In a political environment where reactions to current events are often strongly divided, our deeply held convictions can blind us to alternative interpretations. What’s Missing?, created and performed by Beth Corning and Donald Byrd, endeavors to demonstrate how differently the “truth” can appear to various observers of the same event. Emphasizing the way perspective, contextual clues, and preconceived notions influence our interpretation of a given moment, the piece also touched on gender dynamics, ageism, and racial tension—topics that are, like truth, influenced by circumstance. But these last themes were just a glimmer, which seems like a missed opportunity to reflect on how our preconceived ideas about an identity group can shift our interpretation, a reality that plays out daily on the news.
The core of What’s Missing? is a sequence of movement between a man and a woman on and around a white bench on a blank stage. The man is black; the woman is white. They are both of a certain age. They repeat a sequence of choreography multiple times. Their bodies reach for each other, and they refuse each other. This repeated sequence of movement recurs each time at a different location and angle on the stage. We learn quickly that, though the choreography is the same each time, small details may shift our interpretation.
Varying the music for each segment was one of the more effective ways to demonstrate how context prompts specific emotional interpretations. Classical piano intertwines with deep electronic soundscapes to support a repetition that feels melancholy and plays up the drama of a fraught relationship. In another version, a fast, circus-like soundtrack makes the sequence almost cheerful, slightly frenetic. Even though the dancers perform the choreography in the same manner, it seems suddenly comedic, rather than moody. Elsewhere, driving, ominous music builds anxiety and expectation.
A sonorous monologue overlays the music at points, offering statements like “this performance is flawed,” “this performance will not change you,” “you are right,” and “you are wrong.” The recorded speech comes to life later when Byrd enters with a music stand and reads aloud, the pronouncements more immediate and personal because he’s speaking them live in the room. This monologue may be the most interesting part of the piece. I wanted to grab onto the words and hold them.
Much of Corning’s work specifically seeks out older dancers, providing performance opportunities for those who might otherwise cease appearing on stage, and allowing their depth of experience on stage to outweigh their diminishing physical abilities. This piece is more poignant because Corning and Byrd are more mature performers than many young, athletic dancers. The physical effort behind some of the movement (getting up off the floor, for example), added heft, and the grace retained in other gestures peeked through softly. But was the meaning of the piece clearer because of their age? Those who have lived longer know more about nuance, perhaps. Is that enough? Representation of aging dancers is important, but is it patronizing to appreciate a piece precisely because the dancers are older?
I was also intrigued with the racial dynamics, as most of the choreography didn’t seem to address the pairing of a white woman with a black man. The one sequence delving into the tension features Byrd dancing within a square of light as Corning calls out movement commands. Byrd follows along, hula hooping his hips, shimmying his shoulders, and lifting his arms in praise as directed. It’s funny, and it’s also uncomfortable. A white woman ordering a black man to entertain an audience is certainly charged. Dictating someone else’s actions and having them comply is a kind of power; this power imbalance is further enforced when that process is viewed by others. If there had been additional sequences like this, the piece could have presented a more complete and relevant commentary on racial tension and power.
What’s missing in What’s Missing?? Well, everything, if we believe its message. We realize how much we miss in any situation, and each new detail we do notice reinforces how much more we must inevitably be missing. “Essential” details (two people on a bench) tell us nothing, really. The choreography invites us to dig into a larger background story, but we’ll never have all of it. It is worth it to try? There were moments of connection, familiarity, resentment. Humor, boredom, levity, discomfort, anxiety. Beyond yet again showing us that experiences of a given event can be read differently, were these emotions useful to the aims of the piece?
The show brought up more questions than answers, likely by design. The easy conclusions seem fairly obvious, and left me reaching for additional meaning. We already know that truth is subjective. Was hammering home our inability to know true from false, right from wrong, the only aim of the piece? If so, that seems a bit facile. The piece might have been stronger if it had more explicitly addressed the role of identity and privilege in shaping our perception. As Byrd’s monologue predicted, this performance was flawed. This performance didn’t change me. But it did force me to sit in discomfort and in ignorance and reflect. If we all did that more, the world might be a more perceptive place.
What’s Missing?, created by Donald Byrd and Beth Corning, appeared May 17-19, 2018 at Spectrum Dance Theater.