On Stage: Missing?

March 30, 2017


Beth Corning’s latest piece for The Glue Factory, What’s Missing?, was a puzzlement. Performed with noted choreographer and writer Donald Byrd, Missing (as the title indicates) asked more questions than it answered, leaving it up to the viewer to provide a personal solution.

Here Corning still seems to be basking in the dramatic shadows of her 2015 foray into the writings of playwright Samuel Beckett (Act Without Words II and ROCKABY ) and his absurdist world. She found a willing partner in Byrd, who it seems was living in a parallel universe.

Missing was filled with things that were not present. The set was minimal, relying on the New Hazlett Theater’s handsome barebones setting, a single, movable white bench and Iain Court’s lighting, where he once again proved that he can masterfully enhance a performance with subtle underpinnings of emotion and not overwhelm it.

Byrd provided the text, presumably culled from his former theatrical meditations on things like the Israel/Palestinian conflict and the Iraqi war. The textural phrases themselves were minimal and returned often, sometimes in variation. “You are right. You are wrong.” “Nothing will be resolved.”

“This piece is about nothing.” Shades of “Seinfeld?”

Then — “this piece is about everything.” No, Beckett.

Given Corning’s opinionated history, however, the two artists became a tasty combination, as she added her own humanistic touch. It all began with “I am flawed. My body isn’t perfect. The concept of the piece is flawed.”

Dressed all in black, perhaps in mourning, she sat on a bench and tried to link arms with Byrd, lean on him, connect, then move to the floor and spoon as if in bed. Dressed in neutrals (a figment of her imagination?), he was distant and then simply walked away.

Was there a death, or was he simply missing in life?

They performed the bench “ritual” multiple times for the audience, which was seated on three sides, and then with their backs to the people, a hard task for any artist. He learned common card tricks.

She performed a solo with the bench, trying to balance. He did “whirlygigs” and “waterfalls,” faster at her command, then returned to the stringent vocabulary in a speech to conclude it all.

There were many definitions of Missing to be seen and heard, some of which will only come to the surface in the hours and days after this confusing, yet compelling performance.

The contradictory words, written so long ago by Byrd, oddly presage the current political world in Washington, D.C., where the truth switches direction like quicksilver. Fears. Doubt. Rampant contradiction.

As Byrd put it, “A resolution exists only in my imagination.”

Missing continues through Apr. 2. See Listings.

Dance Beat: Teena Marie

January 20, 2016

Custer1 2015

It’s not often that you see an acknowledged hip hop artist who has a foundation in contemporary dance. But it’s even rarer that the artist is a woman.

Teena Marie Custer, trained at Ohio State University, faculty member at Slippery Rock University and battle veteran of Pittsburgh-based Get Down Gang and the all-American, all-woman Venus Fly Trap, was all that at the New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Art (CSA) series that ended its season this past summer.

It is a series for artists defined as “seedlings.” Custer may have a longer resume than most, but she added a twist by taking a street savvy dance form and putting it on a concert stage.

That’s been done before you might say. However, Custer set out on a fresh path with My Good Side, using a dramatic thread that embraced the improvisatory nature of hip hop within a structure found in a more traditional contemporary dance. And along the way, she exposed her emotional vulnerability.

It was brave and it was bold.

Custer2 2015She’s calling it hip hop dance theater. Hip hop carries with it a certain bravado along with a disregard for rules in expressing its free style. But Custer set her “Good Side” apart by scratching underneath the surface. We saw an entourage and with it that signature attitude. But Custer also incorporated social media and its invasive nature, grounding the piece in meaningful emotions.

My favorite part was a solo where the choreography had its own taut toughness, along with corralling the hip hop vocabulary.

Moving from red top shoes to a chandelier overhead, Custer’s piece had a definite cool factor. We saw how to take it all in stride. How to take a good selfie. And how to find and hold on to your true self.

Life lessons for all.




