Renowned choreographer Beth Corning returns to GroundWorks to reprise her groundbreaking work, “At Once There Was a House,” which first debuted at GWDT more than a decade ago. We are thrilled to have Beth back for our Fall Dance Series and look forward to sharing her again with our audiences.
“GroundWorks has evolved in so many ways and I am eager to see how ‘House’ is realized through our current group of artists,” says Artistic Director David Shimotakahara. “It’s such a beautiful and mysterious piece, it allows us into the recesses of its characters’ fallibilities and gives us an opportunity to find many things we recognize, about our hopes and disappointments and identities. I am grateful to Beth for what her work asks from the company and I’m excited to continue to share that with others.”
We recently had the chance to catch up with Corning, Founder and Artistic Director of Pittsburgh-based CORNINGWORKS which serves as a vehicle for THE GLUE FACTORY PROJECT (her critically-acclaimed series of original full evening length works created on internationally and nationally renowned performers over the age of 40). Corning’s choreography has been commissioned by companies such as the Utah Repertory Dance Theater, Eugene Ballet Company and Nye Carte Blanche (Norway)among others. She shared her thoughts about the creative process and how, after more than three decades as a dancer, she continues to evolve as an artist.
Your work, “At Once There Was a House,” will experience somewhat of a revival this fall. Tell us more about this piece.
“I created ‘At Once There Was a House’ for GroundWorks DanceTheater in 2004. Felise
Tell us more about this idea of Dick and Jane.
“The work explores the era of Dick and Jane (characters from the teach-children-to-read books popular in the 1950s and 60s) and asks the question, ‘What ever happened to Dick and Jane?’ (now that they are middle age!). These characters come from an era where everything was perceived as perfection. Dick and Jane are white and blonde with perfect parents, and perhaps the most difficult thing going on in their lives is their dog Spot is jumping in the mud. Dick and Jane lived at a time when things were simple – or at least they were presented as simple.”
It seems to be a timely work.
“It is a timely work. I think most works are timely. At least most Good works are timely. Especially those that explore human character.”
How does a dancer “embody” characters like Dick and Jane?
“It’s not about learning a script. It’s about creating each individual dancers own story. This is not acting. It’s more like you have to allow it to become you. I like the essence of things. I don’t like when people try to become something they are not. You can’t push it. You just have to trust the movement to carry you through.”
You’ve created over 60 works (including 16 full evening productions) during your career. How would you describe your creative process?
“I don’t know if I have a ‘process.’ To me, a process is a codified way of working – which I don’t think I really have – at least not prescribed. The older I get the more I want to push boundaries. I think I start with a very general idea of what I want to create and then peel it down to its essence. A place where you have to question every movement, every gesture. You ask, ‘Why are you doing that? Where are you going with it?’ I try to step away and take a look at it. Often I will go in another direction, which is what makes the journey fun. You start in one place and end up in another.”
How would you describe your style of choreography?
“It’s a catch-all. In all the years of my career I have been most interested in dance theater – particularly the European version of dance theater. It’s the mixing of theater techniques like text and set and prop work with movement. I love details. I remember in one of my full evening works, I had a dancer lying on the floor and she slowly turned her head from one side to the other. Watching a rehearsal of it, I evidently let out a sigh. A dancer sitting next to me asked me, ‘Why did you go, ‘Aaahhh?’ And I told her, that for me, that simple, non-dance moment was perhaps the most beautiful moment in the piece. Because she lay there on the floor and her hair moved like pages in a book. It was that second of a detail – and for me – it’s all in the details.”
You’ve had quite an amazing career that spans more than three decades. As an artist, do you feel like you’re constantly evolving?
“Yeah, I hope so – I work hard to push myself in new directions. It’s about being curious. It’s about working with really talented artists who push you. It’s like skiing behind someone better than you, you will, always ski better – it’s a dancer’s mentality – you start sailing down the slope, you’re not judging, you’re not copying. You’re just keeping up.
If I look back at my past work – sometimes I’ll say, ‘Wow, you were kicking ass! You were doing great works!’ Other times I can see where I stalled. But then I sit back, I take stock in what I am doing now and say, ‘This is great.’ You stop caring what people think. You start taking chances. You don’t worry as much anymore.”
When did you start dancing? When did you know this was what you wanted to do for your career?
“I always performed as a kid. The story goes, when I was two years old I climbed out of my crib one night as my parents were having a cocktail party. I emptied a wastepaper basket, stripped naked and wandered throughout the crowd. I got the best response ever and thought, ‘This is good!’ I haven’t stopped ever since.”
What would you say makes your collaboration with GroundWorks different than other partnerships in the past?
Every partnership is different – every one. Coming back to Groundworks – even with nearly a completely new group of dancers – it’s a bit like coming home. There’s a familiarity – a welcomed feeling. And of course my long-standing friendship with David colors all this. It’s a special gift.”
How do you hope audiences will be impacted by “At Once There Was a House?”
“The kind of works I make tend to be provocative. They have humor. They can be dark. I have always said that if a set of twins comes to see a work, despite coming from the same family, being the same age, and perhaps have similar experiences, ultimately both of them carry their own suitcases of “individuality” and they will typically walk away with a different interpretation based on what’s in their own ‘suitcase.’ My hope is that audiences will be surprised, that they are entertained, that they will be provoked to think a bit deeper about things. I hope that they lose themselves in it.”
(Photo: Frank Walsh)