Amy’s Notes on Hippie Elegy
For a lecture at Rutgers University in 2007, Amy prepared these notes about Hippie Elegy, aka “An Open Letter About Myself”
Notes on Hippie Elegy, or an open letter about myself
By Amy Smith
For Rutgers lecture, 11/07
The ideas and images of Hippie Elegy came from remembered and researched histories of the 1960s and 70s, and from the personal histories of the co-creators. Headlong is a collaborative dance company, started in 1993, and I am one of the three founders and co-directors, along with Andrew Simonet and David Brick. You could say that even the idea of starting a collaborative, non-heirarchical dance company came out of our shared hippie values. We care about egalitarianism within the company structure, valuing process over product, treating our dancers and collaborating designers with respect, sharing credit for all the work, and giving back to our community. But usually our work has a subject matter that is either conceptual, or draws inspiration from literature or contemporary culture. We very rarely make a piece that is about ourselves.
In the case of Hippie Elegy, the first thing that happened is that we decided that we really wanted to work with Jeb Kreager. He was untrained in dance technique, but an amazing actor/performer, so we thought that would lead to an interesting process and product. We decided that Andrew Simonet, one of my fellow co-directors, would be the outside eye and Jeb and I would be the performers.
As we started the rehearsal process, without any clear ideas about what the piece would be about, it quickly became clear that all three of us shared a deep connection with hippie culture and hippie values. I was born in 1971, and I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is a hot-bed of hippies. I grew up eating homemade granola and tofu, and later participating in our town’s annual pot-smoking celebration, the Hash Bash. My boyfriend in high school had hair down to his shoulder blades, and did yoga. When I met Andrew in college, he too had long hair and was playing guitar and leading CSN and Joni Mitchell sing-alongs. Jeb is a little younger than us, but he grew up on a farm and later spent several summers following the band Phish around and doing copious drugs in a communal environment.
We have all found our way into being productive, and relatively straight members of society. But all three of us mourn the lack of hippie values today. During the Viet Nam era, our parents marched on Washington, got arrested, got FBI files fighting the war. Today, 4 years into a similarly unjust and unfounded war, we’re lucky if college students take the time to email their senators about their anti-war stance. While our parents lived on welfare and worked for the People’s Labor Party, today’s young people get MBAs and try to find a high-paying job. Of course these are generalizations, but you get the idea. We decided to try to make a dance that reflected the disillusionment we felt.
So Hippie Elegy came to be, in a process that included a lot of improvisation, sharing personal memories, and dancing around with muffins. It tells the story of a couple who meet and fall in love, and then descend into rage and sadness. In our internal narrative, Jeb plays a guy who is a bit more straight than my character, maybe even a little bit still living in the 50s, maybe he is a scientist or office worker. My character is more free spirited, maybe she’s an artist of some kind, or has a vegetarian café. We share a love of music and jumping through fields of flowers. In the first section of the dance, danced to Joni Mitchell’s song All I Want, we meet and fall in love. In the second section, we have a romantic picnic, complete with bran muffins and a cantaloupe. A lot of the material for this section came from memories I had of eating with my hippie boyfriend. We used to have a moment of silence before we ate, thanking mother earth for the food. We always lit candles and burned incense. And we often smoked pot (I don’t know if you could see it on the video, but Jeb dances with a sage smudge stick and I roll a joint on stage – but don’t worry, it wasn’t really pot). Whenever Buffalo Springfield tells us to “stop” and look what’s going round, we stop. Or at least most of the time. Things are still pretty good into Joni’s Big Yellow Taxi, which is about the destruction of the environment. But my character starts to realize that our natural paradise is being destroyed, and our personal love-paradise starts to be affected. In the fourth section, danced to Neil Young’s song about the Kent State massacre, things are falling apart. At first, we are angry together, locking and popping into stills from an anti-war rally, and fanning the tear gas from our faces. Then, Jeb’s character’s rage gets out of control and he knocks me down, which makes me fly into my own rage and destroy the beautiful picnic we created together. We lose ourselves to anger for a moment. Then, after some deep breaths, we calm down enough to dance the final section, which is the elegy. We used Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, which is both achingly beautiful, and incredibly sad.
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock n roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try and get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
Later, she sings about dreaming that the bombers turn into butterflies. In this section, Jeb falls apart into sadness, and I mourn the loss of him. It may be just a breakup, it may be that his character gets drafted and dies in Viet Nam, or maybe he just takes a job working for IBM. But the loss, even if it’s ambiguous told in the language of dance, is very real to us. It speaks about the loss of the hippie values that we grew up with, and that we still cherish today.