September 10, 2014
Beth Corning and Arthur Aviles. Photo: Frank Walsh

Beth Corning and Arthur Aviles. Photo: Frank Walsh

Sometimes interviews are just that — questions and answers. But in this instance, it was a conversation between friends and I was mostly a fly on the wall, watching, listening…and learning.

Beth Corning is nearing the end of her latest project for Corningworks’ The Glue Factory, where she designs choreography for dancers over 50. This one is called PARALLEL LIVES, a production highlighting the technology that works to keep us in touch with the world around us, but with a price — the divisive effect on interpersonal communication.

There are five players involved, including lighting designer Iain Court and projection designer Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh. The remaining three happened to be rehearsing in the upstairs studio at the New Hazlett Theater last week when I popped in. Rather, Corning was seated at a table with scenic designer Akiko Kotani (2013 Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Visual Artist of the Year). Behind them, occupying his own private space in a completely personal way (and sometimes throwing paper airplanes) Arthur Aviles was rehearsing — really. (Dance fans might remember the Bessie Award-winning artist from his memorable performances at the Pittsburgh Dance Council with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. But he also co-founded the “funky and welcoming performance space” BAAD! — The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, for which he received a New York City Mayor’s Arts Award.)

We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the production itself. So what follows is a compilation of conversational observations about art, the rehearsal process and each other.


We carry the world in our pockets.

We overlook those across the table

while simultaneously texting others across the globe

—- “reaching out” endlessly —- hoping for more.



Birth of an Idea. It all began when Corning and Kotani met at a Heinz Endowment event. As a result, Corning went to see Kotani’s Artist of the Year exhibition (2013) at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. “I got it!” she enthuses. “I got her!” She promptly (as always) sent an email. It turned out that Kotani, known worldwide as a fabric artist, was fascinated by the thought of participating in a theater production. “I always wanted to work with scrims,” she explains. That being said, Kotani even volunteered to find grant money for the project, much to Corning’s delight. Corning subsequently talked to Aviles, whom she has known “forever.” He was ready to retire at 50 (now 51), but Corning firmly (as always) suggested that he “retire next year.” Now Aviles is calling “PARALLEL LIVES” one of his final projects. “I’m like Cher, the Cher of modern dance,” he says with a captivating grin. “I’m coming back more fabulous than the last time.”

A Perfect Blend. They found themselves all on the same page, the same road, the same journey. Corning gives a hint of their perspective: “How simple can you get? How direct can you be?” They wanted the audience to “get a sense of real and not real, linear and not linear, fantasy and not fantasy.” Kotani observes, “We wanted to to go places we feel are important. We wanted to experiment. And Corning adds, like a cherry on top, “with quality.” That goes without saying, though, with these artists.

Age-ism. What about that “experienced” artist? “The physical limitations demand that I explore something else,” the 60-year old Corning asserts. “I can be freer. I can do the absurd.” This time the 70-year old Kotani adds the cherry on top, noting that “you start to give yourself permission.”

Details. Details. Details. When Corning worked with Tony Award-winning director Dominique Serrand in the time leading up to 2013‘s Remains, she learned that “everything is important.” And that just doesn’t mean props or encapsulating a dance phrase. For instance, the lighting designer doesn’t control projections — that job belongs to another person as Corning came to learn.  So there came to be five performers and they all had to intersect. Kotani was in awe of Corning and Aviles, noting that “every single second was choreographed.”

All In. Kotani and Court have been uncommonly involved, often sitting for six hours at a time during rehearsals and taking copious notes. But when Corning and Aviles asked for her opinion, it still caught her by surprise. Aviles recalls that she responded, “Beth does it as a full person, where as I look like a dancer.” She was spot on, he says, because he was still assimilating the choreographic fabric. “I want to put it on like a coat and eat it, then put it inside me. Then it will come out if I give to the work what it needs.”

