by Martha Sherman

Beth Gill isn’t the choreographer you’d expect to build a cathedral altarpiece. But with “Brand New Sidewalk,” the form is precisely that. Two saints (or perhaps pilgrims) in the first and third scenes framed a central tableau of two characters and it was so relentless and precise that it approached the sublime.

Gill, a Bessie-award winning choreographer whose work is consistently demanding and layered, has grown into her style. She’s always been confident in her work, but the New York premiere of “Brand New Sidewalk” at Abrons Arts Center felt more commanding. Marching from one focused scene to the next in three acts separated by a lowered curtain, each unfolding was brand new as her dancers explored endless compact variations.

In the first solo scene, Danielle Goldman posed, back toward the audience, for long still minutes, clothed in an enormous white quilted space suit. In this blob of white, Goldman rolled slowly on her back. One hand crept into the opening of the opposite sleeve, wormlike, as if slowly eating the second hand. As her connected arms swept in a full circle in front of her body, Goldman rolled over and began to peel herself. The white covering zipped off to reveal a dark green cover, then a film of red visible beneath. The costume, by Baille Younkman, suggested layers of skin, green, red, gray, yellow, tan, black, blacker. Each colored skin peeled in different colors and textures, and Goldman used the planes of stretching cloth to create brightly colored triangles and trapezoids with her legs, arms, and shoulders.

Kevin Boateng and Joyce Edwards in “Brand New Sidewalk.” Photo © Maria Baranova

Sandwiched between the two solos, a long duet by Kevin Boateng and Joyce Edwards moved from pose to exacting pose, a mesmerizing dual procession in slow motion. Boateng and Edwards, their faces and arms the only color emerging from unisex sleeveless white suits and head coverings, were perfectly matched androgynous dancers. They moved across the stage in a horizontal line, mirroring every simple movement. For this extended scene, no single motion seemed especially challenging – slowly lifting arms, sliding to the floor with one leg tangling over the other – but the shifts were continuous, not repeated. They never touched, but stayed disconnected, alone in their own bodies.

Every body part had a job: a punching fist, swinging arms, hopping and crossing legs; even their fingers were on duty, slowly rubbing across their bended knees. After they bared their heads (still sidestepping gender identity, both of their heads were shaved close,) a drone of chords accompanied them, as they became classical odalisques, from low poses on crossed knees, their backs to the audience, to prone positions with their heads resting on their hands, two matching, clothed Ingres bodies, beautiful, long, smooth.

Maggie Cloud in “Brand New Sidewalk.” Photo © Maria Baranova

The second soloist, the ubiquitous Maggie Cloud, danced the final scene. As the curtain rose, she too was revealed in a bulky layered white costume, and also began to unwind, molting layers that covered the person underneath. This costume was light and gauzy, though, in long strips of translucent cloth that unwound from Cloud’s body as she splayed across the floor. As the layers of white fell from her little by little, we again wondered when the dancer underneath would emerge. When she did, she pulled a tight cap from her head, and shook out a mane of hair, as she teetered around the stage in a confusing mime scene, pulling and pushing against barriers or perhaps gathering elements from the air.

Dramatically lit by Thomas Dunn, and costumed by Younkman, the production values of “Sidewalk” were alone worth the price of admission. And, oh, that Jon Moniaci soundscape. Underlying the movement was a low hum of barely recognizable sound, perhaps a fan belt rotating or the light whisper of a turntable spinning sans record: a low mechanical buzz like a bit of hissing tinnitus. As understated as much of the dance, if the movement was separated out by a step here, a raised arm there, the sound might not seem like much. But it was a compelling medium for the slow ease of the unwrapping soloists, and the luxurious unwinding of the duet.

The light buzz was backdrop for Moniaci’s beautiful musical score, first a plaintive trumpet, joined by a haunting brass ensemble, played by members of TILT Brass. The music slid in and out (on little cat’s feet, like Sandburg’s fog). If the dancing had been any less strong, we would’ve stayed just to hear those horns.

The deliberate exploration – music, sound, visuals – was relentless, yet it didn’t need to demand our attention. It was an invitation to pause, to breathe, to look; a sort of holy reflection of a dance that was framed like an altarpiece.

copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman

“Brand New Sidewalk” – Beth Gill
Abrons Arts Center
September 28, 2017

Cover: Danielle Goldman in “Brand New Sidewalk.” Photo © Maria Baranova

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