I probably failed to fully comprehend what Corning Works’ new dance work, What’s Missing, is about.
But that’s okay, because – as a disembodied voice repeatedly reminds us, in what is simultaneously a conjuration and conjugation of absence – what you see is imperfect, what they do is imperfect, we are flawed, we will fail to see, we are all wrong, and this performance will fail to resolve.
What’s Missing may, in fact, be the most clear-eyed, and most despairing, artistic response to last year’s election that I’ve seen to date. How do you make meaning in a world of alternative facts and near constant disinformation? Co-choreographers and performers Donald Byrd and Beth Corning’s answer is a kind of resigned anxiety, expressed in hands coming to frantic, fluttering life on their own, in dance sequences that hesitate, stutter, and shrug, and in the fragmentation of the audience’s perception.
The piece is a series of solos and duets structured by the repetition of a thematic movement sequence in which the two performers come together on a white bench, join hands, connect, disconnect, spoon on the floor, and break apart. Each time this sequence is presented, the bench is placed in a different place on the all-white stage, which means that audience members sitting on three sides of the space have a different perspective on the movement each time (and also have a different view than others in the audience). Ushers encourage you to split apart from the person you’ve attended the performance with, the better to be able to compare perspectives after the show. Both of these are ideas that work better in theory than in practice: it wasn’t hard to extrapolate what the movement looked like from another person’s point of view, and if there were small differences in detail from repetition to repetition, my suspicion is that it would have been difficult for most spectators to recall and compare them with their companions in any case. Nonetheless, the bigger question the staging choice begs – the question of how it is that we can all be looking at the same thing and yet seeing it in very different ways – is clearly a politically urgent one, and Corning’s interest in finding a dance metaphor to pose it is a laudable one.
What’s perhaps most striking about this piece, however, is its decision to confront the world of alternative facts with what feels like an anti-response. “This performance will not change anything,” the voice says, robbing art of one of its presumed functions. In its exploration of the contours of the rabbit hole down which we have collectively tumbled, What’s Missing seems to propose that we are in a moment in which art must retreat from meaning in order to make sense of the world.