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Dance maker Beth Gill brings the human into the work

The American Dance Festival in Durham presents Beth Gill’s “Brand New Sidewalk” on Wednesday, June 28, and Thursday, June 29.
The American Dance Festival in Durham presents Beth Gill’s “Brand New Sidewalk” on Wednesday, June 28, and Thursday, June 29. Photo by Gene Pittman

Beth Gill doesn’t remember how she was first attracted to dance.

But she has a family story that recounts how, at age 3, after watching a PBS program featuring ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, she told her parents she wanted to take ballet classes.

She did start ballet classes at age 3 and went on to study ballet with former Ballets Russes dancer Rose-Marie Menes at the Westchester Ballet Center in Yorktown Heights, the New York City suburb where Gill grew up. At Menes’ school, Gill, at age 10, also had her first introduction to modern dance when she studied (Jose) Limon technique with Tami Itorowitz.

Gill wound up graduating from New York University’s Tish School of the Arts.

Somewhere along the way, making dances rather than dancing became her priority.

Even in those beginning ballet classes, “I had no desire to be that princess,” she said, in a phone interview, of many little girls’ dream of being in that star role. “I felt more comfortable in the back,” she said of being a supporting dancer.

“I don’t perform in my dances. Some choreographers [who dance] build a dance from their own experiences in their bodies. I identify more with visual art than with a dancing model. I think a lot about what things look like – the form,” Gill said.

Her work has been described as “sparse yet playful, stark yet beautiful.”

In 2011, she received two New York State Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards for her “Electric Midwife”: “Outstanding Emerging Choreographer” and the first ever “Juried Bessie Award.”

“More recently, my work is moving away from total abstraction. It is almost like a narrative of symbol, some relationship with storytelling that is creeping into my work. I’m thinking about writers – how they construct language,” Gill explained.

“I personally like watching dance when its content seems to exist in sort of an unnamed place. I’m trying to do that even when I’m storytelling,” she added.

“Catacomb” was the first dance she made by working in this new way. “‘Catacomb’ was kind of like a psycho drama,” Gill said.

“For me, there’s still a desire to bring the human into the work and not be academic about what’s happening,” she added.

Her newest work, which American Dance Festival audiences will see this week, features four dancers in an exploration of alienation, erasure, fantasy and power. Gill referred to this dance as a “triptych” a term for a work of art that is divided in three sections.

“I had great collaborators,” Gill said.

Jon Moniaci, a composer she’s worked with for over a decade, wrote a score for the New York City-based Pilt Brass Band. Lighting designer Thomas Dunn created three totally different environments onstage. And, costume designer Baille Younkman, “a superlative young artist,” created costume designs “that are quite involved in the material of the dance,” Gill said.

Just how these costumes fit into the overall fabric of this dance Gill wouldn’t say. She preferred to let audiences see for themselves.

If you go

What: The American Dance Festival presents Beth Gill’s “Brand New Sidewalk.”

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 28, and Thursday, June 29.

Where: Reynolds Industries Theater, Bryan Center, Duke University.

Tickets: 919-684-4444 or