Beth Gill’s Catacomb @ The Chocolate Factory
The Chocolate Factory Theater in Queens could present difficulties for an artist looking for an unobstructed space in which to realize his or her vision. Choreographer Beth Gill, however, used the theater’s odd dimensions and bare brick walls to her advantage in her latest work, Catacomb, creating a site-specific piece that highlighted her dancers’ relationship to their surroundings.
Three performers were already in place and paid us no attention as I walked to my seat last Thursday evening, giving me the impression that I was interrupting a communion of sorts. Heather Lang lay motionless atop Stuart Singer’s outstretched legs, forming a mandala of limbs at the center of the stage. Jennifer Lafferty, wearing a white top and leggings and gray sneakers, paced around the periphery, eyeing the other two performers warily. From time to time she examined the walls or her own feet, her attention focused even in these pedestrian tasks. Rather than covering the rear wall of the space with a scrim, Gill chose to expose two doorways and an elevator shaft, enlisting lighting designer Thomas Dunn to illuminate the spaces from below. The effect was quite beautiful, and as the glow turned from neutral white to rich indigo, my imagination was drawn to what might be happening in the bright world below us. It became another character in the narrative unfolding in front of me.
As Lafferty observed, Lang and Singer, clad in textured, mustard-colored ensembles designed by Baille Younkman, began to slowly reposition themselves. As Singer slid over Lang’s supine body, they moved through various configurations of an amorous embrace. These two, who were also paired in Gill’s last piece, New Work for the Desert, have a natural coexistence onstage. In New Work, their near-perfect unison gave them a robotic sibling-like quality, but here there was an eroticism born of contact: momentary handholds, legs entangled, nose to navel. As in Gill’s past work, every moment was tightly choreographed; a slightly asymmetrical positioning of the feet is no accident and conveys a visceral specificity. Yet here, there was an emotional overlay, a suggestion of raw human striving that eluded the constraints of an abstract dance.
This shift in tone was reinforced when Marilyn Maywald Yahel emerged headfirst from the elevator shaft, her long curly hair fanned out on the floor. When she rose to her feet, her movements were proud and defiant, confronting us with her gaze as she squeezed her hands into fists. Wearing a fuzzy purple tunic, she conjured a controlled chaos onstage. Lang and Singer separated and moved haphazardly throughout the space, eschewing the grace and precision they exhibited previously in favor of unfettered locomotion, all the while their heads bowed, hair obstructing their faces. The soundscape, which earlier was the soft lull of Jon Moniaci’s theremin, crescendoed to a repeating organ arpeggio accompanied by an ethereal female voice, giving the action an air of urgency. But just when I felt myself losing my bearings in Gill’s anarchic landscape, she teased out a subtle climax and ushered in a subtle, exquisitely rendered resolution. When Lang and Singer came to stillness and ceremoniously raised their eyes to meet ours—the first time we glimpsed their faces—the moment was powerful.
After Yahel disappeared down the elevator shaft, her energy lingered. This time, it was Lafferty who took on some of her verve, jumping into a deep second-position plié then sliding on the floor violently as Lang and Singer made their exit gradually, slumping over each other to settle permanently, partially offstage. Earlier, her participation in the whole endeavor had seemed reluctant, but now she moved with a new potency.
As Dunn’s lighting suddenly shifted, Maggie Cloud appeared in a doorway, dressed in a crisp gray turtleneck and pants and black jazz shoes. Cloud’s dancing was alert and unequivocal as she moved through a series of controlled chassés and low chugs. Her material was the most dancerly of the evening and provided a cool contrast to the eccentricity of earlier moments. Lafferty began to move as well, and together, though never touching, the two soloists merged into a duet of happenstance, sharing the space but existing in different planes. When Cloud exited, leaving Lafferty alone, a shaft of light extended across the stage, as if spilling from behind a door left ajar. As Lafferty leaned into the light, reaching her torso beseechingly, she seemed trapped in a space devoid of its own source of illumination; a crypt, perhaps, or a theater.