Andrew’s Big News


At the end of December, I will leave Headlong Dance Theater. It’s time for me to pursue work other than making dances.

Big news. For me and for the company.

Headlong has been my family for two decades. My work, my home, and my dearest friends. It has been a joy to partner with Amy and David in our never-ending quest to reimagine what’s possible for bodies, for performance, for Philadelphia, and for all of us messy, complicated humans. This work has made me who I am.

The urges for work I have now don’t fit easily in the world of performance. And the toil of keeping a dance company afloat has come to weigh heavily on my body and my spirit. So I will move on. I don’t know exactly what I will be doing, but I think of it as doing my same mission in a different field. Same purpose, different tactics. (Some things I’m interested in: writing, economic development, community development, anti-poverty work, and generally what happens when messy, complicated humans meet systems.)

David and Amy are moving forward, imagining Headlong with two Co-Directors, not three. They will continue collaborating, making new work, teaching, and doing community work. I’m sure they will treasure your thoughts and support (sent directly or telepathically) as they invent the future.

We have always tried to merge the biggest, most outrageous, most utopian thinking with a clear-eyed view of the practical world of timelines and people and budgets. I treasure this Utopian Pragmatism. I will embody it as I walk new pathways.

with love and gratitude,


Proud Papa


I cannot tell you how to watch this dance.


 …audacious, sassy dancers…

I’m reading a book called Ideas that Stick.  It says that for you to remember something I tell you, I need to follow 6 principles whose acronym spells SUCCES.  I’m not kidding.  Then the idea will live inside of you like that story about waking up from a bender in a tub of ice with your kidney stolen.  Or like the story about razor blades inside apples which stuck around despite the fact that it has never happened.  And weirdly, this one: that movie popcorn has as much fat as 5 disgusting, greasy, steak and soda filled meals.  I don’t remember hearing that story but I also don’t recall having to be told that food you buy in a mall or movie theater isn’t exactly good for you.

The S stands for Simple, I think one of the C’s stand for Core or Condensed or Concise, and I’m pretty sure E stands for Emotional.  I forget the rest.

I really do want to learn something from this book though because I’m the communications guy at Headlong and I have a bit of a problem with things that are complex abstract.  Problem being, I kind of like things complex and abstract!   I mean, if I were comfortable with the literal I would have known what to say to my parents when I was nineteen years old and they picked me up when I phoned them from a truck stop after I dropped out of college without telling them.  I was broke and cold, having just been robbed by another hitchhiker who I was sharing the back of a flatbed truck with as we cruised up interstate 95 in what seemed like, at 65 miles an hour in the rain, a very cold March. Instead of speaking sensibly to my parents, apologizing or explaining even a little bit, I just stared at them saying nothing, daring them to be mad enough to leave me there.

I’m thinking a lot about my parents right now, not just because we’re smack dab between mother’s and father’s day, but because sometime in the next month I am about to become a father–apparently to a daughter!  I am deeply blessed because, as the last of us Headlong directors (and so many of our dancers!) to have children, I already know that Headlong as a community is the best place in the world to raise children.  It’s the kind of community I wish my parents could have had when dealing with their unruly son.  I couldn’t feel more lucky, or grateful for Headlong and all the love and support we have as artists, as parents and people.

Okay, so that blinking picture up top was a bit of a cheat to get you to read on which you might not have done.  But if you have or are skipping ahead, then I am now ready to get to the point:


…proud papa with dancers after we performed at NCDC benefit…

In this picture and the one up top are the Headlong dancers from I cannot tell you how to watch this.  A new Headlong ensemble! I feel like a proud Papa! (That’s the theme here in case I’ve buried that in my digressing and convoluted way).  Most of these audacious, lovely dancers came through the Headlong Performance Institute, a cutting edge training ground and think tank we’ve been nurturing for going on 4 years.  These artists, like 40 other alums of the program, aretalented and sharp and many of them are making their homes in our fair city to become the creating artists, thinkers, and consicentious citizens of our future.  Okay, so its true that the irrepressible veteran Lorin Lyle is slyly standing among the youth.  If you recognized him its because you’re a veteran too and you can feel mama- or papa-proud, along with me, of these new young turks.You may be interested in coming to see I cannot tell you how to watch this, which premiers this weekend.   It shares something with early Headlong dances– it has talking, dancing, pop songs, sass and sincerity all wrapped up together.  If you want to read even more about this piece you can go to the seriously geeked out section at the end of this letter.This dance and much more will be part of the Sam-Gam BAM! concert at the Mandell Theater  June 17-25th at 7:30.  That’s a weird time so I am going to say it again.  Most of the shows start at 7:30pm.  There is one Sunday matinee that starts at the very reasonable time of 2:00pm.

Amy  Video
Get the hand on top, Amy!

Also in Sam-Gam BAM! is Amy dancing a punk rock Bharatanatyam solo that she created with Viji Rao. By nature Amy is a hard worker, but I have NEVER seen Amy rehearse so hard or so long on any dance before. She’s rehearsing in the studio when I get to Headlong in the morning. She runs through counting sequences when there’s a lull in admin meetings. And in the middle of other rehearsals when we’re taking water breaks she runs into the small studio and rehearses A Presentation of Items some more. I swear she’s possessed. She says this is the most difficult work she has ever done. Come see it!

Did I mention that I am going to be a father very soon?  Maiko is huge and life is very, very good. Thank you everyone who makes Headlong possible!



Maiko Belly

…like reading a dance, a pregnant belly presents clues to a hidden world.

GEEK OUT SECTION following the already impossibly long newsletter:  DON’T READ ANY FURTHER.  I haven’t finished theSticky Idea book so the following is, well, probably pretty slippery. …notes on I cannot tell you how to watch this. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we pay attention inside of a dance and in watching a dance.  What is the relationship between experiencing something and observing it at a distance?  I am curious about the different ways we record, map and experience an event, both as it is happening and afterwards.  My own mind jumps around like a grasshopper as I try to understand the secret world hidden beneath the surface clues of something I am seeing for the first time.

A corollary question concerns the profound unruliness and complexity of the human body.  Does the messiness of human presence need to be eliminated in order to create something legible?  Some choreography attempts to pare the dancing body down to a codified vocabulary, a set of positions that can be reiterated in variations and ingeniously reassembled, highlighting craft and virtuosity.  But I love unruly bodies as they are, with their complicated presences.

I love choreography because of how it can diagram the complexity of experience, containing contradiction and difference within the same instant.  I sometimes imagine choreography as a Joycean novel compacted into a few moments:  it would take hours to read a description of everything happening on all the different levels of movement, feeling, image and thought.  But in a dance so much can happen all at once.  We can see, hear and feel the intricate pattern of something very intensely and very quickly.  Yes, the moments disappear as fast as new ones appear, but a moment can be thick with information that resonates beyond itself.  What is the relationship between density and contemplation?  I do believe that the more attention we try to pay to things, the more there is to actually see.  I’ve approached the choreography of I cannot tell you how to watch thiswith this in mind.

Oh, there is one simple thing about this piece:  in this dance someone is always getting left behind.


Jet-Setting And A Little Nostalgia

Just when it seems like things are slowing down, they speed up again. The slow economy has meant less touring and therefore less travel for Headlong. I’m not complaining, really I’m not – Headlong has taken me to Japan, Spain, Portugal, New York, Portland, Nebraska, and other interesting places. But in recent years we’ve been more locally focused with our teaching and performing, which is nice because I get to hang out in my awesome dome home.DomeBut in the last couple of weeks I’ve had the pleasure of traveling from quiet rural Maine, to Los Angeles, and home again. Quite a contrast!


We’ve been working with a group of five faculty members from Bates and Colby Colleges. The group includes a wide range of ages and kinds of experience: three women with dance backgrounds, a young male actor/director, and even an older male lighting and set designer who has never performed. They wrote a grant to bring Headlong up to create a piece using them as performer/collaborators.

Rachel Boggia, Todd Coulter, Annie Kloppenberg.

Why? To explore the intersections of “Dance” and “Theater”, which are highly delineated (even segregated) in most academic settings, but not so much in Headlong’s working process. Also, to engage with each other in a very intense collaborative artistic process, which is a beautiful way to get to know other people as people and as artists. And finally,learn some of our creation and teaching methods that might be useful to them in their own teaching.

Process notes.

Other than single-digit temperatures and the kind of ethnic food you can only find in Maine (why do we even try?), the trip was great. Hunkering down, artistically satisfying, a lovely group of performers, and what could be better than drinking a bourbon with Mark Lord at midnight, planning tomorrow’s rehearsal?

east coast > west coast.

From there, I jetted off to LA like a jet-setter. I got to see the Grand Canyon from my window on the plane. I caught up on some scholarly reading, knowing I would soon see Susan Foster, who was my Dance Composition teacher and mentor, and is an all-around genius. In her new book Choreographing Empathyshe writes about our piece CELL in a way that gave me chills. Obviously I love performing for people, and CELL was one of my most favorite performing experiences. But reading Susan’s intelligent words, putting our research into a cultural context, made me just as happy and proud as any performing experience I can remember.

Plus, when Susan was visiting Philly in September, she got to see Red Rovers, and later over coffee, I was so touched to learn what she saw in it. What could be better than hearing your revered teacher from the past respect and understand your current experiments?

Red Rovers finale, taken by an audience member’s cell phone.


Once I got to LA, it was a whirlwind of work and play. I got to spend time with my dear friend Doran George, who was at the Center for New Dance Development in Holland with Andrew and I in the early 90’s.

Don’t ask about the blanket, OK?

He’s now a PhD candidate at UCLA, where faculty members include the aforementioned Susan Foster, Lionel Popkin, and Janet O’Shea, who studied Bharata Natyam with me at Wesleyan and is now a well-regarded scholar of that form.

Janet O'Shea

At UCLA I taught a bunch of workshops, shared news “from the field” with the faculty and the MFA students, and even had a 17-person site-specific dance made just for me.  Many of the undergrads are studio dancers whose ambitions seem to be dancing in music videos.  But they were surprisingly interested to work on Richard Bull improvisation structures, make “quick-and-dirty” dances, and hear about some of my “Life of the Artist” teachings.

While there, I got to go to LACMA with Miguel Gutierrez, who happened to be in town. We’ve known each other since my blonde days, too, and we still make each other laugh and laugh. (There might even be a super-secret collaboration brewing…shh!) And really, what could be better than laughing with an artist friend inside a massive Richard Serra sculpture?


with love,

Amy (home safe and sound)

Amy & Miguel

  • photo: Andrew Simonet

    photo: Andrew Simonet

  • photo: Andrew Simonet

    photo: Andrew Simonet

  • photo: Andrew Simonet

    photo: Andrew Simonet

  • photo: Andrew Simonet

    photo: Andrew Simonet

  • photo: Andrew Simonet

    photo: Andrew Simonet

  • photo: Andrew Simonet

    photo: Andrew Simonet

  • photo: Andrew Simonet

    photo: Andrew Simonet

  • photo: Andrew Simonet

    photo: Andrew Simonet

  • photo: Andrew Simonet

    photo: Andrew Simonet


A pedagogical and process project commissioned by faculty from Bates and Colby Colleges.


Avalanche (2012) was one part of a series of five creative residencies conducted in Philadelphia and in Maine in 2012. Members of Headlong Dance Theater led the residencies, which were initiated by faculty members in Theater and Dance at Bates and Colby Colleges. Our working terrain was the possible interconnectedness of fields of Theater and Dance and the potential synchronicity between the practices of these two forms. In addition to this piece, our output included numerous conversations, some private and several public, in which issues pertaining to this project were uncovered. Headlong members conducted public workshops with students at both colleges and guest taught classes.

Headlong doesn’t make performance in a prescribed “style”. We start our creative process with wondering and asking and develop a constellation of interests that form the core of the research on a specific piece. Given that the lot of us had never been in a room together before and had performance, performing, and teaching as common ground, our early explorations drew on these. Out of stories and questions come proposals and assignments. From explorations come elaborations. From five individuals a company arises and a performance world begins to suggest itself, a world that embraces everything within it and its atmosphere.

Being A Line

It was probably one of the best weeks ever for my mom, Sallie.  Last Sunday, my sister Rebecca met Michelle Obama at a swimming pool.  Their daughters were taking lessons at the same time.  My sister offered to teach the First Daughters how to knit, which made my mom proud.  We’ll see if FLOTUS takes her up on the offer!
Sheila HicksThen on Thursday morning, Headlong met and got to collaborate with Sheila Hicks.You might not know who she is, but if you are a fiber artist like my mom, Sheila Hicks is a living legend.  We met Sheila getting ready to rehearse a performance installation at the ICA, part of an afternoon of activities curated by our dear friend and sometime costume designer Kelly Cobb (Hotel PoolCELL).  Kelly asked us to create something in response to the Sheila Hicks exhibition.
David and I had spent time at the ICA taking in the work, which beautifully bridges the (artificial) gap between conceptual art and craft.  Her work is sometimes more abstract, sometimes more referential, always rigorously executed.  She plays with scale, and the materiality of her materials, which range from newspaper and rubber bands to linen, raffia, jute and other natural fibers.
Sheila Hicks happened to be at the ICA while we were rehearsing, and she talked to us about what we were planning, gave input on the costumes, and even collaborated with us on a section.  She brought down some gorgeous material that she had brought from France and suggested we use it in performance:
Mylar 2
We carried it through the space, laid it down, and then Erin wrapped me up in it.  Imagine the crinkly sound as I was rolled up and then unrolled.
Erin rolling Amy
David has been really interested lately in the idea of creating performances in galleries and museums and other visual art settings, and thinking about how we (the audience) view the body.  Any of you who saw our Big Reveal pieces that preceded More may remember a section where the dancers were lying down on the floor.  In that section, David’s instruction to the dancers was to become a line.  You are not telling a story, you are not revealing inner psychology, you are not “performing”. You are just being a line.
Big RevealBodies are lines
I learned something about David doing the ICA performance.  I think he wants to treat the human body the way a lot of visual artists treat their materials.  As material, not fodder for storytelling or revelation.  What is the form of the body?  How can looking at bodies lead to contemplation (the way we contemplate when we look at Hicks’ work) rather than satisfying an urge for entertainment?
Bodies near installation
All in all, it was a great week of exploration and research on these ideas.  And my mom was super happy.-Amy

Everyone Cried

Touring a piece is really different from everything else.
Ausitn 1
What will they make of us?

So we bring this piece MORE to Austin, the most challenging and audience-unfriendly piece we’ve made. People who go for the ride of MORE often feel moved and provoked. But it’s a tricky ride to go on.

People don’t know our work, and I think that helps. They don’t expect funny, endearing, accessible. And they do go for the ride, most of them.We have the best talkbacks I’ve ever been a part of. Real questions are asked. When the three co-directors worked separately in the lead-up to MORE, did you miss your other collaborators? That’s a hard question to be asked. And a good one.
Austin 2
Classes, Drinks, Documentaries

The amazing Phyllis Slattery plugs us into a ton of classes, talks, and workshops, like this one: Rebecca Rossen’s brilliant MFA class.

