Remains — A One-Woman Show
New Hazlett Theater
September 7-11, 2016
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
In 2013, after an extensive creative residency with Tony Award-winning physical-theater director Dominique Serrand, dancer/choreographer Beth Corning felt ready to tackle the complicated emotions and aftereffects of a string of recent personal tragedies. The resulting dance-theater work Remains, co-created with Serrand, was a hit with audiences and critics alike for its poignant portrayal of a woman dealing with the feelings and memories generated from going through the physical items left behind by departed family members.
In this latest incarnation of the work entitled Remains — A One-Woman Show, Corning and Serrand teamed up again to rework and refine the original work in order to strip away any extraneous elements and further clarify the intent and arc of the work and Corning’s character within it. In a lot of ways, they achieved that goal. Doing so without sacrificing any of the empathetic connection the original instilled in audiences.
Backed by a new set design by Britton Mauk of Pittsburgh’s Quantum Theatre that depicted a wall of cardboard moving and storage boxes, and costumed in a new cream-colored coat-dress by award-winning costume designer Sonya Berlovitz, the hour-long multimedia work on September 11 at Pittsburgh’s New Hazlett Theater, began with a quote from the Mahabharata, one of the world’s oldest religious Sanskrit texts that was projected on the wall of boxes. It read: “No man, although he sees others dying around him, believes that he himself will die.” And with that, Corning emerged from a box triumphantly holding a pair of men’s dress shoes; her father’s. Then placing the shoes on her hands, she camel-walked around the stage as the sound effect of a person in heavy-stepped walking rang out.
Like the appearance of a ghost from the past onto the stage, Corning then drifted into a memory of her father in those shoes, remembering and reacting to the sounds of him walking, inhaling the smell of them and drinking in the warm feelings they conjured up in her before the reality of his absence from this world took hold and yanked back to the present.
In this scene and all that followed, Corning showcased her adroit acting abilities. Skilled in the art of gesture, she built into her choreography for the work several small, subtle gestures that helped paint a vivid portrait of her character; a woman haunted, often delighted and at times emotionally consumed by the memories that surfaced from within her surrounding the objects contained within those storage boxes. One repeated gesture, a brief scratch at the back of her calf with her other foot, acted as an unconscious reminder of the uncomfortable feelings itching to break through and spoil her happier memories of departed loved ones.
Set to an eclectic mix of music including that of composer Olafur Arnalds, the work, the latest in CorningWorks’ Glue Factory Project, for nationally or internationally known performers over age 40, as with its previous incarnation, was delivered via a series of moving and dramatic vignettes.
A dance with a well worn coat, a tête-à-tête using full wine glasses pushed around with her feet and the discovery of forgotten notes in the pockets of garments, all conjured carefully cultivated imagery and emotional states that drew one in as if to take part in them. Most memorable for its heartbreaking impact and fine detail was a scene where Corning dragged out an oblong table and began to set it as she may have done in the past for an extended family dinner. She then mimicked those she imagined seated around the table in conversation — laughing with one another, arguing, and on occasion grabbing at another’s derriere in a marvelous and imaginative dance-pantomime sequence. Overwhelmed with the sudden realization of being the only one left alive to attend such a dinner party, Corning climbed up onto the table and under its white tablecloth, pulling it over her head and laid there corpse-like, shaking and sobbing. It was an achingly sorrowful moment that brought tears to the eyes of this reviewer.
As in 2013, Corning’s performance in Remains — A One-Woman Show was a tour-de-force of well-honed artistic brilliance. More movement theater than straight-up dancing, it along with 2015’s BECKETT & beyond is Corning at her very best. Her collaboration with Serrand once again proved fruitful, yielding a must-see production for any dance and theater-goer.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.