All For One. The mutual respect is evident. Kotani calls Aviles “a gentle man — funny, bright, kind, articulate.” Corning says Kotani is “sharp, precise” and, again, verbally articulate.” I see where we are going and it has been obvious from the start, even according to Aviles. “Corning is a spitfire,” he says. “She knows what she wants. From day one, she has still been consistent with the concept. ” Corning is right when she calls them a team. “We’re all working at the same speed.”

The Finish Line. There is a built in trust, an integrity,” says Corning. “I know what the end result will be.” And Aviles is willing to go along. “She taps right into me,” he acknowledges. Between the three of them, Kotani notes that there is a shared aesthetic, one that will develop shared shapes and shared space between.” Why not? It’s in their collective aesthetic DNA.

On Stage: Ubiquitous!

June 17, 2014

maree ubiquitous photo

Maree ReMalia and friends put together an invigorating work, The Ubiquitous Mass of Us, at the New Hazlett Theater. It concluded the Community Supported Art series in a big way. (Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the article.) There’s more really good news, though. Next year dance will play a dominant role as well, with Moriah Ella Mason’s Untamed Myth (Oct. 11), performance artist Jennifer Myers’ Spatial Investigations (Dec. 12), Jil Stifel and Ben Sota in Contemporary Circus/Dance (Feb. 12) and Teena Marie Custer and Roberta Guido in a Double Feature (June 11). Also on the series will be composer Federico Garci-de Castro with Innovative Piano Music (Aug. 14) and Anya Martin’s Folkloric Performance (Apr. 2).

On Stage: Dancers Trust, Maree, PPU

June 9, 2014

dancers trust

IN DANCERS WE TRUST. The Dancers Trust annual performance, by PBT dancers and for PBT dancers in transition, managed to put together an evening despite an extensive list of company injuries. There was a sneak preview of Sleeping Beauty from the charming duo of Alexandra Kochis and Alejandro Diaz and a sneak peak of new company member Masahiro Hanyi with PBT grad student Maine Kawashima in Don Quixote, plus a sneak peak of what corps members Diana Yohe and Corey Bourbonniere might do in something like the drama of Le Corsaire. There was a trio of choreographic treats from company dancers William Moore, Yoshiaki Nakano and Cooper Verona, always a good sign of independent thinking. And there were a couple of bonus dances from Point Park University seniors, newly graduated that afternoon and nominated participants in the American College Dance Festival Association at Kennedy Center, Jennifer Florentino and John O’Niel in ‘til the end,’ and Luca Sbrizzi’s playful solo, Futbolist. All in all, a good time.

maree ubiquitous photo

MAREE AND MORE AT THE HAZLETT. Maree ReMalia has been unveiling her lightly raucous piece, The Ubiquitous Mass of Us, at various venue. The segment at PearlArts Studio began with a “Mass” question, “Where is Adil?” What followed was attention-grabbing in its outright cleverness. Can’t wait to see the who-o-ole thing June 14 at the New Hazlett Theater. By the way, the Hazlett has announced its second round of Community Supported Art (CSA) for next year. Dance again plays a stellar role, with Moriah Ella Mason’s Untamed Dancing Oct. 14, Jennifer Myers’ Spatial Investigations Dec. 12, Contemporary Circus/Dance with Jil Stifel and Ben Sota Feb. 12 and a Dance Double Feature with Teena Marie Custer and Roberta Guido June 11.

PointParkDanceADD-JUNCT. Adjunct faculty add a great deal of variety to the dance department at Point Park University. This year’s concert edition ranged from Ernest Tolentino’s klezmer-inspired and very smart ballet, Meron, to Heather Goelz-Carpenter’s razzmatazz (and very hot) tap, Swing & Sing, with Kellie Hodges (After All, Even Now, Even If), Mariah McLeod ((mis)Connect), Daniel Karasik (Vantage Point) and Laura Warnock (Starts at Goodbye) in between.Connections performance

