Vital Explorations in CorningWorks “The World As We Know It”

By Eva Phillips
So much of the history women are forced to learn, accept, and retell is conceived in terms of what is done to our bodies and what our bodies can handle. How fertile are we? How effectively do we entice a mate while maintaining arbitrary standards of decency? Do we consistently uphold standards of beauty and tidiness? Did we ask for it? Why didn’t we ask for it? What were we wearing? Are our bodies a distraction to the goings on of men?
In The World As We Know It, yet another virtually flawless production from the mind of the inimitable Beth Corning and CorningWorks, six female performers—Corning, Simone Ferro, Li Chiao-Ping, Endalyn Taylor, Charlotte Adams, and Jillian Hollis (standing in for Heidi Latsky)—unflinchingly plunge into the precariousness of femininity, the ever-present shadow of the glass ceiling, and the world of women in the wake of the #metoo movement. More crucially, six women confront and inventively embrace the standards of history women are so regularly forced to accept. Clad in cartoonishly large business suits, the women trough through a “Sisyphean” landscape that examines the private and public state of feminist through narrative frames in six choreographed vignettes.
Without question, the caliber of performers on the sparse New Hackett Stage is astronomical. These women are not merely champions of their craft—they are uniquely efficacious storytellers and creative prophets, imparting what they have learned and who they are through physical art. Whether it is Corning’s own astounding “I set the table. Always” (from REMAINS) that dizzyingly blends generations of love and anguish into the fretful focal point of one woman; or Simone Ferro’s heart-wrenching, dazzlingly detailed interpretation of Mauriah Kraker’s choreography in “The Quiet”—The World As We Know It is a showcase of legacy-level talent and insightfulness. As always, the performers are aided by CorningWorks Lighting Designer Iain Court, who is in peak form here, fascinatingly manipulating the stage in a stirring, in-motion chiaroscuro that rivals the best silent film cinematography. Court enlivens the “Sisyphean” landscape admirably indeed.
There is something intensely poignant and prescient about situating the message of The World as We Know It within the Sisyphean paradigm. As women, the vagaries of progress or change–of the external world, of the treatment of and regard for our bodies and autonomies, of the general standards of decency, etc.–present themselves as transformational metaphoric boulders. Progress and change occur, sometimes infintesimally, sometimes seismically, and then it is erased, redacted, or nullified by lack of progress or change in another area (or with another person).
This sisyphean reality experienced by most cis and trans women came into peculiar scrutiny with the watershed moment of the #metoo movement. Public (or, more acutely, male or hegemonic public) confusion and disbelief at the gratuitous and repeat nature of the offenses, and assaults, inflicted upon women over and over and over again. “Why not leave?” “Why not say no?”  “Could it really be that bad?” “How could you have not said something sooner?” The awareness and physicalization of both the constant flux women find themselves in, and the infuriating perplexion and responses to the #metoo movement, is present in the choreography throughout The World As We Know It, but it is most viscerally conspicuous and evident in “Is All,” and “Imagining Ketchikan.”
In “Is All,” Sarah Hook’s exquisite choreography is vivified magisterially by Endalyn Taylor in a short but wildly impactful physical vignette that illuminates much of the spirit of The World as We Know It. Taylor moves across the stage–reenacting ever-familiar daily routines and preparations that swiftly become violently and complexly more urgent–not simply as a skilled dancer (which she unequivocally is), but as a messenger or empath for other women. As the banal tasks enacted swiftly transform into limb-renting, panicked, near-convulsions, Taylor’s astonishing physical control and emotional depth conveys not only the devastating matrix of enunciation, reclamation and doubt/disbelief that women are thrust into (even more so in the wake of the #metoo movement), but the intricate agony that becomes violently routine to women’s everyday lives. Moreover, Taylor’s masterful performance, and Hook’s thoughtful choreography, extraordinarily point to a painful demand enforced upon women—to endure injuries, stress, trauma and so on with the never-yielding face of happiness and compliance. Taylor’s elegant yet expressively brutal bodily migrations are done with the hauntingly fretful visage of the wind of women told to smile more and not make a fuss—despite the devastation levies upon them. Her performance is multidimensional and transcendent, and the dynamism of her emotive physicality attests to her artistry and ability to translate insouciance into moving entertainment through her craft.
Similarly, “Imagining Ketchikan” is a defiant critique of bodily appraisal and appropriation to which women, particularly women of a certain age, are subjected routinely. Staged in and around a bathtub—rolled in by the entire ensemble (aka the Tribe) in a comically brilliant interstitial procession—the piece, choreographed and performed by the iridescent Charlotte Adams, is a refreshingly intimate and uncompromising reconceptualization of an individual’s most vulnerable and necessary routine. Without spoiling the visual and emotional takeaway of “Imagining…,” I can emphatically say that it some of the most gloriously audacious and empowering few moments of physical performance I have watched. Like Taylor, Adams’ movements, as forceful as they are portentously delicate, illuminate the external world and its perceptions and actions upon women in their most private moments. How we eroticize and fetishize female nudity, women bathing, and the entitlement over women’s intimate activities are all tensions haunting imbued in the beautiful choreography created by Adams. And, yet, extraordinarily, Adams literally and figuratively pivots around these external weights and expectations, riveting the audience and aligning us squarely with the POV of woman who is repossessing her time and space (even if that means acknowledging the omnipresent leer of a patriarchal world). It is a true feat and a rapture to watch.
The cohesion and interpretive narrative that acts as the connective tissue is the strongest of any CorningWorks piece I’ve had the pleasure of watching thus far. Whether it is the moments of meta-commentary provides in the fascinating moments with the Tribe in their oversized suits and their curious designs on life; or the hauntingly direct  vignettes like Li Chiao-Ping’s gorgeously aching, physical soliloquy “In Media Res,” the connectivity and rapturous pulse of the The World as We Know It is beyond compare.
And perhaps that is because the message and meaning of The World As We Know It is so absolutely dire. The production is not simply a reflection on the state of cruel gender disparities; nor a mediation on the various vituperations, violences and distortions of self women undergo daily; nor even portraits on the meanings of intimacy. The World as We Know It is a blistering, ruthless, stunning, funny, and heartbreaking visual and physical masterpiece that challenges standards, status quo, bodily misgivings, and identity itself.
The final moments of the production, carried out in the (presumably) uncompleted piece “Unfinished (excerpt)“ testify to the powerful journey The World As We Know It boldly endeavors upon. Unexpectedly filling in for Heidi Latsky (who choreographed the piece, but could not perform due to surgery), Jillian Hollis executes a ferocious and primally ecstatic performance that will continue to haunt me for some time. Clearly vexed by and sensing alienation from the other women (in their characters) on stage, Hollis is possessed by a exhilarating series of perfectly coordinated movements that embody, all at once, terror, lust, desire, the thirst for autonomy, wistfulness, loneliness, and the litany of other emotions exhumed and explored throughout the show. She then, exhausted, rejoins her fellow performers in such a way that touches on the euphoric universality that is possible, and the fraught, but incredible, understanding of the The World As We Know It.

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