That women have complicated relationships with their mothers, and with the way their mothers raised them, is the kind of cliché that is also a truism (and vice versa). I know many mothers, including my own, who deliberately and desperately worked to parent differently than their mothers (with varying degrees of success); I also know many (and I include myself in this group) who never thought that becoming their mother was even a possibility, and then catch themselves in the act of parroting their mothers and marvel at how they could have become someone so different than who they always thought they were. The scripts go deep; they are, as Beth Corning’s new dance-theater piece oberves, like recipes for favorite family dishes, handed from generation to generation, replicated but never precisely remade, recognizable but with a slightly different piquancy.
Recipes Our Mothers Gave Us presents a series of vignettes on this theme, performed by three veteran dancers (Maria Cheng, Beth Corning, and Francoise Fournier). The metaphor of the “recipe” – as a series of instructions, as the basis for a final product, as, in its root meaning, “something received” – plays out in pieces that explore the instructions we absorb from our mothers, the ingredients we mix to put a life together, the tools we wield to shape ourselves, and, in a final poignant dance, the pressures of the familial and societal “melting pot.” The evening is structured more as a collage than coherent narrative, taking excellent advantage of what I see as one of Corning’s great strengths as a choreographer and composer, her thought-provoking use of contrast and juxtaposition. A repeated sequence, for example, juxtaposes a soothing lyrical lullaby with a dance marked by fretful and anxious movements, evoking associations with both the mundane (the baby who can’t or won’t fall asleep) and the profound (the thoughts and doubts we can never quiet in our own heads). One of the show’s most effective contrasts on opening night was purely serendipitous: Corning, having lost her voice to laryngitis, had to whisper her lines into a microphone, and since many of those lines are repeated by the other performers either in another language or in a slightly modified form, it gave the impression that her whispers were “prompts” to the other performers, and that they, in a sense, were echoing or puppeting her thoughts and words. As unintended as this effect was, it served the thematic and emotional tenor of the piece beautifully, reinforcing the ways our mothers remain subliminally in residence in our heads, “whispering” their recipes even if we think we no longer hear them (or think we are no longer paying any attention to them).
Working with material that is both true and cliché has its risks, and some of the vignettes are more successful than others in helping us glimpse the strange in the familiar. A sequence in which the three performers compete in a challenge to mix together the ingredients for a happy life, and then sabotage each others’ “dishes” by removing key ingredients and substituting others wittily captures both the sheer impossibility of crafting a life (well, really, a dish, a work of art, a piece of writing…anything) exactly as you imagine it, and the competitive mentality that makes happiness so elusive. A later sequence about sex, on the other hand, is less successful in putting familiar stereotypes under scrutiny, and consequently feels less revelatory. But overall the performance is moving, and its strong effect on the audience prompted me to reflect on how correct Corning is in her observation that these recipes seem as if they are written into our DNA: men and women, old and young, we all seem to be perpetually mixing and remixing the ingredients and instructions we received from our mothers.