While its title references the axiomatic child's question, it's important to note that in this engaging world-premiere dance work, the question is asked by an adult – one of the five nationally acclaimed over-40 artists in this latest offering from Beth Corning's Pittsburgh-based Glue Factory Project.
The show's theme concerns how to identify the arrival of adulthood. The production includes a dozen sequences, from solos to group numbers, that comment on maturity and mortality with an effective blend of humor and poignancy.
The artists are Corning (who formerly led Dance Alloy Theatre) and visiting artists John Giffin, Claire Porter. Jane Shockley and Peter Sparling. Lest anyone doubt that the performers refuse to take themselves too seriously, the whole troupe spends most of the show in clown make-up, including red noses, red shoes, and funny little sacklike white-cloth hats with holes for their ears.
"No skipping," someone enjoins during the opening sequence, when two dancers exhibit a little too much insouciance, but the evening is full of play. There's a solo with two baby dolls tethered on an elastic cord, and another, by Porter, with her head in a red wire bird cage filled with fluffy white feathers. The humor ranges from dry to absurdist; highlights include Sparling's solo in the company of a full-sized human skeleton. It's a catalog of nervous gestures resolving into something like acceptance.
There's also a lovely duet that showcases choreographer Corning's love of small but potent gestures, such as the emotionally fraught clasping and unclasping of hands. In another passage, the performers tell of how they dealt with the deaths of parents. Throughout (makeup or no), the performers pulse with intelligence and personality, the facial expressions of Porter and Sparling especially worth watching.
Are We There Yet? makes canny use of a recurring prop: The portable 5' by 7' video screen that's the first thing we see, bearing video interviews in which various people are asked when they knew they were adults, or what adulthood means. The screen reappears throughout the evening as a traveling scrim: Unseen performers carry it from the wings to effect scene changes, and its cartoonish skittering across the floor (borne on invisible feet) is another nice comic touch.
If the screen, meanwhile, also suggests a tabula rasa on which the meaning of one's days might be inscribed, by show's end it actually becomes a table – one Corning herself decisively overturns when her fellow characters (having finally changed out of clown gear and into street clothes) threaten to take it too literally.
The videos, by the way, are another smart stroke. The interview subjects range from children and young adults to elders, and many of their definitions of adulthood are distressingly mundane ("Being on time").
But "are we there yet"? Corning and company explicitly eschew answering. This show gently but insistently suggests that the point is not to grasp the slippery fish of a definition of adulthood, but to make it from one end of the journey to the other with grace and humanity.
Are We There Yet? has two more performances at the New Hazlett Theater (6 Allegheny Square East, North Side), at 8 p.m. tonight and at 1 p.m. Sun., May 8. The latter is a pay-what-you-can show. www.corningworks.org