We have an amazing evening with the Rude Mechs, the brilliant Austin-based ensemble theater company.  They are a huge company: 6 Co-Directors and 28 company members or something ridiculous like that.  We have a delicious public conversation with them, savoring the moments of recognition, the fascinating evolution of their company.  Drinks, food, in a lovely old Austin guest house/home for art.

Like us, the Rude Mechs are having a full-length documentary made of their most recent piece. I told Lana, one of the Artistic Directors, that I didn’t think I could watch the documentary Byron Karabatsos is making about MORE.

LANA: What do you mean?  You have to watch it!

ANDREW: Well, are you going to watch the documentary about your company?


LANA: No.  No way.  Hell, no.

ANDREW: So I’ll watch yours and you watch mine and then we’ll go for a beer.

LANA: Deal.


Austin 3
500 Plays

We ran into Josh and Matt from Rubber Repertory (“tiny riots since 2002″), folks Kate and I met a couple years ago. Their piece The Casket of Passing Fancy sounds brilliant. 500 offers, each one used only once by one audience member. 500 tiny plays for exactly one person ever. One person sees it, it goes away forever.

Who wants to help an alcoholic mother change her baby’s diaper?

Who wants forgiveness? Who wants me to call their mother?

Who wants an intermission?

Who wants to have a song sung on their body?

Austin 4Migas                          

That’s David eating migas at one of the (too) many tex-mex places we visited.  By the end of the week, we were pleading for bean-and-cheese mercy, dreaming of miso soup.

Austin 5
More documentaries

Who are these filmmakers?  Shouldn’t they be covering Enron or whatever wars we’re in now?  Allison Orr uses a lot of people in her dances who are not professionally trained performers.  Her Trash Project brought 16 garbage trucks and 24 sanitation workers to a massive outdoor spectacle.

The last night we were there, I started talking to Allison about this Big Question I have:

Why are artists who are rigorous about community and situating their work NOT as rigorous aesthetically?  And why are aesthetically rigorous artists NOT rigorous about community?

We have separated those kinds of rigor, made them opposites.  I see it in my own work.  Allison has great insights: when you work in community, you are often limited in terms of time and training.  Sanitation workers are not prepared to rehearse the way professionals do.  They don’t have (or want, necessarily) performer skills of precision and the ability to remember set material.

But what about the reverse?  Why don’t artist making high art think rigorously about who it’s for, where it lives?

Austin 6

No MistakesCan you make a performance where there couldn’t possibly be a mistake?  A performer falls, the music cuts off, someone delivers a pizza, the set falls down…..everything would fit.  No matter what happened, the audience would never have that sense of Mistake, that sense that something had failed, been violated, or shattered the consensus illusion.MORE is an attempt at this.  Dancers drop what they are doing, interrupt each other, play music then cut that music off, walk off the stage.  Music doesn’t begin or end with dancing.  Everything in the space is carried on and off by the dancers.

We talked about this idea during the talkbacks.  After one talkback, Jaclyn, a sharp artist and thinker, came up to me and said:

“There was one moment where I felt there could be a mistake.  When the dancers bring out the trees and stick them in the furniture, I felt that rush and anxiety that they could do this wrong.  This might not succeed.”

Yes.  She’s exactly right.  That moment is success-based.  I want to think more about that.

Austin 7Hotels, CryingTouring with Headlong is dang fun.  And funny.  Lots of meals.  Laughing fits.  Proliferating nicknames. (Andrew=AndyPants=Pants=Panties=Pantalones)  Lots of taking care of each other, especially through performing this provocative, dislodging piece.

During the last performance in Austin, one of the dancers begins weeping onstage.  Sitting on the couch, tears are quietly running down her face.  Up to that moment, the audience has been raucous, laughing and getting riled up.  They get quiet, focused, intense.  They give the dancers a standing ovation at the end.

We come together backstage and take care of each other.  It feels right.

And I want to go back to Austin soon.

Austin 8

With hair like this.

Replacing Someone’s Body

Sometimes, you have to.  We’re about to take More on tour to DC and Virginia.  And dancer Christina Zani is now this pregnant:
Zani Belly  
Bodily changes are perfectly in keeping with the world of More: bodies appear, change, disagree, and go away.(Ideally, More would be performed once a year for the next century.  Dancers would gradually lose their ability to do the movements, then – not to be too morbid – die off. Six dancers, then five, then four.  The final version would be a solo.)
Foot Band Stretch  
But because Christina’s due date is during our tour, she can’t perform as Pregnant MoreDancer.So we have to replace her. But dancers are not interchangeable, not in our work anyway.Like most companies that make original work, we don’t just “teach someone the role:” we adapt the role.  Amy volunteered to step in, which helps a LOT, because she went through the whole process of making and performing More.


Christina injured her Achilles tendon during the making of More.  Rather than replacing her (the normal choice in the dance world), we included her injured body in the piece. She does a duet in a wheelchair, and, later, this solo in the wheelchair that is one of the emotional pivots of the performance:

Zani Wheelchair  
When you try to “get a dance back,” by running through the movement and looking at video, you have a lot of conversations like this:NICHOLE: It’s here where we’re usually…..[PAUSE]

AMY: I remember that.

CHRISTINA: Yeah I think we just…..

NICHOLE: …to make it easier to get the wheels in the right orientation.

AMY: Yeah, that’s the….


CHRISTINA: …and making it seem less intentional.

AMY: Yep.


AMY: Cool.

Dancers also vibe off of each other physically.  Put them in proximity and they will start to move together and breathe together.


And after a few rehearsals, Amy is ready to step in to the duet with Nichole.


Since you’re still reading, here’s an image Kate Watson-Wallace (dancer in More) sent me:
This is a stunning piece by Doris Salcedo and it captures something about the tone and verb of More.Excess.Abandonment.




Time scales.


It’s so important to know that artists in other mediums (like Doris Salcedo) are making powerful discoveries about the questions I keep asking.


Especially when the questions we are asking – as in More – have a lot to do with loss.







Yes, sometimes the artist does.  I went to some lovely places in the past few months.  Like when I fed this rhino 
Andrew with Rhinos
at the amazing White Oak Conservation Center. My dear friend Colleen Keegan, one of the brilliant creators of theCreative Capital Professional Development Program brought me to visit this amazing place.  Philanthropist Howard Gilman made White Oak a home for two geniuses he came to admire: Mikhail Baryshnikov, who based his White Oak Dance Project in this beautiful studio
White Oak
and conservation biologist John Lukas, who has created the premiere rare animal conservation center in this hemisphere.  It’s astonishing.  We had dinner with John and his wife.  And we got to meet this ridiculously cute baby rhino, so adorable I’m gonna spring for a second rhino photo: 
Sixty endangered species are bred at White Oak and studied as part of a global effort connecting zoos, animal sanctuaries, and land conservation efforts.  And right next door, experimental dance artists create new work.Nice.

After that, I headed to Camp Choconut for the wedding of David Brick and Maiko Matshushima.

Then I headed to a dune shack in Provincetown, MA, for a week long solo artist retreat.  They drive you through these huge dunes that look like this
until you get to this shack 
where I spent a lot of time writing 
with this pencil 
because the shack has no electricity.  So no laptop.  Writing with a pencil is different.  You have to plan more.  You can’t just spew some nonsense and then clean it up.  A great practice for me.I had never taken an artist retreat by myself.  God, why not?  Headlong has had some wonderful retreats, and they are always big noisy affairs with lots of people and schedules and rehearsal spaces.  This was just me and a two-room shack and a lot of silence. It took about a day to really come to rest.  But then I did.

It was amazing. Please remind me to do this every year.

The last natural place I went was right off the tip of Manhattan.

Gov. Island
Governor’s Island is well worth the 800-yard ferry ride from Manhattan.  The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council hosted a five day Creative Capital workshop for 50 New York artists.  I taught on two of the days and the artists were fired up.  They were ready to change the world, and it was a beautiful thing to be a part of.That’s one of the things I spend my time doing, traveling with some hilarious other artists like this one and this onearound the country, teaching artists how to build sustainable lives.  In Philadelphia, I do it in a program I started called Artist U that offers a year of planning and professional development to 12 local artists each year.  Here we are at last year’s graduation in June:

Artists U
Sorry JJ, I cut you off on the bottom there.Artists can have a pretty rough ride.  I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of people in the last five years thinking about why that is and about how that might change.  There’s a nice interview with Ruby Lerner here about Creative capital’s approach. And I also like the thinking of these folks.

Artists U is planning an expansion to two new cities and that has me thinking a lot about scale. Funders are obsessed with it these days: what are the best practices?  How can we get “to scale,” i.e. replicate a program to an extent that it will have broad, national impact?

So I got stuck on this thought, deep in my dune shack solo: there is a lot of arrogance in the ambition that I (and others) have for Impact.  We want to change things thoroughly, permanently, broadly, immediately.

I saw an announcement today: a group wants to get “health insurance for every artist by 2014.”   A nice sound bite, but what does that thinking really do to us?  So now, back in the urban jungle, I am trying to combine my ambition with a little more balance. 

There was a square of sunlight in the dune shack.  In the middle of the day it was on the floor, and then it crawled slowly up the wall till sunset.  It was the closest thing I had to a clock.  I made dinner when it was chest high on the wall.  And I went out to watch the end of the sunset when it turned orange near the ceiling.

Are you still reading?  How nice of you!  Here’s your bonus track:  Someone made a movie about us, a documentary you can see on September 13 .  One night only!  This is the picture to promote the movie, and it captures Headlong in our very first Philadelphia studio in 1993.Some things I notice: how high Amy wore her pants, and how low I wore mine.

And we shared the studio (at 20th and Snyder) with a band who kept changing their name.  For a while they were called Naked Culture and you can see it spray painted on the right there.

much love,Andrew Simonet
Headlong Dance Theater

India Does Amy

I do believe in reincarnation, and karma.  I believe that most of the good things that have happened to me (meeting Andrew and David, Headlong’s success beyond our wildest imaginings, having a wonderful community of artists and friends, meeting my husband when I did, having two healthy and brilliant kids) are all because I do my darndest to be kind to the Earth and its inhabitants.

When I was young, my dad was a devotee of  Guru Baba Muktananda and laterGurumayi Chidvilasananda. I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning, drink chai, chant the Guru Gita (ignore the weird image, just listen to the chant), and then go to school.

So of course, when I got to college at Wesleyan, I took Bharata Natyam.

LiveArts image

My teacher, Kay Poursine, had been a student of Balasaraswati, regarded by many dance historians as one of the finest dancers in the world in her lifetime.

India 4

I loved Bharata Natyam, which is much more physically difficult than any Western form I have studied, including ballet.  I loved the acting implicit in the abhinaya, or story-telling pieces.  I loved the math element, learning to count in 7s and 13s, and executing physical math puzzles, like doing a 7 with your top half while doing a 3 with your feet.  And I loved the religious/spiritual aspect of the form.  The devotion to the guru/teacher, which for me felt familiar.

India 5

Plus I looked pretty cute in a sari, don’t you think?

Over the years, Bill Bissell at Dance Advance (the dance funding arm of the Pew) has taken scores of artists on Professional Development trips, mostly to go see dance or visual art pieces in other places.  Bill invited me to go on an amazing trip in February, the most ambitious Dance Advance trip yet, with 6 Philadelphians (3 Indian, 3 non).  We spent 10 days in Delhi, not only seeing work and experiencing the culture, but doing a daily movement practice as well.   We did Experiential Anatomy with Mark Taylor and studied Mohiniyattam, a classical dance form, with Bharati Shivaji and her daughter Vijayalakshmi.  Mohiniyattam is related to Bharata Natyam, but much softer and more lyrical.

India 6

Everyone told me to be ready for the abject poverty, including begging children, some of whom have been maimed by their pimps so they collect more money.  It’s hard to see that up close, even if you know it’s coming.  And the trash.  And the stench!  Delhi smells like burning tires.  Infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired (every Republican Senator who honks about “smaller government” in the U.S. should go to India to see what it would be like if we had less road improvement, less regulation of emissions, fewer building codes, less regulation of water pollution, fewer sanitation services, etc.).  But somehow most people make do, even thrive.  Spirits are high.  Spirituality is everywhere.  A cliché, but you see it with your own eyes, and it turns out to be true.

India 8

Ganesh was everywhere, which was great for me because he is the Remover of Obstacles.

India 9

Mark Taylor is a beautiful man and beautiful teacher.  So full of knowledge, but not full of himself.  I’ve had encounters before with Body Mind Centering, which Mark studied and then found his own path. But it’s amazing to me that after all these years of thinking anatomically and about alignment, there’s still so much I don’t know about the actual structure of the body.   I keep thinking about Mark’s image of the “two footed foot”.   The first three metatarsals and the final two serve two totally different purposes.  The body is a miracle.

India 11

Bharati is a gorgeous lyrical dancer, a calm and generous teacher, and a Good guru in a culture where Bad gurus abound.  Or at least I think they are Bad, when I hear the stories about them [13 year old daughter tells her dance teacher father that she wants to study other classical dance forms, he stops speaking to her FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE].  Mucho reflection on my relationships with my dance teachers – have I given them the acknowledgement they deserve?  As a teacher myself, am I finding the balance between offering a strong point of view but encouraging them to find their own paths?After some very interesting sharing of our artistic histories and practices, Mark set us up in “arranged marriages” to explore possible future collaborations.  I got set up with Vijay Palaparty, a Bharata Natyam dancer and choreographer based in DC.  Though his work is quite traditional, we share a love of absurdity and a sense of humor and play about ourselves and our work.  We immediately started by working with each other on mini-pieces, then got into some shared interests.  It turns out that Bharata Natyam has named these two movement worlds:  “lokadharmi”, or familiar, every-day, natural movement, and “natyadharmi”, or stylized, high art movement.  Sounds like Headlong, huh?Vijay and I talk about an idea our forms have in common, and we come up with the idea of “sitting”.  We make a hilarious improvisation structure based on that idea, featuring Vijay doing Bharata Natyam movement to my a cappella rendition of “My Milkshake”.  High art, low art.  Loka, Natya.You can check it out here, along with other short videos shot by Merian Soto.In Bharata Natyam and Mohiniyattam, the face is used to tell us about the psyche of the dancer/character.  Why is there still so much of The Cunningham Stare in Western dance?  Why is using the face still so rare in American contemporary dance?  All of this makes me want to study more Indian Classical dance, both for body and face.

And I want to keep working with all of the people from the trip in one way or other.  It was overwhelmingly invigorating, personally and artistically. For those of you feeling particularly voyeuristic, here’s my journal.

I think I must be accumulating good karma.  Thank you, Ganesh.


