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Confronting Faith With a Dance of the Ragged Angels

Beth Corning—dancer, choreographer and artistic director of the Coming Dances & Company— has recently found herself addressing issues of Jewish identity. She’s unsure if the motivation is a sudden need for roots after a lifetime of traveling, entering her 40s, finally having a Jewish partner, or living in the Midwest. Yet for the first time, she’s aware that what’s been labeled as her New York “upfrontness” may simply be her “Jewish soul.”

Blond and green-eyed, she appears more Scandinavian than Jewish. No circling horas appear in her repertory, but rather a melding of dance, image, music and scripts—emotional stagings she has dubbed “dance plays.” And yet her three-part The Human Trilogy is boldly questioning three cornerstones of Jewish life: tradition, community and faith.

“For me, the creative process always starts in the form of questions,” she says, “and in this case, they were sort of nagging.” She pauses, rolls her eyes, smiles, then adds, “I believe the correct word here would be hocking.

Coming’s own upbringing was a religious, though she did recognize herself as “culturally Jewish.” Then a few years ago she began to wonder about the place her heritage occupied in her overall sense of self “My identity, my religion, my community has always been that of dance,” she says. “But at a certain age, especially as a dancer, one begins to question other things.”

Night of Questions, the first installment, premiered in 1995. Here Corning utilizes the Passover seder as a metaphor for questioning one’s history and search for identity among familiar and familial rituals. There are references to deserts and Slavery, to tradition ally subordinate roles for women. The dance’s center piece is a seder table that glides across both stage and time. At times. Corning herself stands apart on stage, a thirsting witness on the edge of the desert, equal parts insider and outsider.

It is a role she knows intimately. When Coming was a child, her family relocated often and worldwide, and she experienced both dislocation and a yearning to belong. She taps this experience in Painted Windows (Part 11), which premiered last year.

The tide references Marc Chagall, whose evocations of small town life underlie the evening’s fanciful meditations on community. Coming’s dancers embody Chagall’s colorful performers, while she herself longs to join their ranks, if only she could learn the steps. The rolling table from Part I here becomes a rolling screen, part window, part wall— suggesting the struggle between intimacy and intrusion, between the spiritual and social responsibilities prescribed by Jewish law.

The creation of the culminating section of The Human Trilogy is now occupying Coming, and she is humbled by the prospect of confronting Faith. “It’s a big one,” she says. “The biggest I’ve yet risked, filled with subject matter I’ve circumvented for years. How can I make a piece about Jewish faith when I don’t necessarily believe in a god, Jewish or otherwise?” So far, all she’ll divulge is that the piece will involve a ragged angel who proffers food instead of transcendence, a gold lamed diva who quotes the Talmud and caloric counts.

In the space before the final installment of The Human Trilogy is ready, the prolific Corning has mounted yet another dance play, called Legal Innocence. Spurred by the verdict in the first O.J. Simpson trial, it addresses the emotional sides of domestic abuse. Coming flanks her stage with suspended wedding dresses housing taped interviews with survivors. Audience members must weave through these voices to reach their seats, must personally confront their proximity and pain.

“I’ve had women, absolute strangers, coming up to me after performances wanting to offer me their wedding dresses, wanting to be a voice in a dress,” says Corning. She now hopse to tour Legal Innocence widely, adding a new dress and voice for each state in the union.

“She dares to ask the hard questions,” says Ruth Anne Weiss, director of programming for the Jewish Community Center of Greater Minneapolis, where Part I of the Trilogy premiered. “As individuals or a collective society, the choices we make are based on the questions we ask.” Dance critic Pamela Ellis calls Coming’s work “a ritualized attempt to ask, hear, understand—a prayer.”

“Well, I don’t know about any of that,” says Coming, “this is just what I do. I just explore my own awareness and accountability. I’m not leading any lectures here…. I do not have any answers, only questions.