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CorningWorks’ ‘Beckett & Beyond’ an Artistic Triumph

Beth Corning in CorningWork's The Glue Factory Project:

Beth Corning in CorningWork’s The Glue Factory Project: “Beckett & Beyond.” Photo by Foo Connor.

The Glue Factory Project: Beckett & Beyond
New Hazlett Theater
Pittsburgh, PA
September 13, 2015

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Dancer/choreographer Beth Corning has been a unique voice on the Pittsburgh dance scene since arriving in 2003 to take over the reins at the now defunct Dance Alloy.  It has been with her 5-year-old umbrella organization CorningWorks however, that she has upped the ante on the level of dance-theater work she is producing. Work that is more often than not entertaining, detailed, cerebrally challenging and powerfully moving. With her latest Glue Factory Project (projects featuring performers over age 45) work Beckett & Beyond, Corning and crew offered up perhaps her most theatrical work yet.

The 70-minute Beckett & Beyond, set to music by MaryEllen Childs, Kronos Quartet and Meredith Monk, was bookended by two short physical-theater pieces by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett.

On a set designed and constructed by Stephanie Mayer-Staley featuring a white dance floor raised at the back end that led into a white back drop with papier-mâché clouds suspended above, the production had the look and feel of a work one might see on stages in Stockholm or Berlin rather than at North Side’s New Hazlett Theater. It began with Beckett’s “Act Without Words II.” In it, a pile of clothes and two large bags were left onstage from which veteran performer Francoise Fournier emerged from inside one after some prodding from a long pole that humorously inched out from a side wing to poke the bag she was in. Fournier’s character was a pill-popping woman soured by the seeming drudgery of her everyday life. She muddled through getting dressed in an oversized mens suit, had a distaste for vegetables and struggled with the metaphoric chores of life, represented by her unsuccessfully trying to drag hers and the other bag across the stage. Former Cullberg Ballet dancer Yvan Auzely, who then emerged from the other bag after more prodding, was Fournier’s opposite, an archetypical “morning person” who approached the same tasks as Fournier’s character but with energetic vigor. The pair’s performances in Beckett’s bleak and simple commentary on human existence were meticulous and captivating.

The Corning choreographed middle section of Beckett & Beyond that followed felt as if it, and the Beckett works, had always been linked. The work’s thematic questions on existence and humanity’s place in it were a potent heart and mind stimulant. At once provoking the viewer to see the cyclical and often futile nature of life, then spurring them to ponder their own existence.

Yvan Auzely in CorningWork's The Glue Factory Project:

Yvan Auzely in CorningWork’s The Glue Factory Project: “Beckett & Beyond.” Photo by Foo Connor.

It began with Corning, tethered by a thin red bungee cord, walking as if teetering on a high-wire, keenly aware of her balance.  The red bungee cord a metaphoric reference to an East Asian legend/belief that we are all connected by an invisible red thread to those we are destined to meet in our lives. In Corning’s case that thread was suddenly severed, as the cord that ran from her into a side wing snapped, pelting her with its recoil. The red thread theme continued with Auzely in a solo in which he weaved a spider web out of the red bungee cord across the stage, and then with Fournier in a solo, looking pregnant and acting mentally unstable. A highlight of the work, Fournier’s bundle of joy turned out to be a bundle of clothes stuffed under her shirt that she treated as cherished memories. Muttering in French, she wandered about the stage pulling children’s outfits and others out from her shirt and then with a laugh, sigh or tear, pinned them to the red bungee cord as if it was a clothesline. Each brief, emotional moment conjured up a universally relatable story about her character’s past life. Fournier is a marvelous dancer/actress and she shone in the solo.

The work continued with the trio of dancers performing perhaps the most physical dance choreography I have seen in a Glue Factory Project production to date. The 50-plus-year-old dancers hurled themselves onto one another and trotted around the stage without strain.

Perhaps intentionally or unintentionally Corning’s choreography at times was reminiscent of the late Pina Bausch’s work. The dancers as a trio, arms about each other’s waists and running in a circle, along with scenes of rapid emotional changes in expression, were Bausch-esque. Similarities aside, the work had Corning’s choreographic style imprinted all over it.

Yvan Auzely and Francoise Fournier in CorningWork's The Glue Factory Project:

Yvan Auzely and Francoise Fournier in CorningWork’s The Glue Factory Project: “Beckett & Beyond.” Photo by Hakan Larsson.

