacial pace, their taut, muscular limbs visibly engaged. The two remained in close, even tense, engagement with each other, never straying more than inches apart, even as their gazes eventually turned outwards.

Staring out at the audience has become a contemporary dance cliché, but in this setting, it took on a stronger valence: there were potential audience members on all sides of the dancers, complicating the power dynamic between performer and audience. The audience was not a single entity that could be directly addressed.

Maria Hassabi & Hristoula Harakas in “SHOW”
photo credit: Julieta Cervantes

The backdrop for the piece made for a strange juxtaposition: this intimate, focused dance took place on the cobblestone street in front of the New York Stock Exchange, which was draped with a gigantic American flag. I couldn’t help but think of Occupy Wall Street (the imagery of which included, after all, a dancer atop Wall Street’s bull) as these dancers literally occupied this symbolic stretch of sidewalk. I overheard a bit of conversation between businessmen in which one asked another, “What’s the yield?” as he swerved to avoid the performers.

This performance was truly part of the life of the street. Not until a few minutes in did I realize that some of what I took to be background street noise was actually coming from the speakers on either side of the performers. There were a few people who sat and watched the performance in its entirety, but most stopped only for a few minutes, intrigued. There is real value in this casual availability of performance: the piece presented in this way demands little of its audience (inviting us to merely pause and look for a moment), but tempts them with the promise of so much more if they do choose to engage, however briefly. This format also offers the potential for a spontaneous sense of community around a performance: I had pleasant conversations with a few audience members during the piece, something that never happens in the dark, isolated silence of a theatre.

After a final standing pose, the two dancers turned and walked off down the street, as if merging into the flow of pedestrian traffic. They had emerged out of this hubbub, and concluded by returning to it. The yield? Impossible to quantify, but I left feeling stirred by this fleeting materialization of a performance within the gray chaos.