On Stage: CorningWorks Gets “There” in Style

The black side leg curtains at the New Hazlett Theater were adorned with ten big, juicy red bows, as if this performance of “Are We There Yet?” would be a gift.

It was.

The premise of Beth Corning’s latest Glue Factory production, part of her company, CorningWorks, was to discern precisely when we reach adulthood. It all began with a number of filmed interviews, projected on a small screen. A series of talking heads proceeded to answer the question in their own way. “”Instead of getting taller, I was getting older.” “Taking on responsibilities that aren’t your own.” “It’s not a time. It’s not a moment. It’s a process.” And more.

Okay, so we understood immediately that there was no fixed point… at which point the screen started to move, as it would throughout the evening, uncovering a series of vignettes performed by a stellar cast of, shall we say, richly-seasoned professionals — John Giffon (Les Grands Ballets Canadians and Wuppertal Dance Theater directed by Pina Bausch), Claire Porter (award-winning solo performer), Jane Shockley (Zenon Dance Company in Minneapolis), Peter Sparling (Jose Limon Dance Company and principal at Martha Graham Dance Company) and, of course, Ms. Corning herself.

So they were all over 50. It was still an amazingly rigorous piece of dance theater, enhanced by a life perspective and a sense of timing that we rarely get to see.

The traveling screen (TS) uncovered a cast of characters in kitschy black pants or tutus and red shoes (a color that is one of Ms. Corning’s favorite signature accents). Their faces were painted like iconic French mime Marcel Marceau, heads topped by a skull cap. At first I was put off by the cap because it made them seem a little cantankerous and I found myself craving to see a bit more of the performers themselves. But it would all work out.

They took their time getting “There” to where we bought into it. But then Ms. Corning’s work has always required patience. At first the troupe played off the interviews with their own commentary, which was curiously straightforward (“I could be President — I have a birth certificate.”). None of her curiously winding theatrical paths.

Things picked up when Ms. Shockley did a pas de trois with a pair of baby dolls attached by a black string, which she manipulated like a flexible baton. Sometimes they looked as if they were orbiting her because the string disappeared into the black background. But the dolls also served as a reminder: children are the eternal tie that binds. At the end she crawled into a fetal position.

The MS, by now viewed as a sixth member of the ensemble, slid across and suddenly revealed Ms. Corning carrying Mr. Giffon like a child. They performed a touching duet, the first time a really tangible and  sustained emotion entered the work. With just a few simple moves — he would periodically lean on her in various ways, she was accepting —  they conveyed an awkward, yet consensual comfort, as if the two had known each other for a very long time.

But then, Ms. Corning’s imagery is often as quietly stunning as a performance of “Swan Lake” can be openly and physically stunning.

There was more to behold. Ms. Porter ambled about like a caged bird. Set to “Moonlight Sonata” being played on a tinkling toy piano, Ms. Porter was indeed caged, with head ensconced in a red wiry house filled with white feathers. Ms. Stockley’s quietly-sung “Happy Birthday” turned into a condensed life study as she at first reached to drag a toddler. Then the hand gradually rose until she softly waved good-bye.

The most startling section was Mr. Sparling’s duet with a skeleton, standing in for a loved one, partially because it was so unexpected, partially because he made it so poignant. In his own way, he made it into a compelling virtuoso performance.

The emotion continued to build. Another filmed interview was tinged with real regret, which I wager touched home with virtually everyone in the audience. But as it turns out, this troupe had none of that in the end.

They were obviously all magnificent survivors.

I have to add that not all of the audience members watching were over 50. There was one young boy, maybe six or even eight, who laughed heartily at things supposedly way beyond his years.

It proved that you don’t have to be a so-called adult to get it.

“Are We There Yet?” runs through Sunday. Check Listings for more information.

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