Amy’s India Journal

Amy’s India Journal
“Over the years, Bill Bissell at Dance Advance (the dance funding arm of the Pew) has taken scores of artists on Professional Development trips, mostly to go see dance or visual art pieces in other places. Bill invited me to go on an amazing trip in February 2010, the most ambitious Dance Advance trip yet, with 6 Philadelphians (3 Indian, 3 non). We spent 10 days in Delhi, not only seeing work and experiencing the culture, but doing a daily movement practice as well. ” – Amy

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Dancing with the Dirt Eaters

Dancing with the Dirt Eaters
“I wrote this because of thoughts that came up while we were planning the Headlong Performance Institute and thinking with the faculty about how to train students in dance theater.” – Amy

The Dance Insider Essay, 2-7:
Dancing with the Dirt Eaters
Time to bring cross-training to U.S. Dance Education

By Amy Smith
Copyright 2008 Amy Smith

By now, many of us in the American contemporary dance community can agree that we have lost our place of prominence on the world stage. Europeans and Asians used to come to New York to hone their craft at the knees of the great teachers and choreographers of the 20th century. Today, young American dance artists go abroad to learn new techniques and choreographic concepts, and to soak up the sophisticated, irreverent, boundary-pushing atmosphere of European dance.

When my partner Andrew Simonet and I were about to graduate from college in 1992, we knew we wanted to continue our dance study — but where? Some of our peers went to Austin to study with Deborah Hay in her months-long intensive program, but we wanted a broader experience than that. Others of our peers moved to New York and hit the usual studios and workshops — Movement Research, Dance Space, etcetera — but we couldn’t afford New York, and we didn’t just want to study dance techniques, we wanted choreographic tools. A graduate program at most universities would’ve been too dance-y. I think it was actually Deborah Hay who suggested that we check out the Center for New Dance Development in Arnhem, Holland, where she had taught.

We applied and were accepted at CNDO as guest students, and went for almost a year. There we were immersed in an intensive program (10 a.m. – 5 p.m., five days per week) where we learned dance-theater techniques and tools from people like Steve Paxton, Stephanie Skura, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and other luminaries of the contemporary dance world. We dove into dancing and dance making with other dancers and dance makers from all over Europe and the world. We learned how to lie on the floor for hours, how to feel our sit-bones (and each other’s sit bones), how to speak and scream and use our faces in performance. Andrew and I jokingly and lovingly called our cohorts there “the dirt eaters.” These artists were not concerned with pirouettes and jumps. They wanted supple spines. They wanted to yell about injustice in their native tongues and call it a dance. They wanted to eat dirt on stage and roll around in it. Needless to say, it opened our eyes wide to the possibilities of dance as a theatrical form.

It was funny that we had to travel thousands of miles to study with Americans, who were the majority of the faculty at CNDO. Why weren’t these people teaching in the U.S.? Stephanie Skura landed at the University of Washington, but most of the teachers we had in Holland didn’t have a teaching home here in the States. When Ishmael Houston-Jones teaches at the American Dance Festival, which he does often (I accompanied him there one summer as his teaching assistant, not long after meeting him at CNDO), he is seen as the Token Weirdo as much as he’s the Innovative Genius. I’m sure some of it is by choice, their not wanting to be full-time teachers or get bogged down in an institution, but I suspect that these boundary-blurring dance artists have often been denied the respect they deserve by the pedagogical dance institutions in the States.

Years later, now that Headlong Dance Theater, the company I founded with Andrew and David Brick in 1993, has teamed up with some of our peers in Philadelphia to start a semester intensive program for college students in dance-theater, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. Why don’t we have an accredited program for studying New Dance or Dance-Theater here in the States? Where do college students or recent graduates go if they want to immerse themselves in dance-theater training? There are a lot of cities even outside of New York, like Philadelphia or Chicago, where one can go learn from the scene and start making work. But where can people go to learn the tools? In a word, Europe. Or, specifically, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the U.K..

Sara Wookey, an American choreographer who recently returned to the States after spending 10 years living in Holland, thinks the Pina Bausch effect has a lot to do with the acceptance of dance-theater in Europe and the focus there on actually training dancers to be good performers and creators. “In America people aren’t used to this kind of dance, using character [and] humor, with relationship issues played out like in Pina Bausch’s work. She’s the founder of the form, and a lot of [the aesthetics of much of the European dance scene] is driven by her work and how it’s trickled out into other European countries.” From Wookey’s perspective, teaching at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam, the European dancers she encountered living in Holland] are often less strong technically, but more creative. They actually study voice, somatic work, Body Mind Centering, and other forms as part of their dance training, rather than focusing solely on technique.

Wookey also noticed a big difference in how citizens of Europe and the U.S. value dance art, which has a big effect on how the artists are trained and the art is seen. “In Europe, people spend less time at work and have more time to see art, and do continuing education. The general citizen in Holland takes a dance or art class or creates as a hobby. They have an engagement with culture in their leisure time, and our U.S. obsession with economic gain has squashed that.”

Similarly, Janice Im, a recent Swarthmore graduate (who performed with Headlong in our piece “Cell”), says that at the London International School of Performing Arts, where she’s now studying, she’s “being given tools to not only become a better performer, but also a better person. I really appreciate the fact I am looked at as an individual, and the lessons I am learning are not just on the craft of theater, but how to live in a healthier, more connected and conscious way. In the U.S. I think the usual conservatory program’s approach is… the sink or swim approach — your days are crammed with classes and projects, and you are overworked until you have no life outside of the program. Here, the program is intense, but it is not our whole life. People can work part-time jobs outside of class; they have time to go to the museums, performances, etcetera. There is a lot we have to observe from everyday life, and bring with us to class. We have time to breathe, and absorb what we have been learning. It all feels more balanced, somehow.”

Melanie Stewart, a choreographer and dance professor here in Philadelphia, went to Europe in the mid-1990s to learn from the man who taught the people whose work she loved: “I went to Europe to study because I had the opportunity to see dance/movement-driven theater in Edinburgh unlike any I had seen in the U.S.. Much of the work forged new definitions of dance for me — companies like DV8, Volcano Theatre (Wales), John Wright Company, Complicité, and Benchtours. I decided it was time to go to the source — to study with Philippe Gaullier, who most of the artists I worked with had trained with. I did two ‘stages’ with Philippe — one in ‘Bouffon’ and one in ‘Clown.’ I also studied movement with members of Complicité while at L’ecole de Philippe Gaullier in London. It is hard for me to describe, but my experiences with this work in the U.S. has always felt like an imitation of something.”

One aspect of the weakness, or watered-down nature of dance training here in the States is the false dichotomy placed here on the separation of “Theater” and “Dance.” Most training programs, whether college, conservatory, or even studios, separate the students based on genre. If you want to learn about clown, or using your voice and your body simultaneously on stage, you’d better cross the pond. Maybe we have the French clown pioneers to thank for that?

…. And speaking of clown pioneers, one of the hybrid practitioners that Janice Im extols is none other than Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, James Thierree. But in addition to such cross-disciplinary projects, she also points to “major collaborations between prominent cutting-edge artists in the same field, like between Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and between Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant. (Click here and here to read Dance Insider reviews of these respective projects.) Then there are also fun, irreverent companies like Constanza Macras/Dorky Park from Berlin (reviewed today on the Dance Insider) that are reinventing the idea of contemporary dance performance. Here in London there is a genuine enthusiasm for anything that’s new and exciting in the performing arts, especially dance — people will buy tickets and shows sell out very quickly.”

I’m sure there are many reasons why Londoners care more about dance-theater, pre-eminent among them the UK’s long tradition of narrative dance. But having training programs filled with students and faculty from around the world, crossing disciplinary boundaries and making work together can’t hurt. It’s good for the young artist students, the faculty, and the audiences. (And the public shows its appreciation not just by turning out for events, but through state funding including the National Lottery; check out Siobhan Davies’s relatively new building if you don’t believe me.)

Come on, ADF. Come on, Bates. Come on, university dance programs. You know who you are. Aspiring artists need this stuff. We need to be figuring out how to train the next generation of dancers and choreographers right here in the United States. Yes, they need to know how to jump and turn. But they also need to learn how to eat dirt.

Amy’s Notes on Hippie Elegy

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.

Explanatorium Blog

We were invited to contribute to a blog at the Inquirer about the process of getting Explanatorium up and running. Amy, David, Andrew and Mark posted their thoughts, images and ideas about the inexplicable:

Headlong’s “Explanatorium”

A look inside the performances of Headlong Dance Theater at the Phila. Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe.


David Brick, Andrew Simonet and Amy Smith founded Headlong Dance Theater in 1993. They collaborate on all of the company’s dances, and over the years, have created more than 40 of them. Many of their dances offer a witty take on contemporary culture.

David, Andrew and Amy will blog their rehearsals for “Explanatorium,” which they will perform at this year’s festival. The piece explores what happens in the time between when an event is perceived and when it gets explained. Brick calls it “a visceral ritual of not knowing in luminous union.” Performances take place in the faded glory of a massive, domed sanctuary of an abandoned Christian Science church.

September 15, 2007
Am I Blue?

Tonight’s the last time the mother ship leaves The Explanatorium. The final time the organ pipes resound in the voluminous sanctuary we’ve been calling home for the summer. The last chance for us to try to reverse the big bang. The last time (probably) we’ll go home to comb snow out of our hair.

There are always reasons to be maudlin at the end of a run. So much of our selves is performed in this piece. And so much of the audience comes to us as we perform it. Although we’ve been collecting stories for months and months, they still seem fresh and new. And there are a world of possibilities we might try out…if only this wasn’t the end.

If you’ve read this far, you should have figured out that tonight is your last chance too.

Good news to accompany this little burble of solemnity:

1. Headlong will be back. First Friday showings will start soon (check the website for details —

2. If anyone has a giant, sanctuary-like domed structure with an oculus, we’d be happy to do The Explanatorium there (or even in a different type of space). Just be in touch.

3. If you are engaged by Headlong’s work AND you’re a college student (or know one), you should know that next fall (2008) Headlong is inaugurating a partnership with BRYN MAWR COLLEGE. The HEADLONG PERFORMANCE INSTUTUTE is a semester-away program for students interested in dance and theater performance & creation. It’s 14 weeks and a full semester of courses, taught by some of Philadelphia’s leading dance/theater artists. Go to for info.

Posted by David Brick on September 15, 2007 8:59 AM

September 10, 2007
Up and Running

The Explanatorium functions, on one level, as a series of invitations to the audience. The piece asks you to step inside it, to explore some ideas with you…even to move around a bit to “change your point of view.” Conventional performance attempts all this (when we’re on our game) but Headlong has gotten interested in making these words manifest. This piece really puts its heart where its mouth is, by inviting the audience into it.

Although we rehearsed, explored, and experimented with our First Friday audience as we were creating the piece, there is simply no preparation for the performers that really prepares them for what it will feel like when they ask 150 people to do something…and they all simultaneously choose, pretty freely from my point of view, to do it. Something happens in the room where we realize that the piece is largely in the hands of the audience. And it feels as if a space ship is lifting off. As if the performance is or might go to a place that no performance has ever gone to before.

That, about the space ship, is a metaphor. Still. And, happily so (to me).

We DO explore the possibility of other worlds in The Explanatorium, and some people (including performers) may think of this as one of the central aspects of the piece. I, personally, am totally captivated by the possibilities of THIS world and, as I watch and participate in the piece each night, I’m mostly struck by the denseness of the sensual world. What brings me into the piece are the simple, but mostly overlooked, aspects of this world that it calls my attention to. Moving air, sound traveling, the height of a ceiling, the articulation of a dancer’s gesture, all these things take me deeper into this world. Deep enough that, sometimes, as when I am on my back looking up at the ceiling, this world feels as mysterious and full of posibilities as another one.

Note to self: at cocktail parties, when people ask me what I do, respond I’m in analogue reality.


Posted by David Brick on September 10, 2007 7:14 AM

September 6, 2007
“Yes, I’ve been hagged”

Had a great dress rehearsal last night. One of my favorite parts was being outside where the audience is milling around before they go in. I ask people if they’ve ever had an “intense paranormal or supernatural experience.” A surprising number of people have. Sometimes I have them write their story on an index card for our collection, sometimes I ask them if they’d agree to be interviewed later about their story, and sometimes people are willing to tell me, but don’t want to share it any further than that (which is fine). Last night’s interview story was a doozy — I just have to share it here. I asked my friend Kelly the question and she said: “Yes, I’ve been hagged.”

She was sleeping in a dorm room in North Carolina, and she woke up to the sensation of someone or something sitting on her. She shut her eyes and waiting until the thing went away. The next day she called her boyfriend to tell him about it, and a friend of his explained: certain old-lady widow ghosts, or “hags”, like to sit on people who are sleeping in the rooms they haunt. The remedy is to pee in a cup and put it under the bed, and the hag will go away. Kelly tried the remedy and it worked.

Oh, the gorgeous inexplicableness!

Posted by Amy Smith on September 6, 2007 11:14 AM

Dress Rehearsal

There’s a moment before every dinner party and before every opening when suddenly you begin to have glimpses of how your guests/audience might see your choices. All along you’ve been planning to serve what you love, have shopped for the ingredients, have prepped everything and have set your table in ways that make sense to you. But suddenly (and always at the 11th hour, with the water boiling and your partner in the shower) you begin to question everything.

As we begin to prepare to share THE EXPLANATORIUM with you, we’re excitedly rethinking our choices, fussing with the details, and generally behaving like anxious hosts. This is a familiar feeling to all of us who make performance. It’s the feeling of our private expressions preparing to meet the public, our innerworld finding its way to the outerworld. For The Explanatorium, our excitement is perhaps greater because the audience is such an integral part of the piece. There are aspects of the work that we won’t see until you do and we’ll all find out together what’s inside the delicate crust of our precious Baked Alaska.


Posted by David Brick on September 5, 2007 7:53 AM

The Fringe Vibe

Last night we went to see FLAMINGO/WINEBAGO –which was swell, and I recommend it highly, but that’s not why I brought it up. It was the first time I’d been to Old City since the surge of Live Arts/Fringe Artists has landed there. One of the great pleasures of making work in the Fringe is being a part of this larger-than-any-one-of-us friendly takeover of a neighborhood. On your way for coffee, or to the National, or to the hardware store (there was a time when Old City had actual hardware stores with actual hardware) you’d run into fellow travelers, other artists working through their own creative and practical problems. I felt a great sense of warmth in that and, when I could, I chose venues for my own work (ENDGAME, ACROSS, ZONE) that kept me close to the center of the fringe vibe.

For those of us on the margins of society (and I think almost all artists, no matter how much they earn, feel themselves located here) an occasion to meet one another in the context of the making of our work is a real boon. Creating works of performance is hard work. We’re simultaneously wrestling with our own deep dark inner visions, AND trying to articulate those often unsettling visions to our collaborators in language, AND trying hard to hear what’s going on inside them, AND working through the kinds of problems that attend making a performance (it’s too long, the theme won’t come clear, the performer can’t do what I want, a costume is too ridiculous) compounded by the fact that we’re mostly working in makeshift venues (the roof leaks, L & I came, what do you mean it won’t ever get dark). In making work for the Fringe/Live Arts Festival, we are all really pushing ourselves towards our limits. And running into someone who’s traveling a similar road can be really sublime. A gentle but crucial reminder that, even as we try to bring our deepest darkest doubts or our most out-there imaginings to the stage, there are others doing the same, in other basements and alleys and theaters and bars, all through the neighborhood.

