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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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CorningWorks’ new dance-theater piece ‘Parallel Lives’ addresses our digital disconnections

Beth Corning and Arthur Aviles in  CorningWorks' "Parallel Lives".  Photo by Frank Walsh c.2014

Beth Corning and Arthur Aviles in CorningWorks’ “Parallel Lives”. Photo by Frank Walsh c.2014

By Steve Sucato

You see them everywhere: the countless people tethered to cell phones and computers — texting, surfing and interacting with social media but seemingly detached from the physical world unfolding around them. Our growing disconnect with traditional interpersonal communication in favor of technological intermediaries, and all that goes with them, is the subject of CorningWorks’ latest Glue Factory Project production. Parallel Lives has five performances at the New Hazlett Theater.

The hour-long multidisciplinary dance-theater work is the brainchild of dancer/choreographer Beth Corning in collaboration with former Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company principal dancer Arthur Aviles. Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times once wrote, “If you don’t know Mr. Aviles, you haven’t seen one of the great modern dancers of the last 15 years.”

Entering its fifth season, CorningWorks’ Glue Factory series continues to buck the notion that professional dance is only for the young and athletic. The Project’s thought-provoking works for performers over age 40 continue to be a highlight of the local dance season.

Aviles, 51, feels Parallel Lives is a real challenge to people’s trust in the Internet and the trappings of the information age.

“I feel we have gone amok in this information age, and Beth’s response with this work is a very vibrant look into that,” says Aviles by phone from the Bronx, N.Y.

Beth Corning and Arthur Aviles in  CorningWorks' "Parallel Lives".  Photo by Frank Walsh c.2014

Beth Corning and Arthur Aviles in CorningWorks’ “Parallel Lives”. Photo by Frank Walsh c.2014

In Parallel Lives, Aviles and Corning explore the state of social interaction through the lens of two ordinary people, and what happens when they are disconnected from their devices.

“People don’t want interaction; they just want connection,” says Corning. “We are one thing online and another in person, both positive and negative.”

As with all of Corning’s works, she brings to the stage what she sees in the world. There are no defined answers in the works I do,” says Corning. “The essence in them is about communication.”

Parallel Lives is set to an eclectic soundscape, with lighting design by Iain Court. The set design is by Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Artist of the Year Akiko Kotani, featuring animated projected images of her artwork by projection designer Hsuan-Kuang Hseih. The show is sure to offer an atmospherically rich and sensual dance-theater experience.

CorningWorks presents The Glue Factory Project: Parallel Lives, Wed., Sept. 10-Sun., Sept. 14.,New Hazlett Theater,6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. $25-30 (Sept. 14 show is pay-what-you-can). 888-718-4253 or newhazletttheater.org

This article originally appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper September 3, 2014. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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CorningWorks’ ‘Recipes Our Mothers Gave Us’ works a cooking metaphor for life

Frank Walsh/Corningworks  c.2013

Frank Walsh/Corningworks c.2013

By Steve Sucato

While life doesn’t come with an instruction manual, the wisdom of those who have come before us is supposed to offer guidance. But what if some of that wisdom — those recipes for happiness, success and fulfillment — turn out to be nothing more than clichés passed from generation to generation?

In CorningWorks’ latest Glue Factory Project, Recipes Our Mothers Gave Us, three veteran dancers with diverse cultural backgrounds question some of the common recipes for a better life they were taught as youths.

The hour-long Recipes Our Mothers Gave Us was created by and will be performed by dancer, choreographer and CorningWorks artistic director Beth Corning, actor/dancer Francoise Fournier and playwright, actor and choreographer Maria Cheng. The show has five performances, Jan. 15-19, at the New Hazlett Theater.

Recipes is the fifth annual incarnation in Pittsburgh of CorningWorks’ Glue Factory Project, which brings together nationally and internationally recognized performing artists over the age of 40 to create substantive dance-theater works. As in past Glue Factory shows, Corning chooses the subject matter and the artists who will participate, usually from among the many artists she has worked with in the past.

Frank Walsh/Corningworks  c.2013

Frank Walsh/Corningworks c.2013

Corning, formerly artistic director of Pittsburgh’s Dance Alloy Theater, met Fournier years ago, while teaching in Sweden. Fournier has worked with such noted Scandinavian choreographers as Birgitta Egerbladh and Per Jonsson. Cheng is co-founder of Denver’s Theatre Esprit Asia; Corning knew her from the University of Minnesota’s dance department, when Corning had a dance company in Minneapolis. (Cheng replaced the project’s original third collaborator, dancer/choreographer Nora Chipaumire, who left the project due to scheduling conflict.)

In previous Glue Factory Projects, Corning traveled to work with her fellow collaborators in their home cities. This time, both Cheng and Fournier (who lives in Stockholm and had not previously been to the United States) traveled to Pittsburgh this past year to work with Corning.

Set to an original soundscape by composer Mary Ellen Childs, Recipes Our Mothers Gave Us explores common societal stories relating to succeeding in life via a series of vignettes played out in solos, duets and trios. To illustrate the vignettes, says Corning, Recipes uses metaphor, text and an array of props such as rolling cooking trolleys, 36-gallon pots and various kitchen utensils.

Corning, who directs the show, says she believes that life is indeed like a recipe.

“We all start the recipe with excitement and expectation, and depending on what kind of person you are, you either follow it to a T or you improvise some of the steps,” says Corning. “Either the recipe comes out or you fail, and that can change every time you try that recipe.”

One recipe the work explores is the one women use to attract a mate.

“Men wear socks, underwear, a suit and tie and are girded against the world,” says Corning. “Women are laid bare wearing push-up bras, low-cut dresses, makeup and high heels. Why were we the ones that had to get naked to attract a mate? Why do we keep doing that recipe when we can do everything without men now?”

Frank Walsh/Corningworks  c.2013

Frank Walsh/Corningworks c.2013

Corning says that in the creation of this work, she carried with her lessons learned from working with Tony Award-winning theater director Dominque Serrand, and which were employed in her most recent CorningWorks production, last June’s critically acclaimed one-woman show Remains.

“As a choreographer, we are always seduced by beautiful movement,” says Corning. “Mining the movement to make sure I was not getting seduced by it, and stripping away any artifice, was what I was aiming for.”

Corning also enlisted the help of playwright Shelley Berc to look over the material. The idea, says Corning, was to make sure “that the recipes were making a cohesive cookbook.”

Audiences will even get to see what else the trio has cooked up from different perspectives, as Recipes will be performed with patrons seated on three sides of the stage.

In keeping with cooking metaphor, each performance will be followed by a complimentary tasting event hosted by local guest chefs including: Jamilka Borges and Sarah Thomas, of Bar Marco; Michael Chen, of Tamari Restaurants; and David Russo, of the International Culinary School.

CorningWorks presents 2014 Glue Factory Project: RECIPES OUR MOTHERS GAVE US; Jan. 15-19. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. $25-30 (Jan. 19 is pay-what-you-can). 412-320-4610 or corningworks.org

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