CorningWorks – with a shadow of…
New Hazlett Theater
March 27-31, 2019
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
In the lead up to her latest GLUE FACTORY PROJECT work with a shadow of…, dancer/choreographer Beth Corning said “I hope nobody makes any sense of this work; none.”
Pittsburgh’s queen of metaphor outdid herself with the hourlong collection of mind minutia and movement that proved as baffling as it was visually breathtaking.
Thematically said to reflect “the moment before sleep and the moment before waking,” with a shadow of… did well in capturing the surrealness of such moments. Where the dance-theater work fell short was in conveying purpose beyond that initial idea and in achieving the deep-reaching emotional connections with the viewer that have been a hallmark of Corning’s works. Having over the years taken in the breadth of Corning’s works created for her now 10-year-old organization CorningWorks, in some ways with a shadow of… may be the least impressive choreographically while also being a bold visual step forward for one of the region’s most intriguing dance artists.
The final performance of the work’s run on Sunday, March 31 at the New Hazlett Theater began with a prelude dance improvisation by cast member Janis Brenner. On a darkened stage, Brenner, an award-winning choreographer herself and the artistic director of Janis Brenner & Dancers in New York, darted in and out of shadow performing an energetic modern dance solo as audience members filtered into the theater. The sound effect of a cell phone ringing ended her solo and officially began the work.
Danced to a montage of atmospheric music with a shadow of… bounced between vignettes that bordered on genius and tedium. The opening vignette had New York dance icon David Dorfman pulling a curled up and supposedly sleeping Brenner in a red wagon around the stage and continuing to act as if doing so after he had let go of the wagon’s handle. It was followed by Corning and the work’s final cast member Catherine Meredith (choreographer and rehearsal director for Cleveland’s Dancing Wheels) in each other’s arms rolling on to the stage like human tumbleweed.
That scene led into the work’s first bit of tedium, watching the cast members piled upon and rolling over one another for an extended period. A go to move for pop up improvisation sessions and student choreographers, “the moving pile of bodies” is one of dance’s most boring clichés. Undoubtedly a metaphor related to the partial inspiration for the work, Corning’s feelings that current U.S. political and social climates have created a reality in which little makes sense, the dance phrase perhaps intentionally played into that dulling of the senses. Repeated later in the work, it was made more palatable when Brenner, standing and shadowing the pile of dancers as they rolled about, pulled from her pocket a clementine that she peeled and ate while waiting for something interesting to happen in the moving pile — nothing did and maybe that was the point.
While the work contained a few more mind-wandering-off-to-make-a-grocery-list-moments such as Brenner dragging around a potted tree on an upper side balcony, there were also delicious nuggets such as a sweeping and dreamy solo by Meredith in a long dress that she melted into after Corning carried her onstage on her shoulders, and a breathy and fun full cast unison dance that saw Dorfman become giddy with the joyful feeling of it.
The unequivocal star of the production however was Iain Court’s brilliant lighting and stage effects worthy of a Broadway production. Bathed in an almost constant stage fog, the dancers moved through dazzling lighting patterns and spotlights that not only highlighted them but sometimes followed after them like a puppy dog. Easily the most ambitious and successful of the Corning and Court collaborations to date, the visual theatrics culminated in a genius moment with Corning dancing a slow-moving, Isadora Duncan-like solo under a heavy waterfall of stage fog. Partially obscured by the fog at all times, Corning’s graceful and fluid hand and arm movements appeared and disappeared from view like a siren call to the audience to come join her.
As with all of Corning’s works, they are essentially a response to the human condition. And like most choreographers she would like audiences to discover their own meanings, feelings and truths in her work. But with as celebrated a cast of performers as was assembled for with a shadow of…, one can’t help but wish the choreography and the driving purpose behind the work did more to let those talents shine. As theatrical eye-candy however, with a shadow of… was a knockout.
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.