Working on The Explanatorium in West Philly, I’ve been apart from that vibe this time–until I saw Thaddeus’ show last night. And I was glad to feel the warmth of the vibe coming back, as we ran into friends, colleagues, former students (it was great to see you Scott!), other artists AND…people we don’t know. People who we recognize as fellow travelers by their presence here. I recognize a bond between me and the other people clutching their 3-D glasses, wishing there was AC in the Bride but keeping their attention, our collective focus, on the perpetual inventions of the Lucidity Suitcase team.

As I think about it, our piece is really a way of trying to make The Vibe a little more present, so that we and our audience can feel it and work it and think about it. We made the decision to ask the audience to wear blue to the show in an intuitive way, but now I’m thinking that it’s asking people to put on their sense of belonging and of wanting to belong. To dress in your desire to be a part of the creation of something, something that gets made out of simple materials, right before your eyes, something that you can be a part of.

There is a generation of us who have come to our maturity as artists in this Vibe, in the gentleness, the warmth, the frenzy, and in the simpatico juices of our mutual endeavors. The Explanatorium is, on one level (and it has more than one), a welcoming place for the artists and the audience who thrive in this.

Mark Lord, dramaturg

Posted by David Brick on September 1, 2007 7:38 AM

August 30, 2007

Last time I wrote, I said we needed to find the tender, vulnerable heart in this piece, find a way to share this delicate thing in this grand space. Well I think we found it yesterday. And it was hard, but I really think the new material works. I am so relieved! Mark Lord, our dramaturg wrote this following note about tenderness to help us all orient our characters and remember what it is we’re doing here:

Think about how to articulate the entire piece: the meeting structure.

Who we are is a group of people who come together from all over the place, mostly from the bottom end of the stick that stirs society. We are the subprime sublime. And we gather in this abandoned shell of a beautiful truth beneath a peeling plaster sky. Because we have faith in some mystery that stirs in us and which we see stir in one another. Hamlet says I have that within which passeth show. And we see that in ourselves, each other. It’s like a handshake so secret we don’t know the grip-only the memory of the feeling of solidarity it might bring.

So. We gather here.

We open ourselves to ourselves. We raise our doubts. We risk humiliation. We incarnate propositions and play them. We could all be leaving this earth tonight-we don’t know…and we seek to revel in our awareness of not being sure. In our sure moments, we incarnate certainty-but we never take it for granted and when it rests on us (horndance) we feel its glory, and its fleeting.

We open ourselves to one another. We tell our horrors and trust our vocabularies are not too…whatever. We hope to be understood.

We open the whole process to the audience. We accept that they may well reject it. They may not want to join, to walk, to stand, to share, to be honest. But our only encouragement for them is our own nakedness, our own good humor. Our willingness to fail. Our strong desire to be together in the light of the setting sun, in the failing light, in the dusk and, eventually, in the snow in the dark.

We should approach each part of the piece as if this coming together, this opening, are never far from us.

Posted by David Brick on August 30, 2007 8:37 AM

August 29, 2007
How they make these things (as it seems to me).

This is Mark Lord, the dramaturg for Headlong. I’ve been working with the company for the better part of a year on The Explanatorium. In this entry, I just wanted to give you a little bit of a sense of how we’ve been using our time.

The piece began with some fascinations with things that are inexplicable (to us, or rather, to some of us.) And, as I remember it, we started talking about things that could begin with the sentence, “Now here’s something I can’t explain.” This led to explorations of some out-there stuff (crop circles, UFO sightings, alien abductions) and some discussions of perception, the limits of language and the ways that we like to perceive/experience performances.

In addition to sharing these ideas and research, we started to collect stories from people we knew or met about things they couldn’t explain. And we began to play games and to explore improvisational dance structures that allowed us to explore these ideas. We showed much of this work at Headlong’s monthly First Friday series (check out the web site,–it’s the cheapest date/best place to introduce your kids to culture/best respite from the Maddening Crowd on First Friday–end plug). These showings gave us a chance to test ideas in front of an audience. And, as our ideas have developed, being able to develop a sophisticated, authentic relationship to the audience has proved to be a Big Deal.

Each of the performers brings the wealth of her/his experience to this work. That means we can draw on all kinds of theater/dance vocabularies. And, between them, the performers are this incredibly funny, relentlessly inventive, smart gaggle of movers. I feel so delighted to come to work everyday to watch them interact.

And having this great big deserted sanctuary space to inhabit has given the piece its own playground and sense of itself. Perhaps I’ll blog later about the rotunda. Here, I’ll just say that it’s an awesome place to work–it inspires us.

As we finish shaping the piece, I’m happy to be able to see where all of the ideas came from and how they’ve threaded themselves into the piece. I’m excited to see that games that began as wholly innocent explorations have settled into the structure of the piece to be mature and dense ruminations–without ever losing their charm and their distinctly Headlong sense of smarts and cleverness. And ideas that seemed too cerebral for the piece to address are easily and confidently wrapped up into our work now.

Each aspect of the piece has been made by indirection, by experiment, and by conversation. Our ideas found movement presence that way. Our presences have found their ways into games and structures and stories. And those, now, have been woven together into an experience that we are excited to be shaping and preparing to share with an audience.

MARK LORD, dramaturg

Posted by David Brick on August 29, 2007 8:46 PM

Wheel In the Sky Keeps on Turnin’

One of the things I keep thinking about as we work on Explanatorium is the general lack of spiritual practice among the people I know. Being in the Rotunda everyday, I often imagine the Christian Science congregation coming together decades ago to sing hymns and hear sermons and create community. So much contemporary American culture is about Materialism and Consumerism, and the Christianity I encounter often feels crass and unspiritual. As artists, we create communities of deep caring and fellowship — our “chosen families” of fellow artists. But most of us don’t engage in any kind of disciplined spiritual practice. Doing Hatha Yoga doesn’t count. Are we unconcerned with our spiritual selves, put off by the available choices, or just too busy to fit it in?

As these things often go, I’ve been inundated lately with coincidental messages from the Guru, as it were. When I was growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my dad and stepmom were followers of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. I got into it, too. Besides being a typical pot-smoking, punk rock, jazz-dancing teenager, I also woke up every morning at 6:00 to drink chai and chant the Guru Gita. I went to the ashram in South Fallsburg, New York and received shaktipat (the ritual bopping with the peacock feathers) and got sandalwood paste put on my third eye. My boyfriend at the time was into it too, and after we broke up he moved to India and changed his name to Prashanti. Various internal goings-on in the Organization put us off and we stopped practicing. Also, I went away to college, and its pretty hard to meditate and chant in your dorm room. I just sort of drifted away, and frankly didn’t think about it too much until this summer.

Weird coincidence #1: In June, Andrew and his wife were visiting friends in California, and he ran into Prashanti, whom I haven’t seen in about 10 years. Weird coincidence #2: I finally read “Eat, Pray, Love”, the spirituality memoir, in which the author goes to Gurumayi’s ashram in India for 4 months. All the practices and characters were so familiar. Weird coincidence #3: I do tax preparation for artists as a side gig, and a few days ago I found out that one of my tax clients is a follower of Gurumayi. We talked for a long time about the Guru and how hard it is to have a spiritual practice in this life…

Lying on the floor in the Rotunda, looking up at the sky through the Occulus, pondering the great mysteries and chanting “EYES” (more on this later), is the closest I’ve gotten in years to a sense of spirituality. Maybe Explanatorium (and the weird coincidences this summer) will inspire me to return to the Guru, or more likely some other kind of spiritual practice. Or maybe I’ll just keep living my life, trying to See God in Each Other as much as I can.


Posted by Amy Smith on August 28, 2007 3:38 PM

August 28, 2007
shaky, terrene world

Today was tough. There are big disagreements about what needs to happen now. We have 3 rehearsals left before tech. The differences are submerged. Andrew, Amy and I float suggestions as if they are small things that need to be tweaked. But these mild suggestions are masking deep disagreements about the aesthetics and tone of the piece. And ultimately an idea of how the thing is going to work, what the audience walks away with. How would I frame the disagreement? I think that Amy’s concerns have to do with theatricality and formality. She might say that we need to weave the sections together more tightly so that parts are clearly referring to each other, are clearly linked to each other. She wants repetition and reinforcement of main themes and ideas on a structural level and a theatrical persona that is clear for everyone inside and outside the piece. Amy is a formalist. What does Andrew want? He wants the dance to work on a deep level of relevance and still be playful. Not heavy or clever or neatly tied up for its own sake. He wants it to live up to his dearest hopes for a work of art – that we the performers and the audience play together being as awake as we can be. He wants the vehicle for that play to have no false notes because everyone can smell a false note and won’t trust or risk if the deep sense isn’t there. And me? I don’t know. Amy and Andrew might say that I err on the side of inscrutability. Idiosyncratic preferences. But I just know when something is working. I have filters that are hard to explain. But I know when the poetry of something is coming across– when things are impossible to define and yet full of music and meaning. It’s hard to make arguments about exactly what will and what won’t work from my point of view. How do you collaborate with someone whose point of view is, I know it when I see it? I sympathize with them having to work with me! Really. Funny thing is-and this is why we’ve worked together for 15 years — we would all agree with the importance of all the points of view I just laid out. It’s a disagreement over emphasis. And what a particular emphasis ends up meaning.

We’ve all tried putting the material together in different versions so far. All have been interesting and problematic. I’ve been charged with this last phase of pulling it together. I have the authority to take decisive action. Of course it is understood that I will be conscientious about understanding everyone’s concerns. In other words, I’m in the hot seat. But I think I know what we need now. I don’t know what it looks like, but I know what we need.

We’re just missing a layer, maybe a moment, of tenderness and vulnerability. The piece is amazing and complicated and very big in an odd, funny way. The space is enormous, beautiful and grand. The Explanatorium is full of ideas and haunting stories, and the audience circles around, 200 people at a time, all dressed in blue which makes it even bigger and more full. And what the piece needs is something small and very human to ground it. And that soulfulness is there, we’ve worked on it. We’ve worked from that place – the place of knowing that we can feel so small and fragile in this world that we can’t always explain: a world that we yearn to explain, and yearn also not to know too well, to instead feel mystery and magic. I think we just have to put that small, vulnerable thing back in this magnificent space full of big ideas. And there we will tether this big balloon to our shaky, terrene world.

Posted by David Brick on August 28, 2007 1:52 AM

August 26, 2007
The Deep Blue Sea

People keep asking me if they really have to dress in blue when they come to the performance. That’s what our blurb in the Live Arts program says and they wonder if it’s a bit of a joke. The answer is, yes dress in blue. We have been warned that that’s setting a high bar for our audience: you’re going to keep people away! They’ll just decide to go to some other show that’s easier. But I disagree. I think plenty of people are hungry for meaningful experiences that involve very different kinds of consciousness and decisions from, say, watching television. There ought to be stakes in live performance. We come together with other people in real space and time. Wearing blue for the performance is our way of saying that we are going to deal squarely with the fact of us all being in a room together. Dress in blue, we’re ALL dressing in blue. Lets make this funny, surprising choice together and see what happens! And dressing in blue says that the experience of EXPLANATORIUM starts before entering the space and continues on after leaving the Rotunda. And of course the blue-dressed community becomes an important part of the piece: image, idea and experience all at once that is a crucial part of how EXPLANATORIUM works. I can’t wait to see it– our capacity is 200 people per performance and I think its going to look beautiful– a glittering, blue sea of people in variegated shades and patterns. Of course it might not work. People might not go along with wearing blue. But it’s an experiment and it’ll be fun to see what happens.

Posted by David Brick on August 26, 2007 3:05 PM

August 25, 2007
Sneaking into Boo Radley’s place…

EXPLANATORIUM takes place in an abandoned Christian Science Church. Its a magnificent, beautiful space. I can’t believe we get to use it. It has a huge 8-paned oculus at the center of a domed sanctuary. It has a massive pipe organ towering above the pulpit. Everything in this place is geometric and round. I feel surrounded by a heavy gorgeousness of rationality in this architecture which in turn is suffused by the light of the divine filtering in from above through the ornate and heavenly eye of the oculus. I love the curious mix of science and the sacred that pervades this space. Sometimes as I look around, I feel like I am inside the saucer of a space ship and I think, oh! science fiction is all about these twin yearnings of rationality and faith, the celestial palm of god navigated by the unstoppable mind of man.

I also feel like I am in a haunted house when I am in the Rotunda. Like me and my friends have just snuck into Boo Radley’s place. Or some empty building somewhere, an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of a field…. I want to share this feeling with the audience, that we are exploring some lost building with our best friends. Its spooky and thrilling and if we all make it out unscathed then we’re going to be closer than we were before…

Andrew, Amy and I are co-directors of this piece, as in all of Headlong’s work. We conceive, create, direct and perform together. This complex interplay of our visions, personalities and lives, hides beneath the attribution of our work that says simply: choreographed by Headlong Dance Theater. In collaborating with each other and all the amazing people we work with, we ask ourselves, how can we tap everyone’s intelligence and passion to make the most visionary work possible. We believe every work of art needs to have a strong, singular point of view, not a recitation of thoughts by a committee.

In this project we are working with an amazing band of creator/performers: Nichole Canuso, Geoff Sobelle, and Niki Cousineau. The three of them each direct awesome companies of their own. We are very lucky to be working with them. Mark Lord is our dramaturg/ co-conspirator. He’s recently become a 4th voice at the creative/ conceptual table of Headlong. His insights during rehearsals are brilliant, original and provocative. The three of us co-directors teeter on new ground with him in the mix. He’s like a new-found sibling that our parents gave up for adoption before we were born.

I feel like I need to lay all this out at the top of this blog because so often people want to know who is really responsible for making our work and wonder how it gets made. We are so deeply a collaborative company – a community of individuals with strong personalities and even stronger ideas that are often at odds with each other. Rehearsals are a laboratory to find the idea that matters. We make work from scratch, without a script or a piece of music as a starting place. Ideas, conversations, and our experiments are our starting points and slowly we begin to grow a piece. There is a magic in how this works, an ineffable alchemy that transmutes our bodies and minds into a work of art that is greater than any one person could conceive. This blog will be a refraction of our process in these final days of putting EXPLANATORIUM together. I might be the main lens of this refraction, here in this blog. But I am not the author of EXPLANATORIUM, we all are.

If you want to know more about Headlong and our work you can always go to


Posted by David Brick on August 25, 2007 11:07 AM

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Amy’s Shosha Blog

Amy’s Shosha Blog

We taught for a week at Concord Academy and performed for their Summer Stages Series in the summer of 2007.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

I have loved the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer for a long time. When I find a writer I like, I often just read everything they wrote, which I did with Singer when I was in my twenties. He wrote in Yiddish and English, short stories and novels, about life in rural Poland and life in New York City. Being half-Jewish, I always felt a little bit interested in Judaism and the struggle with Judaism depicted in Singer’s books. But Singer was first and foremost a humanist, which is how I most strongly connected with him. Of all his books, “Shosha” stuck with me over the years. For one thing, I always pictured David (Brick, Co-Director of Headlong Dance Theater) playing Ari — there is something about David’s stage personality that is both sympathetically laughable and tragic the way Ari is in the book. And I always pictured Nichole (Cousineau, Company Member) as Shosha. Nichole’sexpressive face and “holy fool” clown character are perfectly suited to Shosha, who is childlike, and even mildly retarded in the book, though more spiritually connected than the others.

