Corning Masterful in New One-Woman Show about Loss

Beth Corning. Photo by Frank Walsh
Beth Corning. Photo by Frank Walsh

CorningWorks: The Glue Factory Project – Remains
New Hazlett Theater
Pittsburgh, PA
June 5, 2013

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Choreographers as much or perhaps more than any other artists turn to their personal lives for inspiration in creating their works. Veteran dancer/choreographer Beth Corning in her last several productions for her Glue Factory Project – a performance series featuring dancers over the age of forty – has touched on subject matter inspired from her life and the new realities that come with the midlife crisis years of middle age. For her latest Glue Factory Project production Remains, Corning opted for midlife catharsis over crisis in a deeply moving and personal solo dance-theater work that marked a new chapter in her evolution as an artist.

The world-premiere production at Pittsburgh’s intimate New Hazlett Theater was co-created by and directed by Tony Award-winning physical theater director Dominique Serrand. For followers of Corning’s work, Serrand’s hand in this one was apparent in everything from its look and flow to the direction Corning’s choreography took and the work’s clever use of props and smart stagecraft.

From the moment the one-woman show opened with Corning walking with uncertain direction about the stage with a pair of men’s wingtips in hand chasing after the sounds of distant footsteps, a sense of personal loss revealed itself in her mannerisms and facial expressions. That sense of loss would over the course of the production settle in like a fog blanketing it and seep into Corning’s meticulous performance of it as well as into the hearts and minds of the audience.

The shoes Corning carried were a remnant of her father that conjured up memories of the sound they made when he walked. They, along with dozens of moving boxes strewn about the stage and portions of the theater, were the first of many symbols and metaphors used to support the work’s theme of the remains after loss. A stream of prose projected on a stage curtain above and behind Corning further reinforced that theme of loss.

Beth Corning. Photo by Frank Walsh.
Beth Corning. Photo by Frank Walsh.

The hourlong work spurred by memories turned into memorable scenes, featured choreography geared more in support of Corning’s adroit acting skills rather than showing off athletic prowess as a mover. Corning comically played on her declining athleticism in a scene remembering the joy and excitement of childhood birthday parties. Channeling her inner child, she did what can only be described as a “happy dance”, dashing and jumping about the stage in anticipation of a birthday cake as seen in a home movie of her as a child projected onto an overturned table. Corning repeated the “happy dance” sequence several times until slowing to a crawl and waving off portions of it as she tired.

That joyous childhood romp was in stark contrast to an earlier scene where Corning, again channeling her inner child, moved from behind and under two tables pushed together. With facial expressions and body language suggesting youthful innocence, vulnerability and grief, Corning tugged hard at the heartstrings of those in attendance who live with the memories of departed loved ones.

A master of the subtle gesture, Corning turned a slight wrinkle of her nose, the brush of a hand on her thigh and a pensive glance over her shoulder into meaningful moments. Remains was dense with such moments.

Other memorable sections in the work were: a scene in which Corning remembering family dinners from her past, recounted who sat where at a dining table where now she was its lone diner, wonderfully acting out animated conversations between family members while briskly moving around the table; a scene where she took the lid off a large moving box and its sides fell to reveal a miniature kitchen setup complete with a steaming pot which Corning cooked a dumpling she made in it; and a scene where she painstakingly used her feet to push around two half-full wine glasses.

Beth Corning. Photo by Frank Walsh.
Beth Corning. Photo by Frank Walsh.

Remains’ most magical scene however, and perhaps the one most revealing of the Serrand/Corning collaboration, came when Corning found a loved one’s book from which several notes slipped from in-between its pages as she leafed through it and fell to the stage floor. Through clever sleights of hand Corning made a small note disappear and reappear from a coat pocket and elsewhere, each time delighting at reading its contents. The scene culminated in Corning basking in a shower of small notes that fluttered down on her like snow from the stage rafters.

As Corning’s inaugural effort at a one-woman show and her first in collaboration with the brilliant Serrand, Remains was a glowing success. The work captured the emotional toll of loss from a very personal place without melodrama. Corning was at the top of her game in it and it served to carve out a new and intriguing direction in her work.

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