Beth Gill’s Electric Midwife: Lost in translation

Posted: October 17th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Beth Gill’s Electric Midwife: Lost in translation

Beth Gill, Electric Midwife, Platform Theatre, Central St Martins, October 9

Perhaps I am not sitting in the right place – not directly in the centre and too close to the front – or perhaps the theatre is just too wide, but for some reason Beth Gill’s Electric Midwife, presented by Dance Umbrella at the Platform Theatre of Central Saint Martins, is not translating well. In a work so totally committed to the mirror symmetry of six performers in two trios, the question of viewpoint is crucial, because if the symmetry is not evident, there is little else to appreciate. Where symmetry is often valued in a context of non-symmetry – the country house in its parkland, a corps de ballet in a narrative setting – Gill explores symmetry as the sole choreographic underpinning of Electric Midwife, relying on its visual aspect above all others. Gill, it seems, has always found it interesting to present her work in a visual art capacity.

The piece opens as the audience arrives, with the two trios of dancers against the wall on either side of the bare stage, matching their poses in mirror image. There are two taped, black tramlines, the width of a chair, running up the middle of the stage from front to back. The dancers, all women, are in practice clothes; there has been no attempt to create a symmetry of identical body shapes and there is some disparity in the amplitude of their respective movements. One dancer starts a movement, which is mirrored by her counterpart on the other side of the stage, though the stage is just too wide for me to see both at the same time. My viewpoint improves as the dancers approach the tramlines. Essentially, one trio is choreographed, and the other acts as its mirror image. When the dancers are in eye contact, there is a good chance their mirror symmetry is effective in both space and time, but when they are not, the beatless score by Jon Moniaci is not particularly helpful. Perhaps part of the choreographic process is to work out a telepathic sensory system between the dancers so they can initiate movements at the same time. Generally the timing is maintained remarkably well, though the errors are all the more evident and prove a needless distraction.

There are formations that remind me of the columned, sculptured entrance to a Baroque building, and at other times there are references to Michaelangelo’s ideally proportioned man in his circle, and shapes based on the first position in ballet. Patterns repeat, and there are a periods of stillness, but because there is no emotional force in the movement, these static forms have no life; the stillness has nothing to retain. Towards the end there is a promising increase in the dynamics of the work, as if Gill wants to bring off a final, juicy variation before the return to stillness at the end. Her symmetry begins to get a workout as the dancers have their first contact with each other, like a planar intersection, with a seated couple falling through the open legs of a standing couple. There is a feeling of a development here, but instead the music stops soon after and the dancers make their slow, symmetrical way off stage in a rose light.

Electric Midwife could fall into the meditative experience if it wasn’t for the intellect working so hard to perceive and appreciate the symmetry. The sound score by Jon Moniaci is certainly meditative and Madeline Best’s lighting reminds me in its opening gradations of a monochrome Rothko canvas. Interestingly, the lighting is the one element that forms variations on the symmetrical theme. At one point the overhead lights create intersecting circles on the stage, with the shadows of the dancers cast on them at asymmetrical angles. At another point the front lights project the shadows of the dancers on to the back wall, warping the floor symmetry out of alignment. The meditative aspect seemed to pick up in the latter part of the work, with the use of different mudras. A dramatic pose by one couple had something of a Bharatnatyam influence and the two girls ringing out ceremonial cloths into the bowls of water is perhaps another reference to Eastern meditative practice.

Dance includes the intellectual body, the physical body and the emotional body. At most Electric Midwife includes the intellectual and the physical, for there is little trace of the emotional (I don’t mean crying, laughing, fear and joy, but simply the emotional body which conveys the sense of dance). Without the emotional body there’s a kind of lethargy in the movement, like balloons with insufficient air. Electric Midwife is predominantly physical and intellectual, so the dancers don’t have much to do apart from being in precisely the right shape at the right time to retain the symmetry of the piece. It is essentially static. What is missing is the dynamic interaction of patterns, shapes and forms.

What a surprise, then, to see the video monitor in the bar area an evening or so later, showing a clip of Electric Midwife on a narrow stage seen through a single lens. Suddenly the patterns and their interactions make sense. It is like looking through a kaleidoscope as the dancers merge and disperse, form and reform in almost mechanical precision. Even without looking at the screen from directly in front, I could appreciate the patterns. Gill has made symmetry a guiding idea in Electric Midwife, but she has not, as the performance showed, overcome its visual limitations. But film, with its single, shared viewpoint, seems to resolve them very effectively.