By Karen Dacko

What do you do if you glimpse a dance troupe darting amid the misty environs of a massive metal sculpture that spawns clouds? 

You return the next day and bring four friends.

That’s what happened in early August as choreographer Beth Corning, director of Corningworks, was crafting “The Cloud of Unknowing” for its Sept. 13 premiere. The 8-minute dancetheater work unfolds inside “The Cloud Arbor,” a mist and cloud generating installation on the lawn of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

The premiere launches the company’s 13th season and its director’s newest initiative — Unexpected Exposure. The site-specific series of mini-performances targets both “existing venues not necessarily known for dance” and “those who don’t go to dance events in theaters,” says Corning, who envisions the presentations as “movable art.”

The project jumped from drawing board into rehearsal “quicker than I thought,” says Corning. 

She was discussing plans for 2023 with Jane Werner, executive director of the Children’s Museum, who suggested “The Cloud Arbor” as a performance venue — and offered an immediate September 2022 slot. The performance will be part of the Association of Science & Technology Centers Annual Conference, which will be held in Pittsburgh Sept. 12-15.

Composed of 30, 30-foot metal poles, the fountain/sculpture by environmental artist Ned Kahn has fascinated Corning since its installation in 2012. A conversation with Kahn about his artwork energized and motivated her.

“I love the image of water — mist is magical. It evokes what is seen and what is not seen, what is known and what can’t be known,” she says. 

The work’s title has origins in 14th-century Christian mysticism, however Corning asserts that her choreography draws inspiration from “today’s world” and “the fog we keep getting lost in.”

According to dancer Weylin Gomez, “The mist creates a level of unpredictability — moments of ‘Do we wait (for it to clear) or continue on?’ At times we disappear amongst ourselves but are visible to the audience, at others the audience can’t see us but we can see each other. Because of this transient aspect, the audiences won’t see the same thing twice — every moment is unique.”

Corning estimates that 200 passersby witnessed the rehearsals as well as “a gaggle of 6- to 7-year-olds,” of which one politely requested an encore and another seconded the motion. The most amazing reaction was from a young interloper who entered the performance space with “a sense of wonder” reached upward to touch the mist and became, not a distraction but part of the fabric of the proceedings. “I could not have planned it if I tried,” she says.

Costuming is important to Corning, who prefers that the five dancers look human “instead of cloud-like.” They will be clad in gray to look like the steel poles, she says. Music by Ezio Bosso accompanies the performance. Corning decided to forego theatrical lighting and to instead rely on lights inherent to the sculpture.

The pop-up performance format is new to the award-winning choreographer, known nationally and internationally for her provocative, socially conscious, multi-disciplinary productions. Creating dance in a fountain is not new, however.

As director of Dance Alloy Theater from 2003 to 2009, Corning drenched her dancers at PPG Plaza during the 2007 Three Rivers Arts Festival. “It was like being in a swimming pool,” she recalls, adding that she learned that bare feet and slippery concrete are incompatible. 

For this gig, tennis shoes are in order to better control the dancers’ movements. And yes, she says, the cast gets wet. But “no wet T-shirt contests and no pole dancing,” she laughs.

“The Cloud of Unknowing” premieres Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 7:30 p.m. and repeats at 8:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is located at 10 Children’s Way in Allegheny Square on the North Side. The outdoor performance is free. 

A ticketed party will be held in conjunction with the conference, which is hosted locally by the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Science Center.

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