Dance Review: Get Lost in Beth Gill’s Beguiling Catacomb at the Wexner Center
Bessie-winning choreographer brings her new intoxicating, slow-burn dance piece, Catacomb to the Wexner Center for the Arts this weekend.
The sparse set, designed and lit by Thomas Dunn, consists of a white rectangle, materially different from the floor, with two separate white panels as a backdrop, spaced at different depths. As the audience is seated, Stuart Singer lays face down with Heather Lang face up, head resting on his back. Almost tortuously slowly, tiny movements turn into body moving over hers almost like he’s melting. When in their position she seems to drag the two of them by her bare feet, steadied by his hands behind her head, across the stage. Back to the starting position and the movement starts again, including rest periods. The repetition and slowness leach some of the eroticism out of these movements but not all.
Like a dream, it holds this image and picks at it obsessively like a scab, decontextualizing this act as it shows how readily we humans fall into routines. Lang’s blank expressions and the fact that the audience doesn’t see Singer’s face until close to the end of the piece highlights that same dreamlike lack of specificity. Also keeping with the unreal qualities is Jennifer Lafferty, in all white and tennis shoes watching these two bodies. Lafferty stalks the white plane of action, moving deliberately and intently, coiled like she’s both in control and a mesmerized observer.
The static slowness of that couple at the heart of the dance piece familiarizes the audience with Gill’s language as it heightens our awareness of every minute gesture we can see on the stage. I found myself craning my neck as though it was going to give me another angle, another clue, and glancing at my fellow patrons I wasn’t alone. But that hovering, immersive feeling isn’t the only trick up Gill’s sleeve.
Marilyn Maywald Yahel breaks the mood walking backward in a dress into the center of the action. Her movements don’t forsake any of the deliberateness we’ve already seen on stage, but she turns that intensity outward, owning and captivating the stage like a slash of red on an early Guston abstraction. As Lafferty’s observer enters the space of action, her character tries to emulate some of the movements of the other three, only to find her shoes stick on the material, it doesn’t have the same grip and give it does with bare flesh. That sense of frustration, of physics unmoored by the audience and characters’ expectation, heightens the tension and sense of unreality.
Lang and Singer’s lovers swing for a dramatic escape trying to crawl out of the performance only to run out of energy when they get off the white square and lay entangled in shadow. As Lafferty’s character begins to understand what she can and can’t do, she explodes. She moves like there’s been a frenzy unlocked, slipping out of a cocoon of stillness into furious, rhythmic motion.
Maggie Cloud, in all black and boots, arrives toward the end of the hour-long piece like a cleansing fire. She moves with a heavier step than we’ve seen to that point, making and holding eye contact with the audience. Her physicality owns the stage at an angle that bisects Yahel’s fluidity and Lafferty’s shifting gears while also echoing some of the heft and repetitions of Lang and Singer.
Gill’s virtuosic sense of drama without cliché was the part of this piece that most took my breath away. She knows exactly how long each sequence should be and how much audience attention she should demand. Her collaboration with Jon Moniaci’s music is essential here, subtle drones during the early sequences blossom into rippling harmonies, and anthemic swells behind Lafferty with subtle samples of falling-bomb sounds straight out of a child’s toy synthesizer and nature sounds as though the world is battering at the fringes of this hermetic space. Gill’s sense of visual drama with Baille Younkman’s
Gill’s sense of visual drama with Baille Younkman’s costumes and Dunn’s lighting also can’t be overlooked. There’s never a moment that’s not visually arresting here. After the appearance of Cloud I found myself entranced by the shadows coming together and separating as the circle of light split into multiple circles and unified again. That sense of the shadows as an integral part of visually understanding the action reminded me of a Calder mobile.
Catacomb is a dense work that requires patience. If you can meet it on its terms, there are more pleasures and rewards seeded through it like landmines than one person can absorb.
Catacomb runs through April 9 with shows at 8:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit wexarts.org/performing-arts/beth-gill-catacomb.