Dance Beat: Wrapping up 2013 — Part Two

January 11, 2014

1391781_10151981930346460_911768040_nPBT  POINTE IN TIME. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre had its annual ball at the Westin Hotel, perhaps its most beautiful ever. It pirouetted around Swan Lake, with many guests clad in elegant black and white amid Mt. Lebanon Floral’s towering table designs. While guests could dance to Gary Racan and the studio-e Band and around the meandering musicians, they came to see one of the most anticipated features — PBT dancers performing clips from the current season. There was a sneak preview of Julia Adam’s Ketubah, rather restrained in its traditionalist Jewish overtones, and not one, but two of fine pas de deux from Christine Schwaner and Nurlan Abougaliev (Black Swan) and White Swan Alexandra Kochis with Christopher Budzynski (good to see him making an appearance in the midst of his recovery from a back injury). Most popular were the Twyla Tharp numbers — Gabrielle Thurlow  and Alexandre Silva in the Sinatra-inspired All the Way and a Stomper segment from In the Upper Room. But the PBT school students raised the roof when 60-some dancers squeezed onto the dance floor, to the palpable delight of the audience.

MORE DELIGHT. Maree ReMalia and Jil Stifel split the Kelly Strayhorn’s Fresh Faces series at Dance Alloy. Both were preludes to full-length works on the horizon, but managed to captivate on their own. Jil produced Objects For Dance, joining with husband/sculptor Blaine Siegel and movement partner Maree. Blaine constructed a real gallery feel (the piece was subsequently performed at a gallery in Philadelphia), with substantial walls and featuring art installations, dominated by a waterfall of colored fabric. It became a playground, with the women penetrating a flexible audience, who were free to move and respond. The women daringly chose Mark Taylor for a quizzical trio, opening up a delectable box of memories from the former artistic director of the Alloy in that very studio. Maree then followed with the Ubiquitous Mass of Us, a contemporary Keystone Kops scramble of a piece that somehow managed to harness the almost overwhelming energy of the nine performers, that also included Jill and artistic collaboration from Blaine. Us also broke down the wall, strikingly so, between performers and audience. Can’t wait to see the full-blown premiere at the New Hazlett Theater in June.

On Stage: Festival Watch — Kiss & Cry

October 3, 2013

Kiss-and-CryTheir hands touched.

For her, that was the last time it was daylight…

Our hands are generally regarded as the most expressive part of the body. And the fingers certainly did the walking and more in Charleroi Danses’ heart-warming Kiss & Cry, a self-described “nano” dance and the next installment of the not-to-be-missed Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts.

In scientific terms, “nano” means “billionth.” In artistic terms it also meant the smallest of the small, where a story was told in Lilliputian terms, but with a profound effect.

Thomas Gunzig’s wonderful text (here translated from French) centered around Giselle, a name balletically so appropriate for this dance through life. She is an older woman who is looking back on the cumulative effect of her five loves. Much of her story is told in miniature, with numerous little figurines, so individually and lovingly created, perhaps the people in the peripheries of her past. They were placed on about a half-dozen tables with changing tableaux, the open space of the New Hazlett Theater.

The tableaux included a train (loved how the station sign read Pittsburgh!), a circus trapeze act, snow scenes, a desert — all about a life internalized.

But the five loves themselves were interpreted by close-ups of eloquent hands, inspired by Giselle’s first romantic encounter on a train, where she brushed against a teenaged boy. The encounter changed her life forever, and her future loves were compared, not through the usual physicality or personality, but by their hands, which could still say so much.

At first we were hardly aware of the man and woman who so eloquently provided their appendages for the camera. Using their fingers and palms, it was choreography reduced (to an atmospheric score), but where we could still see arabesques and attitudes, beating one finger nervously against another (shades of “Swan Lake”).

There was a tango. A pas de deux. A sexual act. And a dark humor to it all that hung like a mist.

Despite the minimalism, it all played out, larger than life, on a big screen. So the audience could choose, eitherthe fantasy on the screen or the reality, where we saw 10 “performers” manipulating the many delicate scene changes and how one of the cameras moved silently on curving track of its own, panning in and out and through with its own fluid grace.

