By Eva Phillips
Beth Corning knows precisely what she’s doing. Even when breaching the borderless, lawless, and seemingly indiscernible realm of the unknown, the unconscious/subconscious, and the liminal, Beth Corning (and her fellow artists) strikingly knows precisely what she’s doing.
Having had the privilege of being in the audience for several of CorningWorks’ productions, I continually find myself surprised and elated anew with each conceptually innovative project that is endeavored upon. CorningWorks’ most recent production, with a shadow of… valiantly carries on this tradition of breathtaking art that fearlessly confronts loneliness, grief, excitement, bereavement, atrophying selfhood, and joy. It is critical, I think, to view many of the CorningWorks productions as performance art in addition to viewing and regarding them as dance productions. with a shadow of…, much like its predecessors In House (2018) and What’s Missing (2017), excavates the inner-workings of human minds and bodies—usually in terms of perceived frailty, perseverance, vulnerability, and longing. These excavations and explorations are done through dance and choreography, but the expressiveness and visceral connectivity of these pieces transcend any one discipline. More often than not, CorningWorks productions are intensive therapy sessions—collaborative, sometimes immersive, works of art that force the audience to pick apart their psyche.
with a shadow of… is certainly no exception. In the “simplest” of terms, the piece is a choreographed delve into the liminal space of an individual’s unknowing or unconscious state. The piece, a collaborative effort between Corning (as lead choreographer) and a triad of illustrious dance artists—Janis Brenner, David Dorfman, and Catherine Meredith—and one ingenious lighting designer—Iain Court—functions as the latest chapter of Corning’s Glue Factory Project, which highlights the indomitable talents of artists (specifically dancers) over the age of 40.
The production brilliantly starts with a cleverly deceptive non-starter: seating lights still on, the audience, facing the stark darkness and complete austerity of the stage before us, gradually realizes that a person (Corning) is frantically moving back and forth across the stage, as if recalling the moves from a lost rehearsal. As the audience gradually shifts focus to the performer enshrouded in darkness, she grows more and more frenetic and bounds from one end of the stage to another, pointing to the audience as if trying to recollect a numbered rhythm. Her movements in the dark are meta-commentary on the productions unifying theme: she appears to us like a lost or unreachable memory—obfuscated by blackened uncertainty—as she too clearly struggles to access a dream or memory long inaccessible or dormant.
with a shadow of… has a palpable impact on the entire audience, but I believe it had such a tremendous impact on me because I have a stressful dearth of protection between my conscious brain and my subconscious/unconscious self (it’s why hallucinogenics are a disaster—they simply intensify the deliriousness and grotesqueness of things I experience in a normal day). My brain is a hectic labyrinth of fragments of dreams, glimmers of my past, and enlivened dimensions of my imagination that coexist with my working consciousness. This is, more or less, what the progression of with a shadow of… amounts to—a journey through an astonishing labyrinth of dreams, nightmares, confusion and resolution. With each of the “acts” (that operate like hauntingly choreographed vignettes), we submerged further into the recesses of different minds and memories that manage to feel altogether profoundly familiar.
Corning’s choreography is equal parts evocations of physical remembrances and emotive languages. David Dorfman channels this with lithe deftness whenever he is on stage, but he is at his most robust in solo sequence in which he mimes, gestures, leaps and dances in front of a curtain. To his bemusement (and the audience’s) he watches as his gargantuan shadow reflects his every movement. Dorfman vacillates effortlessly between radiant, childlike ebullience, and dagger-like befuddlement and sorrow as he witnesses the limitations of the shadow. His physical and emotional performances symbiotically capture a man returning to his child-form, only to be seized by the perplexing awe of mastering the world, just to realize it will eventually master you. It is stunning choreography and physical expressionism.
In every CorningWorks production I see, there is a moment in which the intensely primal emotions (of delight, of melancholy, of wonder, etc.) reach their over-saturation, and I find myself in tears. In with a shadow of… this moment comes in a fantastically (and meticulously) executed vignette in which Corning and Dorfman engage in a dualistic exchange as Catherine Meredith, adorned in the most majestic gown, acts out an elaborate dance adjacent to them. Eclipsed by illuminated trees, Corning and Dorfman go through motions conveying their connectivity and impassioned union (it is unclear if they represent two separate individuals or two spirits of one individual, but the effect is the same), while Meredith dances in a way that can only be described as ethereal, sublime, and intended to invoke the heavens. Not only does Meredith serve as an ecstatic translator for the hushed truths shared between Dorfman and Corning, but her astounding performance serves as a gateway to euphoria and volcanic yearning that audience must access. Meredith’s presence is like few I have ever witnessed on-stage: gorgeously efficacious and precise in form, and inimitable in emotive power. She brings out insouciant feelings that will startle and awe.
Corning is in excellent form, as one would expect, and routinely surpasses her standards of vibrant flawlessness, and she manages physical feats (particularly in pieces with Dorfman) and emotional feats that took me by enraptured surprise. Janis Brenner delivers her divine brand of spectacular fastidiousness, adding a curiosity and poignancy to the piece that fuels the intrigue of it all. Due to illness, Brenner was unable to perform the vocal components of her role, resulting in a stand-in performance from vocalist Anna Elder. While an unanticipated addition, Elder’s superb voice and inclusion on stage was seamless and enriching. Her sequence with Brenner, in which they perfectly mirrored each other while performing a particularly tasking and complex choreography, is so unspeakably scintillating that one could scarcely imagine it hadn’t been planned from inception.
with a shadow of… is an unparalleled phenomenon. Augmented by the utterly masterful prowess of lighting wizard Iain Court, who smartly utilized the purposefully sparse performance space to make the human mind a stunning, organic environment for the artists to move about in, the show is an amazingly layered riddle. When scouring the depths of the performance, you will find that the disarming, untouchable simplicity of its core will leave you breathless. It is as enchanting as it is awakening.
with a shadow of runs through March 31 at New Hazlett Theatre. For more information, visit their site.
Photography credit: Frank Walsh
Eva Phillips is celebrating her third year in Pittsburgh, third year writing for PGH in the Round, and twenty-seventh year not getting murdered (shockingly, despite all odds). She relocated to the brittle Steel City from Virginia to pursue her Masters in Literary and Cultural Studies at CMU (with a concentration in film theory and film criticism, and intersections with feminism and gender), and has spent the past few years in Pittsburgh cultivating her writing career, developing her blog https://www.tuesgayswithmorrie69.net/, raising two show cats, and widening her perspectives on the ever-evolving spectrum of theatre. She only has one Les Miserables tattoo out of her 32 tattoos, and she finds that morally reprehensible.
Categories: Archived Reviews