After a few years of talking about it, I got Andrew and David on board to think about how we would make the piece. First of all, everyone in the cast read the book, and we worked with Mark Lord as dramaturg to help us think about the framing of the piece and collect relevant images, text, and video. “Shosha” was written in the 1970s and takes place in the 1930’s as World War II is engulfing Warsaw. Its original title was “Soul Expedition”, which refers to the communal meditation on free-will free-love experiments undertaken in the fantasies of Ari’s circle of intellectual friends. We tend to think of the 1970s as the time when people broke free from oppressive societal norms in favor of libertarian ideals, multiple sex partners, feminism. But the 1930s in Warsaw was also a time of such experimentation, at least according to Singer. The character of Ari represents the struggle between tradition and modernity, and the uprootedness that can come from sudden freedoms.

It wasn’t long into the process that we realized that the group that puts on the dance play of “Shosha” needed to be characters other than our contemporary selves. Mark turned me on to the diaries of Judith Malina, who with Julian Beck started The Living Theater in the 1970s, and we watched videos of their work and the work of Peter Brook. In many ways, the experimental theater groups of the 70s were Headlong’s philosophical and artistic predecessors (of course, the Judson Church movement was also hugely significant for us). So we started playing with the idea of setting the piece in the 70s and having Andrew (Simonet, Co-Director of Headlong Dance Theater) play the Director of this group, which is trying to put on the play-within-the-play of “Shosha”. We watched videos and did theater exercises to get into “character” for these characters, at the same time developing the movement material for the “Shosha” sections, which more or less tell the story of the novel in a series of wordless scenes.

Another aspect of the piece that felt especially relevant to us was the “personal as political.” In our contemporary time, there’s a lot of struggle about how to be a moral person, a good person. If life isn’t about he acquisition of wealth, or the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, what is it about? Without religion to guide us, how do we make choices? In Headlong and in our community of friends in Philadelphia, we think about these questions a lot. And our opposition to the the war in Iraq feels relevant to the 1970s characters we play, who were meaning-seekers and political activists, and opposed the war in Viet Nam.

So all of these ideas were swirling around our artistic process, and all of these ideas are part of “Shosha”. Singer’s book was really a jumping off point for a series of characters, scenes, and visual pictures. I was reading an article in this week’s New Yorker and a quote by Peter Brook really stood out for me — it reminds me of “Shosha”, and I hope a lot of Headlong’s work: “A play in performance is a series of impressions; little dabs, one after another, fragments of information or feeling in a sequence which stir the audience’s perceptions.” I hope this piece induces that stirring.

Amy Smith
Headlong Dance Theater
July, 2008

Amy’s Dominican Diary

Amy’s Dominican Diary
In May 2006 we brought Hippie Elegy to the Encuentro de Danza Contemporanea in Santo Domingo. Amy, Jeb and Anna learned how to live in the delicious way that they do in the Dominican Republic, thanks to Mundo Poy and Pedro Alejandro who devised and organized the EDANCO festival. Amy wrote about her experience here:

Dominican Diary

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Fun travels with Anna and Jeb. Anna reading Lonely Planet, Jeb reading restaurant reviews in New York magazine, Amy attempting sodoku. On the way into San Juan, Anna and I realize that we know nothing about Puerto Rico, even though they are our colony. Are they U.S. citizens? Do they vote or pay taxes? What passport do they have? How sad that educated Americans know so little about our compadres to the South.

Arriving in Santo Domingo, we realize that Mundo Poy, the organizer of the festival, will have no idea who we are, and vice versa. How will he recognize us? Of course immediately upon exiting the airport we hear “Headlong?”. His first words to us are: “Welcome to the Dominican Republic, time to relax.” I immediately love this man. We pile into the tiny van of young Guillermo, who dances with Mundo. He pops in a Doors tape and puts on the red interior light, and we have a nearly hallucinogenic ride along the sea into Santo Domingo proper. A midnight torta con queso and fried plantain (Cuban sandwich for Jeb) later, and we fall into bed.

Thursday, May 25

The longest day in history. Mundo picks us up at 8:00 to go do tech rehearsal at the space. The theater is an exercise in contradiction. It’s a beautiful, well-designed facility, with a nice sized stage and about a 500-seat house. But the air-conditioner is broken, there’s no water, and toilet paper is scarce. Thank God Anna can speak some Spanish – she manages to communicate our lighting and sound needs to the staff. Jeb is entranced by the crazy scaffolding on wheels, with a plywood platform on top for focusing lights. The man who climbs it does so barefoot and shirtless. There is definitely truth to the idea of “Dominican time”. Everything starts a bit late and people aren’t where they should be, when they should be. But by some miracle, we run through with lights and sound almost perfect.

There isn’t anyone in the audience when we run through “Hippie Elegy”, but the tech people seem to really enjoy it, which is pleasing. I imagine the question of “is it dance?” is in people’s mind, but they truly enjoy the humor and theatricality. I think it’s a welcome change for them to see everyday-type people doing everyday-type things on stage. Most importantly, Mundo loves it. His aesthetic and value system are very close to ours, from how he describes his work and his life.

We briefly meet SilverBrown Dance. Eva is much more strong-willed and leaderly with her dancers than we are – the egalitarianism of Headlong’s aesthetic becomes pronounced in the moment of watching her tech in her piece. The work they are performing is an abstract quintet to classical music, in the style of Mark Morris. Proficiently danced, with lots of nice patterning, but not innovative or conceptual (to my eyes) at all.

One structure we have been doing a lot of at the end of warm-up is a get-to-know-ya sort of dance-making structure: we make a big circle, one person steps out into the middle, invites someone out to dance with them, and they make a dance. Others may join, too. Lots of nice following, contact, and short minimalist dances. Sometimes music informs the tone, but they are very open in style.

After a long rest in the hotel, we walk up the Avenida Independencia to the Plaza Independencia. There is some kind of vault there (dead founding fathers?) and an armed guard instructs me to remove my hat. We wander down a pedestrian street full of vendors selling carved wooden tchotchkes and cheapo clothing stores. Jeb sticks out quite dramatically and attracts a lot of attention. Anna gets the up-and-down from about half the men we pass. They are appreciative, but polite. I get suckered by a 12-year-old boy into letting him shine my shoes (which are sandals, with only about 8 square inches of leather). He asks for $5 and I give him $2, which is more than I paid for a pair of beaded earrings from a street vendor. The third-world economy can be disheartening.

Next, we hit the oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere, built in 1520 out of native coral. It’s stunning. A guard instructs Anna to put a pareo on over her sleeveless top. Men are constantly trying to sell us guided tours or send us into the shops. It’s tiring to have to say “no, gracias” every 2 minutes. Makes one long for the American puritanical politesse of not speaking to strangers. On the other hand, one kind man goes out of his way to help us cross the street (the Malecon, a beautiful seaside road, with 2 lanes of cars whizzing by in each direction), just to be nice.

We find a little restaurant and drink beer by the sea for about 2 hours. We watch a man fishing on a small concrete jut and the kids swimming in their tighty-whiteys, carefully avoiding the trash littering the beach. It feels like it must be dinner time already, but it’s only 3:00. Ay, dios mio. The sun is hot on gringo skin. There’s a reason most people take a siesta in the early afternoon.

We stagger back to the hotel. Napping, reading, staring at the fan for about 3 hours. Finally at 8:30 we go out for dinner. A sweet place on the Malecon that makes their own pasta, and has Italian food that rivals South Philadelphia’s best. A welcome treat for me and Anna, who have eaten nothing but queso tortas all day.

When we hit the hay at 11:30, all agree that it has been the longest day in history. Somehow the Dominican relaxed time-sense has infected even the time-sensitive Americanos.

Friday, May 26

The day of our first performance. Mundo picks us up early to go to the theater for a morning dress rehearsal. The first piece is by a Dominican choreographer, an emotive high-modern ballet, ostensibly about the Mirabar sisters, who were Trujillo martyrs, I think. The sisters grimace and stretch their arms out pleadingly between renverses and stag leaps. There is a chorus of about 10 young dancers, who bring on fake flowers and gauze capes for atmosphere. At one point, they form an upstage line with buckets of water, which they splash on themselves (and all over the stage), and the final image is of the sisters dying in a red down spot with water pouring all over them. Why did they make this the first piece of the evening?

After a stage wipe-down with 2 Scooby-Do comforters (?), Jeb and I do our thing. It feels good to have performed the piece so much over the past year that we are really easy and playful within it. Thank god Anna brought her laptop, as the CD version of “For What It’s Worth” doesn’t play the vocals when they play it through their sound system. Weird.

A surprising pleasure is the third piece on the program, by Maricarmen Rodriguez. A trio for 2 actors and one dancer, the piece is a neo-clown dance theater romp. The three keep fighting over, sitting in, and wheeling each other around in a shopping cart. Their monologues, which I got partially translated, are making fun of stereotypical egomaniac types: the sexpot woman, the intellectual revolutionary man, and the lesbian artist. The performances are amazing. The dancers use their faces and voices and find full-body characters in a way that reminds me of Philadelphia dance theater work. They are fluid and precise, and do some amazing contact with and on and inside the cart. I hope we can figure out a way to bring the piece to Philly, or at least stay in touch with Maricarmen. She is so humble and lovely I smile every time I see her. And it’s fun sharing a dressing room with the trio, who are all funny freakers, even if we can barely understand each other. We give Maricarmen a DVD of Mixed Tape for a Bad Year, which she says is incredibly refreshing for her to see. She especially praises the intimacy of the work and the subtlety of character, which, she says, is much-needed in the D.R. (as evidenced by the Sisters Mirabar piece).

We have lunch at the home of Chiqui Viciosi, a famous playwright and dramaturg here. We briefly meet her husband, who was a huge figure in the democratic revolution and much revered. The lunch was arranged by Pedro Allejandro, who heads the Dance Dept. at Wesleyan, and is the reason we are here in the D.R. He has brought his spiritual guide, a plump dark woman named Brigida, who is mostly quiet, but brings a nice energy to the room. I think she is some kind of shaman/priestess. Also joining us is Polibio Diaz, a photographer and conceptual artist who shows his work internationally. He is an especially fun person to talk with, as his artistic ideas are very parallel to ours. After seeing the piece, he tells Jeb: “your work is good art – it dismantles the walls of the classical tradition and builds new walls in its place”. He tells me that he loves the “ruptures” of Hippie Elegy, from the body types and costuming, to the every day actions on stage. Over rice with corn, chicken, salad, and coconut macaroons, Mundo talks about how important the cultural exchange is (this is finally starting to dawn on me), and tells us that we are the first international dance companies to come the D.R. So this is a truly historical event, and one that will probably have huge and long-lasting effects here. What an honor and a gift.

Later in the afternoon, Anna teaches a ballet class (thank god again for the multi-talented Anna) and I teach a “contemporary dance” class to teenage girls. They are very focused and sweet. I give them a floor warm up with X rolls and leg swings, and teach them the Headlong Slide, which they enjoy. Then we do some basic contact and they make short partnering duets. Very fun and totally brand new for them.

Opening night is a huge success. The audience is enormous and includes many big-wigs, which makes Mundo really happy. The Interior Minister is there, and there are lots of speeches and congratulations. The audience really gets “Hippie Elegy”. I hear laughter right away, and feel the attention from the audience later in the piece when it gets sad. (More on audience responses later.)

One funny and indicative moment comes during the curtain calls. There is a lot of fussy, ballet-type hierarchical bowing for the Sisters piece, and then the rest of us bow, but the choreographers get their own bow, which I don’t participate in. I think of Jeb as being such an integral part of the making of the work, that it feels weird to take more credit than him. It’s bad enough that they don’t put dancer bios in the program (only choreographers). Alas, old habits die hard in the dance world.

After the show we all go out to a restaurant on the Malecon and eat and drink into the wee hours. Guillermo brings his friends Jean, a handsome, fedora-wearing Haitian, and Renato, a painter. They love “Hippie Elegy” and express deep satisfaction in the rule-breaking the piece implies. Renato describes the contorted gestures in “Woodstock” as “broken doll”, or “broken classical”. In broken English and Spanglish. What fun.

Saturday, May 27

Unfortunately, another early morning. Another cheese and bread breakfast. At least this time I know how to order the orange juice that doesn’t have added sugar. But the reason we go to the theater early is a beautiful one – teaching a workshop for professional (or at least college-age) actors and dancers. This is where the real knowledge and aesthetic passing on will happen, and I really feel a pressure to bring new ideas to this tiny burgeoning artistic movement.

There are about 12 people in the class, including Wendy, who translates for me. I think there are about half actors and half dancers, but several of them, I can’t tell what their background is. I split the time into three parts:

Physical Response: we start with Skinner releasing lines of energy and go into walking and gentle moving with the partner giving lines. Then the partner starts more assertively giving manipulations to the mover, and they make some beautiful improvisational duets. Half the group watches the other half for a while once we get into it. Then we switch roles. I talk briefly about how they could go forward with manipulation and response (changing up body parts, the quality of touch, using it as a tool for setting movement material, doing a Stephanie Skura lines-of-force responding without touch, etc.)

Contact Improvisation: we go over basic contact skills (lean, counterbalance, surfing, etc.), then dance openly for a while. Again half the group watching after a while. They watch very attentively and learn a lot from watching. I’m glad Jeb is there so I can show certain skills and how they can go further with contact. I even describe how a Jam works, and later one of the dancers tells me that she and another student want to start a monthly Jam.

Talking Improvisation: Jeb and I show a mini-version of “Permit” and teach the basics of the structure. Then two pairs dance the piece for everyone else. Both versions are funny, touching, and beautifully danced. Even not knowing Spanish, I can catch the drift of the questions, or sometimes get the wonderful surprise of not knowing what the question was about and just seeing the action it referred to.

At the end of the workshop we talk a lot about being real and being human on stage and how appealing that is for the audience. A lot of discussion about the relationship between audience and performer being intimate and two-way. They really get it in a way that makes me so happy for the future. One young woman asks “is it wrong that my teacher says when you are on stage you should think of a blank wall instead of the audience?” My response: There are some forms, usually more classical ones, where that idea of the audience could be helpful. But for this kind of work we want to see the audience, and invite being seen in all our shared humanness. That giving up the idea of super-human performers can lead to a much more satisfying experience on both sides.

The political implications of Headlong and “Hippie Elegy” are really profound in this culture. There is a serious tension between the laid-back, go-with-the flow attitude of the larger culture of the D.R., and the dictatorial, hierarchical nature of most of the dance culture here. Mundo is very sensitive to this idea, and is so happy that we can share new ideas with the young generation of dancers and choreographers. He’s been working on it for 20 years, but inside a school and dance culture that is very classical and traditional. He hopes that Headlong confirming his value system will help push the point. And push the form(s) into new directions. I really want to do this for him as best I can.

After the workshop we went back to the little pool at our hotel and had a nice afternoon with Pedro. Pedro’s scholarly work is about the movement differences between chimps and bonobos, and how our human brains are constantly switching between the two. The chimp is about aggression, regulation, militarism and direct movement. They move like football players, using their arms to locomote. The bonobos are more childlike and play-oriented, bisexual, with less social heirarchy. They locomote more with their pelvises and have round bow legs.

