The question Beth Corning poses on her marketing material for her new production The Tipping Point is: “what would it take for YOU to leave home?” This is a question I myself have often mused upon, partly because of my own family’s history: would I, like my Jewish grandparents and great-grandparents, have seen the writing on the wall and fled persecution in Eastern Europe – or would I have remained, like so many Jews did, until it was too late to escape? What does it take to recognize the “tipping point,” and will I know it when I see it, if it happens during my lifetime?
But it turns out that this isn’t really the central question around which The Tipping Point revolves. Only a brief segment of this potent new piece addresses that question head on, when Corning presents a solo dance in which she juxtaposes shrugs of indecision, attempts to maintain equilibrium, and a primal scream of rage against an avalanche of text that makes clear how fragile and endangered our democracy and freedoms are. Rather, The Tipping Point casts its audience members as people who have already been forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in another land, and it gives them experience of how utterly harrowing such a dislocation would be.
The piece is structured in two parts. One part is a dance theater performance that depicts the experience of re-settled refugees through a layering of text, movement, sound, and documentary video and images. The ensemble is made up of thirteen performers representing a diversity of race, gender identity, body type, age, and ability; they are joined by a family of five from Syria, who appear, at first, to be members of the audience, and who begin the performance by courageously testifying and bearing witness to their own experience of dislocation and migration. In the course of the piece, they are carried and pulled by the dancers into the middle of the performance, where they seem (deliberately) “out of place” within the maelstrom of choreography around them.
The family’s hesitant and uncertain status as “non-performers” in contrast to the company of dancers mirrors (or foreshadows) the second, immersive part of the piece, in which audience members are made to feel uncertain, hesitant, and “out of place” as they both literally and figuratively step into the shoes of a refugee and embark on a journey of dislocation. The two parts echo each other in other ways, too: elements of the first part (a perilous sea journey, separation of loved ones, dispossession of valuables) are woven into the experience of the second (or vice versa – your ticket time will determine which part you experience first), such that the immersive experience either recalls or is refracted through the danced interpretation.
I’ll confess at this point that I’m working hard to avoid spoilers here; much of the impact of an immersive theatrical experience depends on entering fully into its world without preconceptions, and I would hate to ruin anyone’s experience of this production by giving the details away. I will say that what this production impactfully achieves is to make vividly clear that there is no human being on this earth who is prepared to weather the shock of displacement that is the fate of a refugee; and that even though my own “journey” was wholly fictional, two days later I’m still jostling with its losses and betrayals.
Key here is the way the production underlines how aid and grift – or charity and hostility – work hand in hand to shape the refugee experience. Co-director Gab Cody has crafted an unsettling socio-bureaucratic environment, in which the way you are treated by the “volunteers” who “process” you and hustle you along the journey is neither deliberately cruel nor genuinely kind. They continually give with one hand and take with the other, offering frequently contradictory information and making it nearly impossible to figure out the rules. At any given moment, you don’t know if you’re being helped or ripped off, advised or misled. And it’s that state of helpless uncertainty that gives a microcosmic sense of how traumatic and disorienting such journeys must really be. Moreover, the transactional “benevolence” of the “volunteers” ensures that by the time you reach the final destination, you realize that the most anyone seeking asylum can hope for is refuge. That is: refuge, not welcome, and certainly not without cost.