It has been a challenging three years for Beth Corning since she was fired as artistic and executive director of Dance Alloy Theater. Corning had led the venerable troupe (which has since ceased producing dance works) for six years. She has since suffered the deaths of loved ones, including her mother, and has begun re-evaluating her decades-long career as a dancer, choreographer and artistic director in order to move forward in new directions.
Shortly after leaving Alloy, Corning formed CorningWorks, a vehicle for producing multi-disciplinary dance theater. She also revived an initiative dating from her pre-Alloy career, amusingly called The Glue Factory Project, which recruits accomplished dancers over age 40 to present thought-provoking dance-theater works. Premiere productions followed of A Seat at the Table (2010) and Are We There Yet? (2011).
For the third Glue Factory offering, Corning for the first time assumes the role of producer instead of creator. The Life & Death of Little Finn, a work combining puppetry and dance, is the brainchild of award-winning Canadian choreographer, writer and costumer Marina Harris.
The forthcoming world-premiere production is the first for newly formed multidisciplinary troupe COMPANY X, whose founding members are the show's dancers/puppeteers: Corning, Harris (who also directs) and Melinda Evans, a former principal dancer with Utah Repertory Dance Theater. The three are old friends and longtime collaborators. Alloy audiences, for instance, will recall Harris' "Table of Content" (2007), with its memorable scene in which dancers compete to stretch large wads of bubble gum into various shapes.
Little Finn is the life-spanning tale of a man abandoned by his mother at a young age for an unscrupulous lover. The lonely Finn grows up to be a bean-counter (literally) whose colleagues commit suicide because of the tedium of the work, and who finds happiness with a Russian mail-order bride. As the story is enacted, the performers will be visible on stage, but the focus will be on the puppets.
"It is smart dance-theater," says Corning. "Funny, witty and a poignant portrayal of life's cruelties and triumphs."
Also notable is the venue: Though it's an 18-and-over, adults-only work due to its themes, Little Finn will be performed after hours in eight shows Sept. 12-16 at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. Corning selected the museum for the intimacy of its downstairs theater space. The 65-minute work, tailored for an intimate audience of just 30 per show, will be performed on a 10-foot-square portable stage and detailed set created by design architect and Company X member Kip Harris, complete with lighting, sound and a 48-inch video screen.
Harris, known for her meticulous attention to detail, hand-made the six hand puppets, stick puppets and marionettes used in Little Finn. She has also created the work's multimedia elements, including an eclectic soundscape and original animation and text.
"The production value is pretty grand," says Corning.
Corning has employed puppetry before. One Alloy work, in fact, featured a life-sized puppet made by Harris. Another, Corning's "4-2 Men" (2009), had dancers imitating puppets. But Corning says that both she and Evans took some time to feel comfortable with the smaller, more traditional sort of puppets used in Little Finn.
"Puppets are the ultimate in subtlety," says Corning. "They don't really do much. It is our imagination that fills that void."
The Life & Death of Little Finn represents a marked change in the kind of dance-theater work Corning has been doing. But it's a change that fits into her current reassessment of herself as an artist. In addition to her work with Company X, Corning, with a grant from The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation, has embarked on a year-long residency with Tony Award-winning physical-theater director Dominque Serrand, of Minneapolis' The Moving Company.
Corning, who's in her mid-50s, says she felt that her creative processes had become rote and that it was time to mix things up. "I want the shit scared out of me," she says. "I want to feel nervous, excited and vulnerable."
When she worked with Serrand in June, she says, he urged her to strip down and refine her thoughts, and pushed her to think about material in a more raw and basic way.
"I was just dumbfounded," says Corning. "I am a student again, and it is so exciting."
The more immediate goal of working with Serrand is to develop a new choreographic direction and voice for an upcoming solo work. Long term, these new career directions she is pursuing are meant to help Corning pull her own strings, and grow as an artist.