According to Pedro, many of the comments he heard from people after seeing the show were extremely complimentary to the playfulness and liberatory nature of “Hippie Elegy”. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if the Dominican audience would enjoy the piece, because so much of it is about American music, hippie culture, and history (Kent State, Woodstock, etc.) But what they responded to most powerfully was the nature of the movement and the delivery system, not the content. And they deeply understood the politics of individualism and egalitarianism that were part of the working process and were visible in the work.

Some people said we looked like animated dolls, not in terms of flatness of affect, but in terms of the playfulness of the piece. They mentioned my bowleggedness (the anti-ballerina legs) and African roundedness, which had to do with the low center of gravity and human shape my body makes. I could hear the audience specifically enjoying movement moments like when I spin Jeb around and dance around him in a circle with my butt wagging, or when I dance around with the muffins, as if alone in my living room or stoned in a night club.

People saw a respect for individuality and unity in the movement choices, in contrast to the unison, virtuosity-oriented, and uprightness of the ballet piece and Silverbrown’s work. Pedro also said the picnic scene in “Hippie” was poignant to the Dominicans because their lives are so infused with magic and ascribing magical powers to objects. They have a fruit drink down here called “to die dreaming”, which says it all….

Others said they loved the simplicity and elegance of the gestures, which was echoed by Maricarmen when she looked at our dvd of “Mixed Tape”. According to Pedro, the piece being about “the democratic body of liberation” in a dance world that is “under house arrest of classicism” was a gift to the audience. I was extremely touched to hear that. And it brought home again the significance of us being here. Not just the performance, but the teaching, the conversations, the connections large and small we are making here.

Saturday night the piece went very well again. At one moment the CD skipped — Jeb and I both said a silent prayer on stage, and in true vodun fashion, it miraculously stopped skipping.

Speaking of prayers, Mundo’s car has been named by us the “caro milagro”. He’s been driving all week without a clutch (!) in his ancient Russian (!) car. There’s a steep hill on the way to the theater, and every time we attempt ascent, we chant “caro milagro”, in hopes that we won’t have to get out and push. The traffic and driving style here is insane. Stop lights (which are few) and signs are more of a suggestion than a rule, and accidents and near-accidents are common.

After the show, Jeb, Anna and I go to the pedestrian walk, the Conde, to find a place to eat. While drinking our beer we run into Guillermo’s friend Jean, the Haitian actor. He sits with us for a while, convinces us that the food isn’t very good at our chosen place, and takes us to get falafel. Anna and I dig in like starving people, which we practically are, given the paucity of vegetarian options here. Later, Jean takes us to Park Duarte, where people hang out at night, drinking Presidente and chatting. We meet up again with Guillermo and his crazy painter friend Renato and have a great time. The only difficulty is that no one speaks English, so Jeb and I have to use our brains a lot to understand and communicate. Luckily both of us know French and another Latinate language (Jeb Italian, me Latin), so we have some basis for guessing the Spanish words, and a facility with picking up language.

Boy oh boy will I insist that both my kids get a working knowledge of Spanish.

Sunday, May 28

The day of the last performance. For the first time, we can sleep in and have the afternoon free. After a nice breakfast of mangu (mashed plantains) and eggs, we wander around the city. Anna takes some alone time, which unfortunately is undermined by the friendly and/or hustling Dominicans who keep talking to her everywhere she goes. Jeb and I check out a flea market and wander down the the Plaza Hispanidad, where we watch some skinny young boys playing baseball. Then we see a Butoh-esque performance by an armed guard at the vault where all the revolutionary heros are buried. He walks every-so-slowly down a red carpet, then stands at attention for about 10 minutes before being replaced by another guard.

The final show is the best one for us as performers. For some reason, in the rage at the end of the “Ohio” section, I felt so full of rage — it was like a faucet was turned on and my body just went crazy. Maybe the terrible injustice of the poverty here? Whenever I travel, I am reminded of how lucky I am to have been born in the United States. Though I love the spirit of the Dominican people, I miss the freedoms of choice I take for granted at home.

After the show a big bunch of us go out for food and drink. For the first time since we arrived, we hang out with the Silverbrown dancers, who are lovely and fun. Stylistically, the are quite the opposite of Headlong, rehearsing all day, a two-hour company class every morning, etc. By contrast, Jeb and I drink beer into the wee hours and do a little contact to warm-up before the show. Mundo is so pleased with how everything has gone — the audience reception, the artistic exchange, the personal connections made. Jeb and Anna and I wholeheartedly agree. It’ll be sad to leave this place.

After the group hang, we go over to Jean and Renato’s grungy apartment. Jeb and I buy paintings from Renato, who only paints clowns and cats. We hang out more with Polibio, who has a brillant artistic mind and a great sense of humor. I hope to stay in touch with him. He’s had pieces in the Venice Bienale and the Havana Bienale, so I tell him I’ll see him in New York.

Monday, May 29

Mundo has arranged for the Americans to have a day or two at the beach at Boca Chica, a resort town about 20 miles from Santo Domingo. The hotel that donated the rooms is an all-inclusive resort populated mostly by Americans. It’s nice to sit on the beach and swim in the water, and drink pina coladas with the other dancers. But there is something surreal and disheartening about the lack of connection with the local culture here. After the depth of connection we had in Santo Domingo, it feels selfish and shallow. But rest is good, and tomorrow we go home!

Amy’s 2003 Kyoto Journal: Part 1

The initial exchange introduced us to the amazing Takeshi Yazaki. He and his company, Arrow Dance Communication, were our long-lost siblings, closer to us spiritually and artistically than any company we’ve ever encountered. We put together a project with Arrow and spent six weeks in Kyoto at the end of 2003, creating You Are So Beautiful. These journals are from that extended residency:

Amy’s 2003 Kyoto Journal

Part 1

After a crazy adventure (missed connection, unplanned stay in Dallas), we finally arrived in Tokyo. It felt like midnight, but we still had a full day ahead of us. We went to the performance space, which is in the Park Hyatt tower, where “Lost in Translation” was filmed. There, we were met by Lang, the English-speaking tech director, and a bevy of extremely efficient Japanese staff. Luckily, our living quarters were nearby at the Olympic Memorial Center, built in 1964 in fabulous moderne-Japanese style. The rooms were tiny, but beautiful, and there were amazing views.

After a delirious late-night run-through with our TAKE THREE translator, Mineko, we finally hit the sack. The next day, we had a rehearsal, then tech, then dress rehearsal, then performance. It would have been a super-busy day even if we had not been suffering jet lag. The other groups on the bill were from Russia and Costa Rica, so it was a very international and varied program. Unfortunately, the evening was billed as dances that use humor, which they did to very different degrees. The Russians were funny at times, and the Costa Ricans were absolutely unfunny.

We performed SWINGINGING and TAKE THREE. SWINGINGING went well, although really not very funny to the Japanese. TAKE THREE was a challenge — trying to work the translator into the dance and still staying true to the piece as we usually do it. But the audience seemed to enjoy it and we were happy with how it went.

The next day we did a short presentation at the Tokyo Performing Arts Market, the Japanese version of APAP. There we ran into Bill Bissell from Dance Advance, and Ellis Finger from Lafayette College. It was surreal to casually run into people we know from the States in the middle of Tokyo. Ritsuko, who is one half of the Japan Contemporary Dance Network, along with husband Nori, took the train with us back to Kyoto, where they live. She helped Rich and I get settled, showing us how to use our appliances and taking me to the supermarket. Thank god we can cook — it really helps us feel more normal when we can eat a home-cooked meal of something familiar, especially when the rest of the day is spent wondering what is in what we are eating.

The first day we had a lunch meeting with Takeshi (Arrow choreographer), Megumi (dancer and translator) and met their third dancer, Kentaro. We talked a little about possible ideas for the piece and how we could get to know each other.

So far now it has been about a week of rehearsal, with a usual schedule of 10-5 with a break for lunch. Every day a new person leads warm-up, which has been really fun. They vary from set exercises to very open dancing structures. People generally try to teach in their nonnative tongue, which is difficult, but fun. The day I lead, I tried to stick to patterns that are simple and repeat a lot, so that after learning them, we can just keep doing them, with “mouikkai” (repeat), and “hantai” (change) as the only imperatives. Learning the body parts has been hilarious. On the first day, I taught the Japanese the song “head, shoulders, knees and toes,” which we then also did in Japanese. That led to us playing with an idea that might actually end up in the piece, a song about body parts (for example, “hana, hara, hana, hara, hana, hara, me” = “nose, belly….eyes”).

One structure we have been doing a lot of at the end of warm-up is a get-to-know-ya sort of dance-making structure: we make a big circle, one person steps out into the middle, invites someone out to dance with them, and they make a dance. Others may join, too. Lots of nice following, contact, and short minimalist dances. Sometimes music informs the tone, but they are very open in style.

It is truly amazing how much we have in common with Arrow. All three of them are great funny people, and all three are dancers with lovely technique and very good improvisers — a rare combo. In terms of aesthetic, Takeshi is interested in a lot of the same ideas we are, even to the point of being just formal at first and letting content come later (this is a radical idea, I think, even in the States). He likes to use talking and singing in the piece and is into lots of different ways of working (give an assignment, set a structure, set movement to music, are all on the plate).

I worry a little about Headlong dominating the Arrowhead process, because we are three and Takeshi is one, and because we are doing most of the talking in English, and because Takeshi is by nature (and nurture, I suppose) a shyer person. But we have been fairly intentional about asking his opinion and giving him lots of decision-making power. So far, at least, I think the collaboration has been quite equal and mutual, and I am really excited about what we come up with.

I’ve also been really happy with Nichole and Christy’s participation, which has really been great. They bring a lot to the table, but know when to step back and let the many choreographic voices have their chat. Their teaching and dancing and connecting with Arrow has been a pleasure to see.

A brief list of some of the ideas we’ve been playing with:

Conversations in which one person speaks Japanese, one English. Dancers dance to the sound of the talking.

Singing “Nothing Compares to You” with upside-down faces while Megumi dances a solo.

Translating dance into English, Japanese, nonsense.

Women’s quartet – four sisters intertwining and competing.

Men’s quartet – a zen square dance to a slow sad country song.

A map of the U.S. made out of bodies. Amy leads Takeshi on a honeymoon/tour.

Amy sings a Japanese soul song while other women do a jazz dance based on classical Japanese gestures.

Duets, mostly one American, one Japanese. About connecting or not connecting.

So that’s all for now. We’ll just keep playing and working until the dance gets made!

Andrew’s 2003 Kyoto Journal

The initial exchange introduced us to the amazing Takeshi Yazaki. He and his company, Arrow Dance Communication, were our long-lost siblings, closer to us spiritually and artistically than any company we’ve ever encountered. We put together a project with Arrow and spent six weeks in Kyoto at the end of 2003, creating You Are So Beautiful. These journals are from that extended residency:

Andrew’s 2003 Kyoto Journal

Saturday, December 7, Chicago O’Hare

The thing about missing planes is that you encounter the full gamut of customer service responses. It’s not a rationalized market.

1) The cheery, Texan stewardesses on our three-hour delayed flight to Chicago, grin and say “Think positive.” And I have this great feeling… “you’re going to make that flight!” And “What is modern dance? That sounds so neat.”

2) The American Airlines telephone operator, reached on Christy’s cell phone as we agonizingly sit on the tarmac in Chicago waiting for a gate, offers a flight to Tokyo three days from now, refuses to connect her with a manager, yells, then hangs up on her.

3) The harried check-in clerk who, informed by me that there was another Tokyo flight leaving in ten minutes, first denies its existence, then says it’s with another airline, then says it’s with a partner airline but it’s full, then runs after me screaming “Even if it’s not full, you’ll never make it in time.” Think positive.

4) The eternally helpful Trish Kelly who, reached by cell phone, locates 6 beautiful seats from Dallas to Tokyo.

5) The heavenly midwestern Kolleen, mother of three boys, corrals her big-haired friend and they devote 25 solid minutes to confirming seats on a flight tomorrow from Dallas to Tokyo, getting an early flight to Dallas today, offering hotel discounts, rerouting our baggage, and booking all seven of us through with sweet phrases like “Let’s try to get you into Dallas early so you can get dinner and some rest.” And “Let’s make sure you get vegetarian meals.” And “Let me talk to my manager about getting you guys seats together.” And “If you talk vaguely about needing accommodation to the agents in Dallas, they’ll probably give a free hotel and dinner.” Like the high-functioning, well-connected grandma of your dreams, she saved us with way more action than talk.

I found the booth promoting tiny Sony gadgets (laptops the size of sandwiches, cameras the size of film canisters), sent a few warning emails to Japan about our 24-hour delay, grabbed a goat cheese and black bean burrito (hell, yeah), and waited at the sunny gate to fly to Dallas.

We will get to Japan, only a day late, in time to salvage our Tokyo performance.

Sunday, December 7, DFW International

We spent a oddly restorative night at the Holiday Inn Select at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The hotel was a shocking den of corruption and Soviet-style bureaucracy. The restaurant was closed, BUT the bar served food, BUT children aren’t allowed in the bar BUT you can get food to go BUT if you want to eat in the lounge you have to order from the snack bar waitress BUT she has no idea how to take you order BUT she is happily insists on $80 of airline food vouchers for our $57 bill and another $30 cash for tip. The airport shuttle driver tries to coax a bribe out of me for asking for a 7:30 shuttle before confessing that they have to take us whenever we want. A cashier hands Christy far too little change when she buys a Coke, acts like she doesn’t understand, then relents and gives her the difference. Still, we manage to get thoroughly rested and set off for Japan feeling dyn-o-mite.

Tuesday, December 9, 3 pm, on the bullet train to Kyoto.

We made them laugh. We pried an astounding number of chuckles and giggles from their stingy mouths. TAKE 3 was the only dance of the evening, entitled “Humor in Dance,” that received any laughter from the attentive, quiet-as-a-tomb audience. Our first piece of the evening, SWINGINGING, is a silent women’s trio, usually accompanied by a respectable chorus of gigglers. In Tokyo, the sound of a man unwrapping a piece off candy in the ninth minute was the only sound that penetrated the black, black silence. The showcase was intended, in part, as a sort of object lesson for Japan audiences: IT’S OK TO LAUGH AT A DANCE PERFORMANCE! Several Japanese friends assured afterwards that the audience members were laughing “in here,” as they gestured toward their rib cages.

So after a dreadful dress rehearsal (TAKE 3 was tense and brittle and not at all funny), I was resolved to browbeat the audience into laughing. My opening speech, which had collapsed into a scripted rush in the face of the Japanese translation, was the key. I faced the 200 Japanese rib cages, determined not to give up until they were with me. I looked each one in the eye. I explained that this dance was inspired by a painful relationship with my (fictional) ex girlfriend Kate. At the mention of the name “Kate,” I had them. They laughed, they loosened. They were with us. David stepped up and as soon as he turned his head toward the audience, they were chuckling away.