Beckett & Beyond reached its climax with the second of Beckett’s physical-theater works, “Rockaby.” Performed impeccably by Corning, the repetitive solo, directed by Pittsburgh’s Melissa Grande, was perhaps the most challenging for audience member’s attention spans but was also the most beautiful and poignant section of Beckett & Beyond.  Like a narrative version of Ravel’s “Bolero,” Corning, in a dimly lit rocking chair, rocked back and forth as if on autopilot while a voiceover of her reciting Beckett’s dialogue for the piece repeated. With each go round, another phrase was added telling the story of an elderly woman who, locked in her own mind, spent her remaining days rocking in her chair and staring out a window. Corning was at her very best in “Rockaby,” her emotionally nuanced facial expressions and yearning utterances of the word “more” were soul-piercing. Was she calling for more of the story to be revealed; hers or the universe’s? Or did she just not want her life to end?

The production concluded with twenty-something guest artists Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight (a.k.a. slowdanger) reprising Beckett’s “Act Without Words II,” further driving home the idea that life’s treadmill was never ending, generation after generation.

Beckett & Beyond is a complete work from top to bottom and worthy of repeated viewings to soak in everything it has to offer and for the simple fact it’s pretty great.  To CorningWorks I say: more please.

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Amid controversy, the PrideFest dance showcase goes on

Jasmine Hearn. Photo courtesy of FringeArts.

Jasmine Hearn. Photo courtesy of FringeArts.

By Steve Sucato

PrideFest’s annual dance showcase is among the best ways to catch up with local dance talent. But even this free showcase has been touched by the controversy surrounding PrideFest this year. The choice of rapper Iggy Azalea as festival headliner generated outcry over allegations of homophobia and racism on her part, and reignited claims that festival producer The Delta Foundation is not inclusive enough of all parts of the LGBT community. [As this issue went to press, Azalea had dropped out of the festival.]

Several LGBT groups have boycotted the festival, and an alternate protest and celebration, Roots Pride, is planned. But though most PrideFest attractions will go on as scheduled, at press time, one company had dropped out of the June 14 dance showcase.

“We wish to remain neutral in this time of chaos and confusion,” says Duane Binion, artistic director of True T Entertainment. “However we do agree with our audience request that we do not participate in PrideFest.”

The seven remaining acts in the seventh annual free dance showcase, curated by Richard Parsakian, will perform from 1:30-5 p.m. on two outdoor stages.

Texture Contemporary Ballet's Kelsey Batman & Alan Obuzor. Photographer Katie Ging.

Texture Contemporary Ballet’s Kelsey Batman & Alan Obuzor. Photographer Katie Ging.

In her fourth appearance at PrideFest, dancer/choreographer Jasmine Hearn presents the Pittsburgh premiere of her 10-minute solo “the most of us.” Set to music by Beyoncé and Bonnie Raitt, the solo was inspired by a break-up, says Hearn.

Pillow Project artistic director Pearlann Porter and writer/poet John Lambert collaborate on Porter’s new work, “In just so many words.” The eight-minute “postjazz movement-directed” piece contrasts superficial words drawn on an oversized paper gown worn by Porter that is slowly torn off, with more substantive words revealed painted on Porter’s skin.

Duo Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight, a.k.a. slowdanger, perform their work-in-progress “exchange,” in which they take turns generating looped sound produced by one dancer’s body while the other responds through movement.

Texture Contemporary Ballet presents excerpts from artistic director Alan Obuzor’s “Eclipse” and his “Unchanging Change.” The troupe will also reprise Brynn Vogel’s “Let Me Go” and Amanda Summers’ “Fool’s Paradise.”

Completing the showcase will be PrideFest newcomer Jean-Paul Weaver’s 10-minute male duet “Flè,” about making non-physical connections; dancer/choreographer Weylin Gomez’s untitled improvisational solo that contrasts animalistic and feminine movement qualities; and Anthony Williams’ nine-minute work-in-progress inspired by his experiences in Pittsburgh.

PrideFest dance showcase 1:30-5 p.m. Sun., June 14, Stages on Liberty Avenue at Sixth and 10th streets, Downtown. Free. pittsburghpride.org

This article first appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper on June 10, 2015. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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Pittsburgh’s newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival returns for a sixth year

BodyCartography Project in

BodyCartography Project in “Super Nature.” Photo by Ian Douglas.

By Steve Sucato

This year, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater’s newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival has a distinctly local flavor. But while the sixth annual incarnation is perhaps disappointingly short on out-of-town talent compared to years past, newMoves remains unique in the region as a showcase for both local and visiting artists performing new contemporary dance.

The festival runs May 7-9 at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater and KST’s Alloy Studios. It offers three nights of performances featuring works by 14 choreographers performed by 44 dancers, with most presenting artists based in Pittsburgh. This year’s festival has also expanded the number of complementary events, including workshops, master classes, mixers and parties.

