At one point in Beth Corning’s new dance theater piece, Beckett & Beyond, the three dancers – Corning, Yvan Auzely, and Francoise Fournier – gazelle around the space, lifting their hands rhythmically in unison. It’s a joyous, transcendent moment of flow; they’ve captured something, together, that links them in shared purpose and accomplishment. And then, just like that, it’s gone: the energy dissipates, the gestures don’t match, the flow has slipped their grasp, and what felt triumphant now feels like a hollow echo. The dancers find themselves back in their own little mundane worlds, with only the memory of that instant of flow to drive them on.
In many ways that moment is a microcosm for the structure of Corning’s piece, which – taking inspiration from two short plays by Samuel Beckett – juxtaposes the tedium of repetitive action and non-action with electrifying flashes of insight and connection. And wouldn’t most of us agree that this is essentially what life is all about? That is: fleeting moments of blissful, in-the-moment connectedness (or mastery, or sheer joy) that punctuate long stretches of striving for, and either failing to achieve or losing grasp of, those moments?
Beckett & Beyond opens with Beckett’s “Act Without Words II,” a piece that involves two large sacks and a “goad” (a long stick). The goad prods the first sack, and a dancer (Fournier) emerges – she is depressive, slow, a physical and psychological mess. She sighs, prays, takes a pill, dresses, picks up the two sacks, attempts to drag them off stage, gets about a step along, stops, undresses, takes another pill, prays, sighs, and gets back into her sack. The goad prods the other sack, and another dancer (Auzely) emerges – he is energetic, precise, and efficient, and he goes through his rather more complicated preparatory regime before picking up both sacks and dragging them a step or two, reversing his actions, and getting back in the sack. Another goad, the first dancer reappears, repeats her actions – and so it would go, we must realize, ad infinitum. The goad will get longer and longer, the two sack-inhabitants will never know of each other’s existence, the dragging of the sacks will never end, and the Sisyphean nature of existence is comically laid bare.
Riffing on this opening, the original choreographic movement that follows presents a bittersweet take on the question “what happens between life and death?” Dressed in costumes reminiscent of the clowns in Waiting for Godot, the three dancers build small vignettes and variations on that theme. Images recur: the red rope that tethers Corning to an unseen master becomes an enormous cat’s cradle for Auzely’s acrobatic solo, and also (in a rather haunting and resonant sequence) a clothesline on which Fournier hangs clothes that signal past lives, clothes which she “births” from under her enormous Beckettian overcoat. The dancers collide, connect, and disperse, and in the process they find those all-too-evanescent instances of aliveness that slip out of reach the moment they try to hold them.
The third movement consists of Rockaby, another short play by Beckett featuring a “prematurely old” woman, a rocking chair, and the woman’s recorded voice. The repetitive text, which represents the woman’s internal monologue as she reaches the end of her life, here takes on the quality of a bedtime story for a child refusing to fall asleep, and the woman’s insistence on “more” after each long pause links her end-of-life refusal to obey the command “time she stopped” to the toddler’s desire for more time in the day. Rockaby demands the kind of patience not every audience member can muster (a teenager behind me in the audience on opening night could be heard to protest “No!” after the third or fourth time she cried out “more”), but it also rewards that patience with a heightened awareness of our own ticking clock, and of our own experience of – and use of – the time we are given.
There is sadness here, but also a wry humor – Corning invites her audience to ponder how little of life we really live without getting sentimental or new age-y about it. The Beckettian humor is underlined by Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s whimsical set, which is arrayed with cartoon-like white clouds that are reminiscent of the surrealistic landscapes of René Magritte. Iain Court’s lighting design establishes a variety of moods and textures, from playful to sombre to eerie, and, as always, Corning has set the work to terrific music (by MaryEllen Childs, Kronos Quartet, and Meredith Monk). The cleverly comical postscript to the piece – in which the first act is reprised, with a pair of young dancers (Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson) in the sacks – hammers home both how unique Corning’s vision is, and how much the maturity and experience of her company’s “over-forty” dancers add to the work. For while the younger dancers are fine performers in their own right, it was also clear that they are merely at the very beginning of the long, difficult, and Sisyphean journey that has produced the depth, richness, and complexity in the performances given by Auzely, Fournier, and Corning herself.