The evening concluded with a 30-minute dance by a Costa Rican company, distinguished by being perhaps the least funny dance I have ever seen. Long, slow posture changes by a duet seated in wooden chairs (chair dances are a universal language), accompanied by booming, pompous music, with long blackouts so they could move the chairs to a new part of the stage. An onstage costume change provided the obligatory almost-nudity (upstage, dimly lit), scant relief from this choreographic roofie.

Like the anti-drug articles that inadvertently teach the reader how to crush up and snort oxycontin, “Humor in Dance” seemed to convince its audience that supposedly funny dance is best met by funereal quiet. If you must laugh, do it “in here.”

Sato-san (head of Japan Contemporary Dance Network, our sponsor in Japan, and and a real cutie, with a boyish grin and sparkly eyes) professed himself “very happy” with our performance, the Japanese equivalent of rolling on the floor and barking with glee.

A side note: Japanese dance lighting differs from American lighting in several key ways. Things tend to be lit more starkly, with sharply outlined boxes of light on the floor. Where in America, we shape the body with a lot of side light, in Japan they shape the space with crisp corridors and down spots. There is less varied use of color. No stage manager calls the cues, the board operator just sort of learns the piece and does it on the fly, making the dress rehearsal rough, but the performance great. And they have these incredibly long telescoping aluminum poles so they can adjust lights that are hanging up high without climbing a ladder or a genie lift. They extend these massive poles, which bend under their own weight, and delicately change a shutter cut or an angle 30 feet overhead. It’s like cleaning someone’s ear with a 30-foot Qtip: impressive, but of dubious necessity.

After the performance, we had a celebratory dinner at a restaurant, small pre-ordered dishes crowding the table as we drank beer and chatted with the two Russian dancers whose dance had made us laugh quite a lot.

This morning we packed up and sent six of our suitcases ahead to Kyoto. Here’s the story: I packed terribly. I didn’t start until midnight (before leaving for the airport at 5:00 am). So I packed two big rolling suitcases, but they’re not really that full, and I could have simplified it. And one of the rolling suitcases has a broken handle, so rolling it is like herding a large autistic dog. The Japanese were quite visibly horrified by the quantity of luggage we arrived with, so I burn with shame every time me and my autistic dog crash and bumble in view of our hosts. They convinced us, quite reasonably, to send most of our luggage ahead to Kyoto. The tragic and telling fact is that the six of us can’t manage our own luggage without help. With the two kids to manage, there just aren’t enough free hands to carry our staggering TEN suitcases and SIX smaller bags. We arrive like entitled 19th-century imperialists, waiting for Sherpa porters to take up our trunks filled with oyster forks and backgammon tables.

So this morning, Marie Takamoto, who seems to run the city of Tokyo single-handedly, came and helped us ship out our luggage (one weighed in over 25 kilos, and had to be lightened to avoid the Slipped Disc Fee). Then we set off awkwardly for our Video Presentation at the Tokyo Performing Arts Market, Japan’s big presenter conference. Unfortunately, we arrived ten minutes late. But more unfortunately, there was no one there to attend the presentation. So the three companies – Headlong, the Russians, and the Costa Ricans — sat as the Japanese proceeded to feel absolutely awful around us. The sense that this was a loss of face – a nightmare for the Japanese — meant they all completely shut down emotionally and administratively. As our lovely and amazing interpreter Mineko said, we should have photographed each face as they entered the empty conference room. The complete collapse of everything they believe in, the shame, the unbelievable discomfort. No one could stay in the room, it was just too awful, so it remained literally empty, a cavernous embarrassment shrine. Various functionaries opened the door, crossed the threshold, then turned and fled as if they had just walked in on someone masturbating. Bill Bissell arrived, disappointed that the presentation was (seemingly) canceled. Finally two more attendees arrive (perhaps to attend the next presentation, but no matter), and at 10:25 we were hustled into the conference room and the Russians began by playing a relentless 20-minute tape of a butoh-like solo, the dancer reciting Shakespeare sonnets in Russian as she tossed an inflatable sex doll in the air. He fast-forwarded with great purpose, gravely announcing “Next section” as the tape showed a scene indistinguishable from the last. There remained about 15 minutes for the last two groups, and we happily let go of our prepared presentation: a brief company intro, some talk about BRITNEY’S INFERNO, a video clip, and an announcement of our Arrow collaboration and Hotel Pool. We just squeaked in under the ironclad 11:00 deadline, stepping out in the hall to stand around like awkward wallflowers, hoping a presenter will ask us to dance. They never do.

Wednesday, December 10, 10:30 pm,
Yoshimizu Ryokan, Kyoto

It seems we are forever destined to become enmeshed in the Japanese tangle of shame, disapproval, loss of face, and poor planning. We are constantly having a high-status Japanese lay out a series of problems and say “Please, discussion.” This usually involves sitting around a low table late at night wandering through tatamae (official stated position) in a vain search for honne (actual opinion). Our decision not to stay at the unheated hostel we were booked into is now legend in Kyoto. Just this morning I met a dancer from Condors (a Tokyo company famous for being big, loud, and entertaining) who had been in town for less than 24 hours, and had already had more than one conversation about Americajin departure from Air Kyoto hostel.

We fled to the magical serenity of Yoshimizu, a ryokan (traditional inn) at the top of Murayama Park. It is one of the most sensual, lovely places I have ever slept: tatami mat rooms, sliding screens, low tables, two beautiful baths. David and I stayed here last time we were in Kyoto and it made a huge impression on us. Spending two days here with Nichole and Christy was delightful. The nighttime walk up through the park is magical.

So Ritsuko-san from the Japan Contemporary Dance Network (our hosts) made a blizzard of cell phone calls and we found two singles at a sort of business hotel/apartment place, and a sort of two-bedroom (one real bedroom, one small changing room) apartment over Nishikidori, a market street much like the Italian Market in Philadelphia. After some elaborate “Please, discussion” among Headlong, we are all getting situated.

Thursday, December 11, 11:30 pm,
Apartment on Nishiki-dori

I am now a real resident of Kyoto. I have an apartment. I have a Japanese cell phone (the first cell phone of my life). I have a bike with a basket. AND I HAVE GODDAMNED SLIPPERS THAT FIT ME! Thanks to a diverting detour to the 100-yen store (at 115 yen to the dollar, it’s cheaper than the Dollar Store), I got myself a pair of black stretchy-terry slippers for less than a buck. Things in Japan, often more expensive than USA (we paid 16 bucks to copy two keys), are occasionally much cheaper.

Christy and I had a hilarious trip to the supermarket that included:

  • Confusion about whether the “natural foods” section was a separate store with a separate checkout. Faced with this dilemma, we did what any fearful gaijin would do: we dropped all our natural foods and fled to the regular aisles.
  • Apples the size of an 8-year-old’s head. And they are delicious. Our attempt to set out a fruit bowl at our new apartment was foiled by the relative size of Japanese bowls (small) and apples (huge). Our bowls fit precisely one apple, less a cornucopia than a Magritte.
  • The which-sauce-is-it black hole. After several near disasters at Tokyo restaurants — Sato-san screaming in slow motion “No-o-o-o-o-o, eeeeeet’s nnnnnnnot soyyyyyy saaaaaaauce” as Amy grabbed the oyster sauce and tilted it toward her noodles — we were prepared for a sauce wipeout. Christy meticulously compared the English/kanji sign for “tamari” with the kanji on scores of bottles, and found some tamari.
  • Scallions that are two and a half feet long.
  • Self-bagging. True at most Japanese supermarkets. Cashier takes each item directly our of your basket, scans it, and places it in the basket left behind by the last person. You take that basket over to the bagging area, and your old basket becomes the transfer basket, and so on.

Sunday, December 14, 11 am, Red Rubber Ball Cafe

Laid-back french music (think Astrud Gilberto) plays as six Japanese cool cats and I sit drinking our coffee and the light-filled moderne Red Rubber Ball. The waitress speaks better English than anyone I have met here. She had “Rufus Wainwright” written on her hand in pen, showing that hipsterism is a truly universal language. Coffee here is $4.50, no refills (

never in Japan), but worth it for the warm smooth vibe. As the saucers read: “My favority pastime is spent the eating and drinking cafe.” Amen.

Last night a rather elaborate journey to a town outside of Osaka to a see a dance performance by a famous duo. (Apologies– I could understand the names after repeated attempts.) The piece began the “turn off cell phones” announcement (for the first time in my life, I had a cell phone to turn off; I have accepted the mark of the beast.)

(A slight divergence: cell phones in Japan are now offering two Orwellian services coming soon to a handbag near you: television reception, and position locator. You can now watch TV ALL THE TIME with certain Japanese phones. Eliminate those annoying moments between TVs, erase the last few remaining times of reflection: the train ride, the wait for a bus, the elevator. And you can find out the location of the person you are talking to. By triangulating cells, your phone can tell you approximately where your child, husband, political dissident is. The Devil will come dressed in a shroud of convenience.)

After the cell phone announcement, there was an INCREDIBLY long silence as the house lights stayed up and nothing happened. For a solid eight minutes, we sat there and NO ONE MADE A SOUND. It was an excruciatingly beautiful Japan moment: having been told the piece was about to begin, we would have sat motionless and silent forever. In Haruki Murakami’s “Underground,” his compilation of interviews with survivors of the Aum Shinrikyo nerve gas attacks on Tokyo subways, he recounts chilling stories of functionaries and salarymen going about their business even as their vision blurred, they lost control of their limbs, and they vomited uncontrollably. They simply could not be budged from the rutted grooves of their everyday road.

The dance was of a genre I adore, but its particulars lacked build and flow. Two dancers overtaken by gestural worlds and movement states, a charming, if predictable, interlude with hundreds of ping pong balls, and intrusive, boisterous music choices: marching bands, classical choirs. It was dynamically quite flat with more than one false ending, and though events occasionally recombined with a subtle puzzle logic, very little coherence or development.

We saw our friend Maho Semiji there — choreographer who took our workshops here last year — who bowed VERY deeply and offered an amazingly formal greeting in English, something like, “I am saddened by the long absence of Headlong Dance Theater director, and honor his return.” No high five, no “Wassup?” What’s a gaijin have to do to get a hug around here?

Monday, December 15, 6 pm, Red Rubber Ball Cafe

Just me now in the hipster cafe. A hilarious Sly and the Family Stone cover, delivered flatly in slightly accented English.

We have finished our first week of Arrowhead. This morning, Takeshi, Megumi, and I met to discuss the overall theme/concept for the piece. The general feeling in the group has been toward a more open, slightly abstract idea, nothing too narrative.

(A brief digression: the coffee here is so strong and good. In America, I start each day with a big old cappuccino, and the standard coffee here has been just as satisfying: dark, flavorful, and served with a tiny creamer full of heavy cream. Coffeehouse culture is really taking off here, sadly evidenced by the proliferation of Starbucks and Tully’s — an obvious Starbucks ripoff. When I told Megumi that I kept hearing the same samba music in different cafes, she said that there are certain CD sets for coffee houses that all the cafes buy.)

So we are working in a far more open way than Headlong usually does, which is exciting. Takeshi wants eight chairs or stools or cushions, and the dancers never to leave stage (all costume changes at the chairs). So that will be our spatial organization: shifting constellations of seats and bodies defining different spaces. And then a general them of “lining up:” divide, compare, (mis)translate, merge. That is how I wrote it in the meeting. This comes largely out of the material we have already generated. I estimate we have created about two hours of rough material so far; much will be discarded, some developed further, but all will contribute to our shared process.

Tomorrow we have a day off to think some things over and relax. Then I think the process may get a bit more focused: refining existing material and generating specific new ideas. We will probably divide up sections and rehearse two things at once a lot. We have four main directors, but really everyone is a choreographer, so our flexibility is immense. We have access to Takeshi’s sound designer, who can find, create, and mix music as needed. And we will play around with making some short video sections, cutting them if they don’t feel integrated.

I must stress the amazing connection we have with Arrow. When we dance together, there are amazing synergies of formal movement choices, character, relationship, and attention. I have never seen Headlong integrate so seamlessly with another group of artists. They are so like us, and yet they challenge and stretch our dancing, our process. After all the travel, the language barriers, and the cultural differences of coming to Japan, there is this immediate wordless connection when we dance together. This kinesthetic art form, so often a burden we carry in a language-centric world, is a magical space for connection, boldness, and humor across our cultural divide. I would work with these dancers all the time if I could. And it is immensely gratifying to find artists that share our questions, our impulses. We are not alone.

Both Christy and Nichole have made great strides in acquiring Japanese dance language, so warmups are peppered with “Ashi yubi” (toes) reaching, “Me sen hidari (look to the left),” and “Shinkokyu (deep breath).”

(OK, now some French woman is singing a samba version of “Day By Day.” That’s a first.)

I find real joy in trying to live Japanese. Putting away my futon and bedding each morning, changing into slippers for the 8-foot walk from the dirty shoes area to my bedroom, then kicking them off and walking sock-footed onto the tatami-mat floors. Riding my granny bike down one-way streets choked with pedestrians, tiny cars, and motorbikes. Eating noodles for breakfast. Buying just enough food for a couple days to fit in our lunch-box sized refrigerator. Taking cell phone calls as I sip my coffee. Eating miniscule cups of ice cream (about a quarter of an American scoop). Bowing. Giving constant sounds of assent while another is talking. Saying “Maybe, I think it’s good, yes? What you thinking?” Taking up as little space as possible at all times.

The Japanese have ingenious, often frugal, sometimes wasteful ideas about heat. Many spaces are unheated: hallways, entryways, toilets. And heaters are only turned on when people are in the room, so there is always a long warming up period in the studio. In this cafe, there are heaters on, but the door is wide open. All of us patrons have blankets over our laps. In many restaurants, there are space heaters underneath the sunken tables, creating a warmer space around your legs, an echo of the home tradition of a heater underneath your low dining table, and a sort blanket skirt surrounding it, so that when you kneel, your legs are in the warm under-space, and you don’t heat the room. Hot towels at restaurants provide an initial moment of warmth when coming in from the cold. Some bicycles have built in glove sleeves on the handlebars. I saw a front-mounted baby seat with a plastic windscreen shell enveloping a two-year-old, a toddler in a plastic bubble. Very few Japanese wear hats, and almost no one wears the knit ski-caps we all sport. Many schoolgirl uniforms have short skirts and no tights, exposing a lot of skin to the cold, often accessorized with 80s-vintage white leg warmers bunched around the ankles. Though it may provide a modicum of warmth, it seems more connected to the schoolgirl fetish than to their comfort.

Well, I’ve moved on to beer (birru), a seamless transition in this land of unregulated liquor. And the cell phone calls keep coming (from Takeshi, David, and Nichole). Now if I could only get TV on this damn phone…

David’s 2003 Kyoto Journal

The initial exchange introduced us to the amazing Takeshi Yazaki. He and his company, Arrow Dance Communication, were our long-lost siblings, closer to us spiritually and artistically than any company we’ve ever encountered. We put together a project with Arrow and spent six weeks in Kyoto at the end of 2003, creating You Are So Beautiful. These journals are from that extended residency:

David’s 2003 Kyoto Journal

December 6, 2003 En-route, Dallas to Tokyo.

