The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

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MAY 2023 Issue

Alone, Yet Inseparable

Engrossing, mysterious characters inhabit Beth Gill’s Nail Biter

Maggie Cloud in Beth Gill’s <em>Nail Biter</em>. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Maggie Cloud in Beth Gill’s Nail Biter. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Fisher Center LAB, Bard
Nail Biter
March 31–April 2, 2023
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

Movement is the medium in Nail Biter, yet stillness suffuses the stage. With a few exceptions, the five performers dance alone, isolated in their own bubbles. Jordan Demetrius Lloyd begins the work, back to us, in contrapposto, flicking his hands laterally at hip level, repeating many times. He pivots sideways, whirling his arms, to the sounds of an ocean shoreline. He’s dressed warmly—a pea coat over a fancy striped vest, beret, gloves, and white socks under his satin oxfords that evoke Michael Jackson.

While his movements begin to enlarge in scope—hopping lunges, head whips, clapping—they’re all contained, precise, and self-absorbed. He peels off his long blue gloves. He doesn’t seem to notice when Jennifer Lafferty enters in a light-hued long-sleeved leotard, legs bare down to her fancy white boots, summoning thoughts of stomping color guard members in a high-stepping routine. Three cloth drops have descended to varying heights, partially raised to baroquely frame the space. Meanwhile, a pair of bare feet slide into view just behind the proscenium; they retreat, but then resume their periodic encroachment. More of the attached body (Beth Gill) emerges, holding a candle. She wears just pants and a plaster crust mantle, which crumbles and leaves a trail as she crawls across the stage like a molting snake.

Lafferty begins to reverberate with the others. She arches into a backbend just as Lloyd does. She stands over Gill, Colossus-style, traversing her body in shuddering little stamps, back and forth, and hops percussively, the movement emanating from her pelvis. A xylophone, electronic notes, and a bass drum play an arrhythmic robotic score. The three curtains are replaced by a faded painted cyclorama that appears to depict a ballroom ceiling’s chandeliers; a gaping hole pierces its center.

Lafferty pushes a beat-up baby grand piano onstage, on which sits Maggie Cloud wearing a tiered, black chiffon dress and three long braids, one emerging from her widow’s peak like a deranged version of Meredith Monk’s ’do. She scoots off the piano, displaying her unique movement syntax: slow leg ronds, crisply pointed bare feet, toe taps to the side and rear, all done with a wafting elegance. Her mournful eeriness recalls the program note by Gill, which tells how her first dance teacher had recently passed away, and that Nail Biter honors her memory.

Jennifer Lafferty and Marilyn Maywald Yahel in Beth Gill’s <em>Nail Biter</em>. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Jennifer Lafferty and Marilyn Maywald Yahel in Beth Gill’s Nail Biter. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Cloud seems lost in her own world, even as smashing sounds now fracture the plangent electronic score. She moves gracefully over the dried plaster trail left by the now departed Gill. The previously dim lighting brightens before going to a near blackout. In dusky darkness, Marilyn Maywald Yahel might not be visible but for her opalescent, sparkling trunks. With her cropped top, jazz shoes, crew socks over pantyhose, and her feathery shag haircut, she feels straight out of the eighties and its aerobics mania. She behaves performatively, as if looking in a mirror, or aware that she is being watched by others, planting her feet in second position and doing isolations with her upper body.

Now in a short trench coat, Lafferty beaches herself onstage. The lighting goes berserk, flicking from red to green to blue. The stage suddenly looks enormous, a cavernous volume for what’s increasingly dream or nightmare-like. Lafferty rolls out a stool, sitting on it and spinning playfully. She pushes the piano downstage, plunking out notes on the worn keyboard. The music has progressed through piercing high notes to the sound of a bomb falling. Yahel lies downstage, her feet pulsing in the cadence of a sobbing fit. Lafferty unlaces Yahel’s jazz shoes and cradles her on her lap like a child.

In Nail Biter, Gill renders through movement psychological portraits of opaque characters. She offers clues to periods, mainly in the eighties glam and aerobics syntax of Yahel. Could Gill’s portrayal of a crusty artifact from the past, holding a candle, allude to the death of tradition, or perhaps its persistence while in the process of disappearing? We are left with strong visuals etched in memory, and a list of probing questions about these fascinating strangers.


Susan Yung

Susan Yung is based in the Hudson Valley and writes about dance and the arts.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

All Issues