It was like observing the internal workings of a fine Swiss watch.

And when this most intimate, sensual journey came to an end, it returned to the source — a man and a woman completely touching, embracing.


On Stage: Beth’s “Remains”

June 10, 2013

Corningworks Remains cakeBeth Corning watched her life unfold around her and for New Hazlett Theater audiences. Read about her fearlessness and the drama of it all in her latest piece, the solo work Remains in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: A Life Lived and Danced

June 5, 2013

BETH CORNING CARDSBeth Corning was running on empty. Over the past several years she had stared at one loss after another — her company (Dance Alloy Theater), her mother, her friends.

But what she could still control was her work. Not just the steps, though. “I wanted to grow at a cellular level,” she explains after a rehearsal for her upcoming premiere at the New Hazlett Theater.

But at that stage of the game, after over 30 years of choreographing in Sweden, New York, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, where do you go? “I was taught that if you wanted to ski better, ski behind somebody better,” she quietly asserts.

For years she had admired Dominique Serrand, Tony Award-winning theater director of Theatre de la jeune Lune in Minneapolis and now, fortuitously, with The Moving Company there. Armed with a grant from the Heinz Foundation for choreographic process, she called up her old friend and said, “Want to play with me for a year?”

Beth recalls that she was sweating, but he didn’t hesitate. “She wanted to do it with someone she could trust,” says Dominique on the phone from Minneapolis.Then he asked what she had in mind.

BETH CORNING HEADSHOTA solo. She didn’t want to take care of anyone else — the salaries, the schedules, the egos. “I want to take care of myself,” she told him. “I just need to be filled back up.”

So they set up a performance date, like a carrot. It was as simple as that. But between the two there was a complete understanding that only if something was developing would they proceed. There was no obligation on anybody’s side.

Then they began. Would it be a dialogue from the start? Or so Beth thought. But what Dominique wanted was material from Beth’s own source of inspiration.

“I spent the first couple of months lying on the floor crying because I just didn’t know what to do or how to do it,” Beth reveals. Maybe she didn’t have to worry about anyone else, but she also didn’t have the companionship — the physical and social camaraderie that dancers tend to breed.

There was also no mirror, just four walls at the New Hazlett, which she had begun to consider her professional home. So she began to journal, writing her thoughts in a notebook. That helped.

It all began to spill out. But Beth started to offer too many competing ideas, a source of frustration for DOMINIQUE SERRANDDominique. The dialogue had begun.

Oddly enough that had taken the major part of their year together. They settled on biographical elements from Beth’s life, the Remains of her memories. What “remains” after loss? What “remains” after dinner? What “remains” after youth?

The work started to form only three months ago. Then it “really became exciting” according to Beth. She now calls Dominique her “mentor.” He calls himself a “dramaturg,” intent on developing the piece “in an honest fashion.”

Edit. Edit. Edit.

Dominique says that they “started with everything. But as you go, you get rid of unnecessary things and keep what is personal and exceptional. Make it stunning.”

They took all of her thoughts and memories and will present what is left of her memories, a personal journey, in Remains.

Now Beth can’t remember which sections have been “birthed” by whom.  “I don’t know who’s done what now. We seeded it. We sat on the egg. We hatched it together.”

Beth calls the “final” product dance theater, although Dominique firmly believes that “theater should be physical anyway.” “Already I feel sophisticated,” Beth says happily. “I feel filled up — more than I felt in years, in decades, maybe. I now get why the work he does is so good.”

He has discovered how “courageous” Beth is, noting that “after all, when you do a solo about you, you’re so exposed and I admire that.”

And they both have discovered that the Hazlett Remains will just be a next step. The journey will continue, because art, at its best, continues to breathe and to grow…


On Stage: Celebrating the Spirit — The Dybbuk

May 10, 2013
Alisa Garin Photography

Alisa Garin Photography

There is no doubt that large arts organizations are generally the face of a city. But it is the small arts organizations that are the pulse, able to present rare and original works on a regular basis. Sometimes the twain do meet, though, as in a recent, largely fascinating performance of The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds.

