The Choreographer Beth Gill Takes Her Time, and Bends It

There was something not quite right about how the cardboard box was being thrown.

That’s what the choreographer Beth Gill decided at a recent rehearsal of her new piece, “Pitkin Grove.” So she made an adjustment. And, perhaps surprisingly, the adjustment mattered, as did other fine-tunings of seemingly banal material: the precise timing and phrasing of picking up a trash can lid, or of filling a plastic bag with air. The work had its own logic, but Ms. Gill had to discover it in her intuitive reactions and refinements. A little change in how the cardboard box was thrown not only made a big difference. It also made sense.

Ms. Gill, 37, has been creating dances in New York City since 2005. She has earned a reputation as a choreographer of unusual specificity with an uncommon eye for sculptural composition and an uncanny ability to affect a viewer’s sense of time. She has won awards and much acclaim. Her works show up regularly on best-of-the-year lists.

Yet her art may still be unfamiliar to many. “Pitkin Grove” is having its debut Oct. 4-6 at the Joyce Theater, whose typical audience is accustomed to more mainstream fare. The performances are part of “NY Quadrille,” a series, through Oct. 13, intended to shake up convention at the theater by introducing seating on four sides of the stage and choreographers willing to take risks. During the most challenging parts of the 2016 “Quadrille” — challenging because of extreme repetition — many people walked out.

Ms. Gill’s work can be similarly challenging, asking a lot of a spectator’s patience. Her dances take their time. And while she uses exceptional performers, much of what she has them do can appear mundane. If you fall under Ms. Gill’s spell, it becomes absorbing, even thrilling. If you don’t, it’s someone throwing a cardboard box.

“My work holds traditionalist and experimentalist values,” Ms. Gill said after the rehearsal, at Gibney in Lower Manhattan, speaking at the slow, careful pace of one of her dances. For years, she has been grappling with questions that lie between those poles. How much dance technique does a dance need? How abstract can bodies be? How dramatic can abstraction get? How tightly should a choreographer exert control, and how can dancers find spontaneity inside structure?

What has never been in doubt with Ms. Gill is her sense of vocation. As a child in the Westchester County suburb of Yorktown Heights, she studied ballet and modern dance but gravitated early to making dances. In the 2010 documentary “New York Dance: States of Performance,” she tells the story of being asked to embroider her goals on a pillow in a high school home-economics class. Her precocious and particular ambition: to be a New York City choreographer respected by her community.

She met the goal, but first she had to meet the community. That happened in college, at New York University, when friends introduced her to experimental performance. After she graduated, she didn’t audition for dance companies. She tried to make her own avant-garde work.

The choreographer Yasuko Yokoshi caught one of those early pieces. “I was speechless,” Ms. Yokoshi recalled over Skype from Japan, where she now lives. “It was super-minimalist, formalistic, anti-climactic. A lot of people try that. But Beth could choreograph space and time, in an almost three-dimensional way. She knew how to do it.”

Ms. Yakoshi, then an artist-curator at the Kitchen, a storied theater for avant-garde performance, arranged for Ms. Gill to be presented on a shared program. This led to other shared evenings for Ms. Gill, then to evenings all her own. All the while, her aesthetic was changing.

“The thing Yasuko saw,” Ms. Gill said, “was a piece where a bunch of women dragged around objects. It looked kind of anti-dance.” Ms. Gill had heard that a choreographer was supposed to develop a style and teach it to a group, the classic modern-dance model. “I felt squirmy about that,” she said, “so my strategy was to retreat to pedestrian motions that everyone has access to.”

“That wasn’t especially remarkable,” she continued, noting the precedent of Judson Dance Theater. “But to me, it was a rejection of something.” More important was what she discovered. “In those austere works, in which the events were so minimal, all you had were time and space, and I found my instincts about that,” she said.

But then she started to feel sad, a little bored. She had trained as a dancer, and all that knowledge and intelligence was going to waste. How to let dance back in without losing what she had learned?

Ms. Gill addressed that question in a series of pieces culminating in her 2011 breakthrough work, “Electric Midwife.” This was a dance of perfect symmetry, one trio of women mirroring another. And it was an extreme example of choreographic control. To replicate her own central viewpoint, Ms. Gill limited the audience to 12 people arranged in a horizontal pyramid.

“Electric Midwife” won her two Bessie awards, the dance equivalent of Tonys. Now interest in her work was coming from outside New York, and new opportunities opened up. The pressure unnerved her a bit, she said, and in interviews during that period, she often talked about finding less controlled ways of working. In her 2014 dance “New Work for the Desert,” which she describes as a “love letter to Trisha Brown,” she played with some of that beloved choreographer’s looser sensuality and flow, as if to let the machine parts of “Electric Midwife” become more human and imperfect.

Ms. Gill now describes “New Work” as a palate cleanser, something she had to get out of her system. Yet the signal difference in what came after is what she let in. “I wanted to reconnect with a way of making dances that I recalled from my childhood,” she said. “I used to dream and imagine dances and then figure out how to make them.”

Her 2016 dance “Catacomb” was like a dream — slow-moving, strange, a bit surreal. That is to say, dramatic. The composer Jon Moniaci, who has collaborated with Ms. Gill throughout the past decade, said: “We talked about how we had been suppressing our dramatic impulses, how we had been afraid. We decided not to be afraid.”

Last year’s three-part “Brand New Sidewalk” had a bit of everything Ms. Gill has tried: a duet of twinlike unison, a quasi striptease focused on color and texture, an anxious sense of dream state. “Pitkin Grove” is similarly varied. “I would like to have that quality of shapeshifting, of being able to speak many ways,” Ms. Gill said.

There is no mirroring in the new work, but it is a continuation of “Brand New Sidewalk” in its aesthetic concerns and cast, including the enthralling Kevin Boateng. “There’s a way of working that got unearthed in the process, and I’m going to push into that until I’m done with it,” Ms. Gill said, encapsulating her usual approach.

One difference this time is that Ms. Gill has a cameo, her first appearance in one of her dances since 2008. She’s much more comfortable, she said, on the outside looking in.

Danielle Goldman has been performing in Ms. Gill’s work since 2007. She did the striptease in “Brand New Sidewalk,” and she was the dancer throwing the cardboard box in the rehearsal of “Pitkin Grove.” After the rehearsal, explaining how her new solo developed from Ms. Gill’s dissatisfactions with the old one, she described the intense experience of being observed by Ms. Gill.

“There’s a way in which Beth can almost watch thoughts unfolding,” Ms. Goldman said. When Ms. Gill’s dances are working, a viewer sees through those extraordinary eyes.

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