Beth Gill’s New Work for the Desert is a quiet, meditative sextet loosely inspired by Trisha Brown’s 1987 piece Newark and Gill’s own experiences in the Southwestern US, as part of a two-month residency at Arizona State University. Ms Gill is clearly a deliberate and contemplative choreographer, and she has given us a work rich with ambience, almost to the point of physicalization – despite the barest of sets and only vaguely defined relationships.

New Work For The Desert © Cherylynn Tsushima
New Work For The Desert
© Cherylynn Tsushima

It is easy to see both of her original points of stimulation: Thomas Dunn’s lighting design is both slow to arrive and heavy in its insistence, easily mimicking the desert sun and its stark absence. When the very lovely Jennifer Lafferty first crosses the stage, as the piece opens, with her arms extended behind her back – both stiffly and with an aliveness to them, somehow – the audience strains to make her out in the dimness. By the time she has traversed the stage for the second time, in the same way, the light has grown stronger and we can begin to see the colors of Ms Lafferty’s top and pants. There is immediately a sense of inevitability that feels central to any desert work. 

New Work For The Desert © Cherylynn Tsushima
New Work For The Desert
© Cherylynn Tsushima

Newark is there, too. The lengthy and stoic duet of Heather Lang and Stuart Singer (both clad in unitards, naturally) is quickly evocative of Ms Brown’s piece, as is the occasional droning that appears in composer Jon Moniaci’s score. While I walked away from Ms Brown’s piece most in awe of the brute-strength partnering she had created, I can see shadows of that in Ms Gill’s partnered weight shares.

Something must be said, too, about Ms Gill’s extraordinary ability to not only have her dancers move in complete unison – and I mean complete, dynamically-same unison, as if of one body – but in the same frame of mind. The excellently serene Mr Singer and Ms Lang are the two impenetrable axes upon which the piece pivots, and they move together exquisitely. (Ms Gill is no stranger to unison – her Electric Midwife centered upon this idea.) But several others in the cast – Christian Axelsen (on occasion), Ms Lafferty, Marily Maywald – are just as equally in tune to the atmospheric trance that seems to pervade the space. Only Kayvon Pourazar seems to interrupt it, though this seems to have been a conscious choice by Ms Gill. His entrances on stage, often heralded with a two-foot jumping thump, are heavier and looser and with a different, almost impatient attack. When he is partnered with Ms Axelsen, they both take on this difference. 

New Work For The Desert © Cherylynn Tsushima
New Work For The Desert
© Cherylynn Tsushima

Amidst such a stark space (the marley is pristine white) and quiet, sure, swung-limbed choreography I felt myself going into a sort of trance, which was occasionally punctuated by Mr Moniaci’s piano chords (performed live, stage right). Though this state of mind felt natural for a viewer, I wonder if trance-like is the best state in which to observe dance. It can, after all, very easily lead to a tuning out or a glazing over of the eyes – something any choreographer must be wary of. But I am more inclined to believe that Ms Gill's even dynamic was a conscious choice, one chosen with the knowledge that a piece with few ripples requires an audience member to focus harder and delve deeper so as not to become complacent. Ms Gill's choreographic choices – even those I may disagree with – are nicely entrenched within her overarching theme, and that I find admirable.

****1