If you are familiar with Beth Corning’s sensibility, then you probably don’t need to be told that the title to this piece is ironic; irony is, after all, her stock in trade. The subject of Happily Ever After is the nightmare inside the fairytale of heteronormative romance – namely, the gender roles and expectations that shore up and enable cycles of domestic violence. The dynamic of abuse, and the way that cultural definitions of gender and gender roles help establish the psychological patterns of both abusers and victims, is investigated here through roughly a dozen evocative dance vignettes.

Dress installation by Beth Corning and Cindi Kubu. Photo Wendy Arons

The piece is prefaced by an invitation to explore and “listen to” a group of Victorian bridal gowns hanging on the far end of the playing space. The dresses are exquisite symbols of an old-fashioned vision of feminine beauty and frailty and poise, and they carry the fairytale promise of matrimonial bliss in their lace and satin and tuile and silk. Yet each dress has a dark story to tell, and you have to get very close to each individual one in order to distinguish its voice from the rest. The intimacy engendered is important: the accounts you hear are of women at their most vulnerable and frightened, of women who survived abuse and for whom the dream embodied by the dress became a nightmare from which they barely escaped with their lives. 

The performance then opens with a scene that chillingly translates those stories into an embodied metaphor: Corning, sitting on a ladder among the dresses, “sews” her own fingers together, treating her own body like an object and dispassionately immobilizing and trapping her hand in much the same way that both the women’s voices are trapped in the dresses, and the women themselves were trapped in their marriages. 

More metaphor and variation on the theme follow: in the second number, dancers Jillian Hollis, Catherine Meredith, and Endalyn Taylor Outlaw each dance a duet with a white shirt that stands in for the complexities of a woman’s relationship to an abuser. As they interact with it, the shirt becomes, in turn (and among other things you may find in it): a seducer, a bandage, a baby, an embrace, a threat, a comfort, a strangler, a binding, and the simple object of the domestic labor of laundry.

Dionysios Tsaftaridis. Photo Frank Walsh, courtesy corningworks.

The third piece brings in dancer Dionysios Tsaftaridis, whose presence allows the choreography to explore the double-sided coin of passion and violence that often characterizes abusive relationships. Dressed in a tie and suit, he also represents a modern-day version of the fairy tale prince who, shaped by toxic notions of masculinity, needs women to be victims in order to take his place in the story as a rescuer. This dance drives home the cyclical nature of abuse and victimization; in a later solo, Tsaftaridis masterfully layers complexity into the portrait of the abuser, revealing him as both dangerously in thrall to and tormented by his power to inflict pain.

The subsequent dances vary in energy and dynamism, some athletic and expansive, others soulful and introspective. All find ways of expressing multiple aspects of the physical and psychical damage women endure, in relationships that are both recognizably abusive and in those that “merely” replicate everyday patriarchal norms. In one of my favorite pieces of the evening, Hollis, Meredith, and Outlaw don bright red dresses and, along with Tsaftaridis, engage in a sort of stylized ballroom dance – set to baroque harpsichord music – that gradually devolves into barely contained enmity and discord. The body language and facial expressions on the dancers pitch-perfectly convey the way violence and resentments seethe below the surface of relationships, and the dance as a whole shows how much harm might be hidden by the social pressure to keep up appearances in polite society. 

At a little over an hour, the performance is fairly short, but Corning manages to cover a poignant range of experience and perspective in a tight frame. The dance movements are punctuated by segments of fairytales that remind us of the tropes that govern so much of our imagining of heteronormative “romance” (and do so much damage to the psyches of both girls and boys). A brief silent segment in which the dancers draw images of domesticity on the back wall also produces one of the most heartbreaking laughs of the evening, when Outlaw, after adding a “Stop” sign to her picture of a suburban street, begins to exit and then suddenly runs back and adds the word “Please.” That funny-not funny “please” says everything you need to know about internalized oppression.

As always, Corning also brings a beautiful and eclectic range of music to her choreography, often juxtaposing music, text, and dance to produce unexpected associations. A notable example comes when Hollis entangles and disentangles herself in an enormous bridal veil against a sonic landscape consisting of the Spanish guitar piece “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” underneath a woman’s voice offering a nervous, rapid-fire account of psychological abuse: the soothing nature of the guitar becomes a musical manifestation of gaslighting, threatening to erase the reality of what we are seeing and hearing. 

The evening ends with another such juxtaposition – a moment of potential comedy that is immediately undercut with sober statistics about domestic violence. A scene that starts out with a vibe of playful competition ends with a stage full of broken, maimed bodies that the dancers fruitlessly seek to somehow make whole: there is no happily ever after to this story, just a nightmare of shattered lives.