The Tipping Point
January 27, 2022
By Steve Sucato
Postponed since March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CorningWorks’ The Tipping Point, in collaboration with Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières, is said to have become an even more refined and timely production during its 20-month delay. The long-awaited premiere of it seemed to bear that out.
Performed at Pittsburgh’s 25 Carrick Ave, the former Birmingham United Church of Christ, the over an hourlong The Tipping Point performance on Thursday, January 27, was CorningWorks’ most “theater-y” dance-theater work to date. From the moment you entered the venue, you became a part of the production, emersed in an audience participation scenario in which you were as a refugee arriving at a disaster center.
With concept, staging and choreography by CorningWorks Artistic Director Beth Corning, the first two-thirds of The Tipping Point was modeled after Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières’ exhibition FORCED FROM HOME. Corning adapted the exhibition to be the aftereffects of a refugee crisis in the United States in which The Tipping Point’s cast of nineteen portrayed aid workers, smugglers, fellow refugees, and more. The cast was made up of Pittsburgh area actors and dancers including Corning, The Pillow Project’s Pearlann Porter, and slowdanger’s Taylor Knight, along with five members of Pittsburgh’s Osso family, Kurdish refugees from Syria. Rigidly, staying in character throughout the work, the cast reinforced the drama of the audience’s refugee experience.
In a large rectangular room at 25 Carrick, rows of chairs lined all four of its sides. Seated in the chairs were a mixture of audience members and cast waiting to be shuttled along to an undisclosed destination. Some were given baby dolls to take care of as their children in this scenario. All were given group number id cards and documentation. I was greeted by actress Hazel Carr Leroy, portraying a processing station worker who told me of her son who she worried was caught up in whatever disaster had caused this refugee crisis. Others like actress/dancer Patty Petronello carried clipboards and bombarded audience members with questions and instructions. She was convincing as the overworked leader of these aid workers.
The rest of the FORCED FROM HOME-inspired journey took audience members in designated groups through various other refugee scenarios from displacement to relocation. Walking to various parts of the venue including its basement, we moved through areas where we chose possessions to carry with us and leave behind on our journey, bribed our way to passage on a smuggler’s motorized raft and that had us quickly demanded to hide at the bottom of the raft in the darkness as sound effects played of unknown authorities patrolling the waters in search of us. We then moved through a marketplace where we again bartered with the rest of our possessions for medicine and clothing before finally reaching a point of entry station manned by actor Victor Gariseb who spoke only in Afrikaans and gestured a demand for a bribe to let us pass into our destination camp. All along the path of this journey were discarded family photos, pieces of clothing, and the like; the stark reminders of the family, friends, loved ones, and lives fellow refugees had left behind on this trail of fear, sorrow, and uncertainty.
As sobering as that audience participation section of The Tipping Point was, the gravity of this visceral and thought-provoking work was most effectively driven home in the dance section that followed to close the work.
Back in the room we started from, video monitors showed imagery of disasters, war, and actual refugee crises around the world. From with the audience, members of the Osso family voiced, “I am the mother, I am the brother-in-law, I am the daughter, I am the husband, and I am the uncle in Kurmanji, with their translated words being shouted across the room in English by other members of the cast. A tea kettle, scarf, stuffed animal, and a Dr. Seus book were some of the possessions the family members giggled over as to what they had made it out of Syria with. And as another performer circled the stage area juggling three tiny metal houses, one family member lamented not taking family photos as being the lost memories of his homeland.
Here, as in Corning’s other dance works, metaphor played a big part in connecting shared experiences, emotions, and humanity between the performers and the audience. That continued with Knight entering the stage area dragging behind him a train of miniature houses lit from within that showed the damage done to them by conflict. Knight then melted into a fitful solo in which he wriggled his feet and rolled and banged on the stage floor. A call and response sequence followed with more stories of hardship and suffering that ended in a cacophony of voices. As the rest of the cast entered the stage in a whir of runs about it and heartfelt frenetic dancing to stirring music by Enzio Bosso, one could not help being swept up in the swell of emotion brought on by the scene’s mix of beauty and horror. As this dance sequence subsided the performers exited the stage space, left behind was a lingering air of despair as if it were one of the prized possessions the Osso brought with them to pass on to us as a reminder of their struggle and that of many others.
The work closed with a poignant solo by Corning reflecting on the horrors being shown on the video monitors and contained within the work and reminding us that we in the United States are not immune to such tragedies and suffering that take place elsewhere in the world.
And while the journey to the stage for The Tipping Point may have taken longer than anticipated, the journey of understanding contained within the work is one that globally needs to be taken for the sake of all humanity.
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.