In Hippie Elegy, and in all our work, we tried to make a dance that is legible, even to someone who has never seen a dance before. We believe that dance can tell a story, and in this case, it’s a story of two people loving and losing each other, or the loss of innocence. You may have interpreted the story slightly differently from how I describe it, which is fine. It isn’t a novel, and it isn’t a film. If we wanted a linear narrative, we would’ve made a novel or a film. We like it that dance, and this dance, can use a poetic logic, and can be evocative and even mysterious. We don’t want it to be so mysterious that you’re scratching your head, but we like it that two people can have very divergent ideas of what is happening. For example, there’s a moment in the first section, in which I lift Jeb’s hand over his head and spin him around, and then boogie around him in a circle. Maybe one of you thinks: Shes a feminist, and she’s literally manipulating him. Maybe another of you thinks: They’re at a disco, and she’s shaking her butt to try to attract him. Maybe another of you thinks: He’s really tall. You are all right, and that’s what makes dance such an interesting way to represent, or evoke histories.
One of the great ways that dance can speak to history or tell a version of history, is through the idiosyncracies of the human body. Bodies can be very beautiful, and there are forms of dance, like ballet, where the body is seen as perfect and ethereal. In the kind of dance we cherish, and especially in this piece, the bodies are imperfect. They sweat, they are hairy, they have big butts and crumbs on their teeth. They do not have plastic surgery. They do not do eyebrow grooming. They are human, and imperfect. So this is in and of itself a commentary on history. We want to remember and give voice to the embodied culture of the time. One reason we made this dance is that we cherish the memories of our childhood in the 1970’s, when people were trying to create new society, one without sexism (Free to Be You and Me), racism (interracial marriages), and class hierarchies (communes and coops). We are all disappointed at how little American culture has actually evolved from that moment in time when it seemed that we all wanted progressive societal evolution.
In Hippie Elegy, my character is groovy hippie, but she is also a strong, powerful woman. She is a liberated woman. Like my mother, she fights hard against expectations of women from the 1950s and 60s, that women should be meek housewives. But my character can’t change history, and can’t force society to progress and evolve. That is one of the emotions I am tapping into when I do my dying butterfly dance at the end of Hippie Elegy. In real life, when my 7-year-old daughter comes home from school and says: “Hey mom, Noah says that all girls are weak”, it makes me want to scream. I can just hear Noah’s dad making a sexist comment to him, and he parrots it to his friends, continuing the cycle of sexism. I understand that progress is slow, and things certainly weren’t all great for women in the 1960’s and 70’s (read Drop City by T.C. Boyle for a great rendition of this phenomenon). But at least back then there was a certain agreement that change was going to come.
Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’.
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drummin’.
Four dead in Ohio.
Gotta get down to it.
Soldiers are cutting us down.
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her and
Found her dead on the ground?
How can you run when you know?
From a website about the Kent State massacre:
Immediately after the Kent State shooting (sometimes referred to as the “Kent State Massacre”) on May 4, 1970, Neil Young composed the song “Ohio” after looking at photos appearing in Life magazine and then taking a walk in the woods. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young went to the studio and recorded the song, which was released to radio stations shortly after the killings. Soon, the lyrics “Four dead in Ohio” became an anthem to a generation. In some parts of the country, the song was banned from playlists because of its “anti-war” and “anti-Nixon” sentiments.
Let’s talk about protest and anti-war values for a moment. I assume that some of you are not against the war in Iraq, so you might want to put your fingers in your ears for a moment. One of the things I am most proud of about my parents is how they fought for what they believed in. To be specific, they fought the Viet Nam war and class injustice. They were part of the youth movement of their era, and as a result I grew up thinking that government was corrupt and that I had a duty to care about people other than myself, especially those less powerful. I think George Bush is a disgrace and the Iraq war is a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Another emotion I tap into in the final section of Hippie Elegy is the terrible sadness over the loss of life in Iraq. I feel it’s my duty to constantly question the status quo, in art and life. When I was in school, I questioned authority constantly, much to the chagrin of some of my professors. I guess you could say I was a punk hippie in that sense. I am a vegetarian anti-capitalist pro-sex feminist and am raising my children with those values.
I’m not here to tell you that you should be protesting the war and working towards a better and more just society. Although you should do those things. But in my life, I’ve found a way to incorporate my beliefs, and to tell the stories, abstract as they are, in dance. I don’t go down to DC to throw things at the White House, and I’m not a member of the People’s Labor Party. But I do make dances that reflect my beliefs that war is bad and bodies are beautiful. How do we connect now to the values of the 1960’s and 70’s? We listen to the music, we look at the art. We read the novels. We ask Uncle Alex to tell us about the Freedom Fighters. Then, we write the music, we make the art, we write the novels, we tell the stories, and we make the dances.