Headlining this year’s festival is Minneapolis-based BodyCartography Project. The troupe offers two performances, May 8 and 9 at KST’s Alloy Studios, of a 50-minute excerpt from its 2012 dance-theater work Super Nature. Founded in 1997 by New Zealand-native Olive Bieringa, BodyCartography Project’s contemporary-dance works range from intimate performance installations to interactive works in public space, like on mass transit and in parks. The company has performed across the U.S., and in Canada, Europe and South America.

BodyCartography Project in

BodyCartography Project in “Super Nature.” Photo by Gene Pittman.

We call it “a radical ecological melodrama,” says Bieringa, speaking of Super Nature by telephone from Minneapolis. The work for eight dancers and four local guest performers is choreographed by Bieringa and co-artistic director Otto Ramstad. The piece is set to an original soundscape by Bessie Award-winning composer Zeena Parkins and explores the civilized and wild aspects of human nature.

The Pittsburgh debut of Super Nature will be a separate ticketed event in addition to the festival’s trio of hour-long nightly programs at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. The latter include:

Program A (Thu., May 7) is an all-local artist evening featuring Murphy/Smith Dance Collective’s Jamie Erin Murphy who is returning to newMoves for the fourth time, with her 2014 quartet “Makeshift.” Set to music by Ben Frost, the work “explores the idea of temporary replacement and support,” Murphy says.

Alexandra Bodnarchuk. Photo by Lindsay Dill.

Alexandra Bodnarchuk. Photo by Lindsay Dill.

Gravity and the metronome of time serve as inspirations for Alexandra Bodnarchuk’s “… and counting.” The solo, danced to an original composition by Brandon Musser, has Bodnarchuk grappling with these concepts and revealing what she says “is hidden beneath the seams of her existence.”

Yes Brain Dance Theater artistic director Moriah Ella Mason’s new work-in-progress duet “Diasporate” reflects on white American Jewish identity. Rounding out Program A is “memory 3: swimmoon,” a work-in-progress duet by dancers Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight, a.k.a. slowdanger. Says Thompson: “The work is a reinterpretation of a memory in the present.”

slowdanger’s Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight. Photo by Cassie Kay Rusnak.

slowdanger’s Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight. Photo by Cassie Kay Rusnak.

Program B (Fri., May 8) will feature improv master Gia T. (Gia Cacalano) performing her new work-in-process “kimono.” Inspired by the traditional Japanese garment, its beauty and the culture surrounding it, she will create her solo in real time dancing to music by Korean composer Jong Kagi Park.

Also on the program are works by three festival first-timers. Dancer/choreographer Jil Stifel investigates “how shared body schema can allow us to work intricately as a single unit” in her new work-in-progress duet “Knuckle Press.” Maree ReMalia, who recently relocated to Washington, D.C., returns with her troupe merrygogo in “Circulation Project,” a new work-in-progress about the phenomenon of habit. And veteran local dancemaker Joan Wagman premieres her dance-theater work for four dancers, “PINKIFICATION.” Set to a music mix that ranges from Bengali techno to a 1940s field-recording of a chain gang, the work, says Wagman, “explores the human urge to make troubling issues rosy.”
Megan Mazarick. Photo by Megan Mazarick.

Megan Mazarick. Photo by Megan Mazarick.

Program C (Sat., May 9; contains adult content) features Philadelphia’s Megan Mazarick bringing an unlady-like approach to our cultural obsession with princesses in her new solo, “monster,” set to original music by Mohamed Shafik. “This idea of princesses and wanting to be one is so nauseating to me,” says Mazarick via Skype from Giza, Egypt, where she is premiering the work. “I am trying to flip the script to make the princess awful and make the monster interesting, weird and better somehow.”

The festival’s lone student-performed work comes from Athens, Ohio’s Factory Street Studio. “Revolution,” choreographed by Elizabeth Atwell, reflects on what dance means to its quartet of high school-age performers.

Jean-Paul Weaver (center). Photo by Nick Fochtman.

Jean-Paul Weaver (center). Photo by Nick Fochtman.

Filling out Program C are three works by area dancer/choreographers. Brady Sanders’ “The Screen Between Us” looks at our love affair with technology. Anthony Williams’ “beingHUMAN” explores sexuality and self-worth in the fast-paced world of clubbing. And Jean-Paul Weaver’s new solo, “Lalin,” explores humanity’s relationship with the moon.

newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival – Program A: 8 p.m. Thu., May 7. Program B: 6 p.m. Fri., May 8. Program C: 9 p.m. Sat., May 9. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. BodyCartography Project performs Super Nature 9 p.m. Fri., May 8, and 7 p.m. Sat., May 9. Alloy Studios, 5530 Penn Ave., Friendship. Individual events: $8-20 (festival pass: $50), Pre-show mixers nightly, 412-363-3000 or kelly-strayhorn.org.

This article first appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper on May 6, 2015. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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