The title said it all, translated as the brainchild of Aron Zelkowicz, director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival and celebrating its 10th season, but presented under the umbrella of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Music of the Spirit at the New Hazlett Theater.

The production itself floated between many artistic worlds, officially a multi-media chamber opera combining music, film and dance. That concept was in keeping with this Dybbuk’s gestation. It had been an indelible part of Hassidic Jewish legend long before it appeared S. Ansky’s 1914 production, now considered a seminal Yiddish play.

In the ensuing years, The Dybbuk morphed into other translations and took several ghostly forms on film and television, inspiring writers and directors alike. And in 1974 choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein collaborated on a highly personal, but controversial ballet.

Maybe the Zelkowicz production, using Ofer Ben-Amots’ haunting music and Hebrew libretto (with projected translations), had the right idea, to play upon this tale of shadows and light, mysticism and reality in an abstract fashion.

Kelsey Bartman and Alan Obuzor of Texture Ballet.

The story was simple and actually might seem quite familiar to contemporary audiences, containing elements, as it does, of Romeo and Juliet and The Exorcist. It centers on the story of Leah, daughter of Sender, a rich merchant, who is in love with Hannan, a poor but brilliant scholar. But Sender opposes the match. Hoping to find a way to change his fate, Hannan delves deeply into the magical and spiritual dynamics of the Kaballah, trying to find a way to reclaim Leah’s love.

It takes its toll on him and he dies of exhaustion. When Sender finds a wealthy suitor for Leah, she goes to the Holy Grave, where Cossacks massacred a young couple under the wedding canopy, for guidance. And as Leah herself is about to be married, Hannan, now a dybbuk (a disturbed soul or ghost), possesses her, leaving the young woman torn between two worlds.

But Mr. Ben-Amots wove in additional material, including a glass parable sung by Rabbi Azriel, a morality on how “through clean and transparent glass one sees other people, but when the backside of this glass is covered with silver (or money) one sees only oneself.” And at the start of the third act, he included the tale of The Heart and the Fountain, part of the Kaballah. Although they added to the richness of the story, they also added to the length.

What drove this Dybbuk was the overriding passion of Leah, profoundly sung by Israeli soprano Yahli Toren. A diminutive singer with a powerful voice, she was able to convey the anguish and uncertainty of a young woman by inhabiting the role herself.

The Beggars, in Chloe Moser's Masks.

Her relationship to Hannan was never specific, but more ritualistic because it was played by clarinetist Gilad Harel, who moved freely about the stage. He had some of the most scintillating parts of the evening, weaving virtuoso lines with numerous shades of klezmer music, So while the two could not really connect in a physical manner, he conveyed his own passion through the instrument.

Filling out the cast were baritone Guenko Guechev, who was particularly effective in the exorcism scene, and actor Leon S. Zionts as Sender. The accompaniment was spare, but set a fine atmospheric tone with cellist Bronwyn Banerdt, violinist Jonathan Magness and pianist Shira Shaked, all clustered in one back corner of the stage, with percussionist George Willis opposite. Christine Jordanoff directed the Pappert Women’s Chorale and Children’s Festival Chorus at the end in a transcendent performance, although their angular placement, with Ms. Jordanoff conducting, shifted the emphasis from a theatrical piece to a concert format.

Choreographer Joan Wagman produced some of her best work with four dancers from Texture Contemporary Ballet, who had several expansive dance interludes (including a beggar scene with Chloe Moser’s wonderful masks), but also provided a connective tissue by playing multiple roles.

Although Kelsey Bartman and Alan Obuzor had a lovely duet, the dancers, who usually perform in a contemporary style, wisely adhered to the dramatic overtones under Mr. Zelkowicz’ direction. It was a fine first effort from the cellist and Festival administrator and certainly a significant way to celebrate the organization’s decade-long commitment to artistic excellence.




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