Turns out Christy brought a walkman with a handful of CD’s. When she saw meflipping through the American Airlines Attractions magazine for a radio guide, she produced her set-up. I’m listening to Nirvana, Nevermind. Why, I don’t know. I wanted to listen to something moody and atmospheric, or soothing and melancholy. Maybe something I hadn’t heard before. Christy has tons ofmusic that’s super cool, that I’ve never heard and I usually like when I do hear it. I almost put on a band called Sparklehorse that I always love when Christy is playing it in her car. Instead I put on Nevermind — something old, familiar and insistent. And angry and self-hating. “I don’t have a gun” he says in the song over and over. And then in real life he goes and blows his head off. We’re just about 5 hours from Tokyo. Now I’m sitting in the bulkhead seats with Rich and Dexter. Richholds a book with arms cradled around Dexter whowatches “Finding Nemo” with enormous head phones that cover his 2-year-old ears and half his cheeks all at once. Now he’s playing wishbone with the headphones. And Amy has come and sat back down. She was in the back of the plane. Maybe talking to Andrew, Christy, Nichole and Ruby who are sitting in the very last row of seats. They are back by the lavatories and seem to function as the stewards lounge. We’ve all been popping “NO JET LAG” pills every two hours. These are from the same company that makes a product called “DRINK EASE.” The insert advertisement for that product says, “I’m never going to get another hangover.” How many times have you said that yet you keep doing it and suffer? Drink Ease, it turns out is a homeopathic remedy “designed for those who enjoy drinking.” We all got a good laugh out of that, but we know NO JET LAG works. Andrew and I took it last year when we flew to Japan. The trick is to stay awake for the first day in Japan and go to bed at a normal time. No naps! Our bodies will feel like its 2 in the morning when we arrive but it will be 3 in the afternoon in Tokyo. If we make it to a normal bedtime without sleeping, then we will wake up the next morning completely adjusted. Such is the power of NO JET LAG. Yesterday’s crisis has quickly helped us to feel our contours as a group. We are a sudden community of eight joined differently than when we are five headlongers rehearsing in Philadelphia. Its not just the addition of Rich and the kids. ts the animal of us as a group, navigating a new terrain away from our full, complex Philly world of jobs, spouses, friends and lovers. Yesterday, for a while we thought we would have to cancel our Tokyo performance. Our late flight into Chicago meant we missed our connection to Tokyo and American said no room on flights until Sunday which meant us getting to Tokyo too late. But then Trish, Nichole’s step mom located a flight out of of Dallas. So we flew to Dallas to spend the night and take the flight to Tokyo the next day. It worked. And there was some small shared joy last night after our brutal day of continental hopscotch as we laughed together about the absurdity of finding ourselves in Dallas instead of Tokyo. Honestly, I was glad for a good night’s sleep and a little more transition time before getting to Japan. My life has been screaming along way too fast for too many months before this. I’ve been doing a hundred on a highway and the road just ended at the edge of a cliff. Now, I’m sailing through air. I have a chance to turn my mind to what’s in store: the collaboration with Takeshi, Megumi and Kentaro. I’m excited. Its only now beginning to dawn on me. All has been bureaucracy and frantic scheduling until now — an abstract plan. But now its begun; we get to make a dance. Together, 5 of us, with 3 of them. I can’t wait to see Takeshi and Megumi again, whom Andrew and I made a quartet with a year and half ago in Kyoto. And I can’t wait to be back in Kyoto, the most wonderful city I have visited. I wonder if it will still feel that way in early winter instead of early summer. I haven’t even thought of Tokyo. We spend the first few days in Tokyo where we perform in the Jade Festival before heading to Kyoto for the rest of our time to actually make the dance. In Tokyo we will be performing in the ballroom of the Hotel that “Lost in Translation” was filmed in. We are to perform TAKE 3 and SWINGINGING. But right now I wish we were headed straight to Kyoto, land that I love. According to the creeping airplane graphic on the in-flight gps map we are where the Sea of Okhotsk meets the Pacific. We have 3 hours to go to Tokyo, 1123 miles. Then we go, with all our stuff, right to the ballroom for a meeting and then, god help us, to a rehearsal. We’ll see if we we make it!

December 9, 2003

Tokyo to Kyoto.

We’re on the bullet train, Tokyo to Kyoto. Christy clapped her CD headphones on me. Its the band Modest Mouse singing a song that says, “Ohio, Ohio, O-hi-o gozaimasu” over and over. Ohio Gozaimasu means good morning in Japanese. The single most said phrase so far on our journey. By us and to us. We all reinforce our language acquisition. Ohio gozaimasu we say to each other over and over as we see each other for the first time each morning. Dwellings upon dwellings, valleys, mountains near and far, and occasional fingers of water rush past us. More than urban Tokyo, this says Japan, Japan, Japan, you are really in Japan. Strange little pyramids of something that looks like hay lay bundled in the farm fields we pass. Neat rows that stripe across small squares of dun. I can’t help thinking of the swollen haymows that dot rural America: fat, rolled plugs. These tiny, elegant teepees on their neat patches of earth are hemmed in by low houses and apartments that carpet the land as far as the eye can see, up to the feet of the distant mountains. Often, the train is boring through mountains and we don’t see anything but black. Upon arriving in Tokyo we endured a painful 2 1/2 hour bus ride from the airport to the Park Hyatt to see the space. Painful, because by then we were sick to our stomachs with exhaustion. Ruby and Dexter were as much a mess as us adults and giving voice to it. And we were crushed by the convoy of luggage we had to tote around: 11 enormous bags in addition to our backpacks and carry-ons. The bus was stifling hot. Our bodies knew it was 3 in the morning, though Tokyo pretended it was 5 in the evening. We finally made it through the interminable Tokyo traffic: picture a suburban rush hour in the U.S. and times it by about 50 and you start to get the picture. I think it took 45 minutes to get the few blocks from the highway exit into Narita to the Park Hyatt in the center of Narita. Narita is the section of Tokyo where we were staying and performing. The odyssey of getting all our bags plus children through the park Hyatt building complex to the ballroom confirmed Rich Kaufman as a hero for the ages. Depleted state notwithstanding, he nimbly hoisted a cranky child in his arms while towing a stack of luggage down steep stairways, through finicky mall-like concourses of shoppers, and into utility corridors and service elevators. All with nary a raised voice or harsh word: a saint. The ballroom was a splendor to behold. Picture a white room ceilinged by moderne, dimpled cubes that lower and raise to any height in the two story air. A press of Japanese techies are hanging and focussing lights when we peek in, so several of these five foot by five foot square cubes float at different heights in the space. A spectacular, breathtaking room. Sadly, this giant, white room is being converted into a black box theater for our performance. Descending cubes will all be pulled back into the ceiling. The temporary stage will be hung with black and floored in black marley. The generic and neutral has triumphed over the fabulous and singular, so that we artists may reliably re-create our own visions without any taint of context. And to be fair, at least three different companies need to be able to perform in this space and who knows what moods their pieces need to evoke. But I mourn not being able to dance in the cool, white dimpled palace of floating cubes. Here we are greeted by Sato-san and Ritsuko. My heart jumps for joy. I have missed them. They are JCDN (The Japanese Contemporary Dance Network) who hosted Andrew and I in Kyoto a year and a half ago and are sponsoring our performance with Arrow in Kyoto at the end of our collaboration. And Nori (Sato-san) presented our work to the other Jade festival programmers to get us into our Tokyo performance. They are a couple on a mission to open up more space for contemporary performance in tradition-bound Japan. Without Nori and Ritsuko there would be no Headlong in Japan. But more than that, they are wonderful people. Passionate, playful, and incredibly hardworking. When Nori laughs, which is often, his eyes get this most mischievous glint. And Ritsuko disarms with these exhausted, wry looks. I feel I should write about the actual performance. Why is that so hard? It went fine. TAKE 3 was difficult as always. Often, the frustration of rehearsing it gives way to joy in performance for me. Not this time. Couldn’t find the right rhythm, the right touch. hat piece is the most challenging act of consciousness. Working with an interpreter wastricky, although Meneko did an awesome job. SWINGINGING rocked, the three ladies performing and intricately improvising with their usual jaw-dropping virtuosity and brilliance. The structure for SWINGING is Andrew’s brainchild and its one of my favorite all-time dances. I just can’t believe its happening every time I see it. Its simple, simple, and then accumulates shocking density all at once. It speaks to my hidden minimalist. Very hidden, since my tendencies are towards the complex, the simultaneous, the expansive profusion. When SWINGINGING ends and the stage goes black, a single plaintive voice wails out “mommy.” Dexter wonders where Amy has disappeared to in the mysterious dark. And it reminds me that I, too, am often left with a small longing when the lights go down, and some lovely, intricate world vanishes so radically and permanently. December 14th First Night. Okay, so our arrival in Kyoto quickly turned into a situation fraught with our deepest fears. We arrive at an unheated artists’ hostel, which is supposed to serve as our home for the next 5 weeks. We promptly decide not to stay there. Turns out that is easier said than done and we are deeply enmeshed in that most difficult of American-Japanese maneuvers: nitty-gritty negotiating. his happens in light of a complex set of previous agreements and financial transactions made by Takeshi and Megumi. Which means that we are putting our hosts in a most uncomfortable position. The owner of the hostel is a personal friend of Takeshi’s and an arts advocate in this tight knit community. He runs a performance space for contemporary performance to boot. Oh the angst and exhaustion on all sides. And we’re starving and cold, and there are no good solutions, and above all there is no way for anyone to save face. Just blunt, blunt Americans saying no way. I am sure Andrew has written about this night in detail so I’ll skip it for the most part, except to say that I was terrified this harsh beginning would wreck the good will we needed to have a satisfying, hopefully joyful collaboration. We are to spend the next two and half months together after all. But it all worked out, truly and fully. No lingering ill effects on our affection, excitement and energy in the studio. Not right away, but over the next couple of days all was put to bed. And as for that first night–we ended up at our cherished Yoshimizu ryokan where we had lived last time we were in Kyoto: a magnificent, traditional Japanese home nestled amongst the shrines and footpaths of Muryama Park. Expensive, but heavenly. First Day Dancing. First day’s rehearsal confirms my expectations about this project. For reasons I can’t fully explain, our bodies speak the same language in the studio. Our visceral sensibilities are freakishly similar. The mix of abstraction, theatricality, formalism, physical thrill and intelligence, interpersonal fearlessness and sensitivity–all this and more it seems like we share in similar degrees. For the first day, Megumi led a warm-up. Then I set up some structures for us to dance together. I wanted us to feel each other, manifest our dancing selves with each other; begin to discover and embrace each other and lay the groundwork for pushing each other’s idiosyncratic, composing selves. For about 25 minutes we danced duets while short pieces of music (half a minute to 3 minutes) played off my iBook in the corner. We stood in a hippy circle and one person would enter and pick another to dance–improvised duet after duet. I love the first moment someone enters the space and chooses. Such a moment of desire and will, no matter how low key. Its in the structure. You have to pick and there are a million reasons why you might pick one person or another, but you do have to pick, to decide, to follow through with the leap into the unknown of intimately interacting with the presence of another person. The second structure comes from my beloved mentor Richard Bull — a performance and rehearsal structure called “Visions.” The same short piece of music (45 seconds to a minute) plays over and over. (This time we danced to Erik Satie: Meditation, A Albert Roussell) Each dancer leads one “vision” or round of the song. The other dancers enter and support or elaborate the material the leader has begun. A vision can have any number of dancers in it, preferably a mix over the course of all the visions: solos, duets, trios, and so on. Everyone dances the last one. That means we did 9 visions since there are 8 of us. I love the way this structure forces you to compose instantly, to see as fully as possible what is happening and make it cohere. The dance is so short that you must act and compose with instantaneous, full commitment. No getting bogged down in the daunting complexities of possibilities. And the redundancy of the music emphasizes the sense of a known terrain in which much is possible, but not so much that you can’t focus or push against something. Its a perfect structure. The visions were lovely, everyone expertly led and followed, and followed through on the developing logic of each vision. Or, someone might sensitively transgress the developing rules. Its hard to describe this exactly. We are on the same page when it comes to the development of form and conversely, the limits of formal logic. It seems important to note that we don’t have this degree of consonance when we step into the studio with other dancers and choreographers closer to home, whether they are experienced improvisers or not. How is it that we Americans and they Japanese arrive at this similarity of sensibility and skill coming from such different places? And indeed I believe we arrive here on pathways forged from radically different starting points. Lastly I split the group in two and gave a choreographic assignment. I thought it important that we feel out actually making something together, not just improvising together. I wanted us to feel how communication might work between us all as we suggest and refine ideas for working on a particular, intended thing. Not just to see how we communicate and collaborate as artists, because I have a great deal of faith in that. But more, how the technical problems of speaking different languages affects our ability to share ideas. Of all of us, only poor Megumi is fluent in both Japanese and English. So we had to feel it out before there was too much at stake in the developing dance. I made two groups out of the pack of us: Takeshi, Amy and Nichole in one group; Megumi, Andrew, Kentaro and Christy in the other group. I decided at the last minute to sit out I am not sure why. I wanted to observe what happened, how the different groupings might function differently. I wasn’t sure it was wise to hold myself apart, but I went with my impulse anyway. Both groups created lovely, coherent short dances in the space of half an hour. We performed them for each other and then I had each group meet and discuss the other groups efforts. They were to come up with a suggestion to give to the other group for pushing the material further, or refining it further in some direction. I wanted us as artists to begin to be able to critique and make specific choices together. That second stage of editing and refinement, after stuff has been generated can be such a pitfall in collaboration. Strong, visionary choices need to be made in service of the work itself, not in terms of egos and ownership. And I thought this might be a friendly way to get our comfort levels up around that kind of pushing of the work. Each groups suggestions were generous, insightful and pushed the work. The two groups went back and worked more on their dances for about 5 more minutes and showed again. Exciting and better dances had emerged. Amy, Takeshi and Nichole showed a formal and evocative face dance, a shifting 2 and 1 structure that began with Nichole’s and Takeshi’s outrageously elastic, expressive faces shifting in response to each other. Between them sits Amy, back to the audience. The trio ends with them on their backs, heads uncomfortably cocked back towards the audience singing “You are so beautiful” through strained throats. Whereas group one was contained, formal and very theatrical, group two is looser, spacious and very physical. Megumi, Andrew, Kentaro and Christy begin spread out, each in their own odd, physical world. Christy sighs something plaintive and unintelligible. The dancers coalesce around her in a frantic ineffectual community of concern. Suddenly, the community unifies: Kentaro is the problem and they menace him. But when they attack, instead of ripping him to shreds, they hoist him high and flap his gangly wings into the air. Amy finished the day with the children’s game, “head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes…” An inspired idea. We played it in English and then in Japanese and so began to learn the Japanese words for body parts, which we have been using constantly in rehearsal ever since. December 17 Rolling Along and The Ecstasy of Kyoto. Okay, so I am the slowest of the group to pick up on the language. But I fantasize that my algorithm of learning simply follows a different trajectory. After some period of slow absorption and gestation, I am going to leap ahead with full blown sentences and canny phrase choices. My Japanese friends will reward me with spontaneous oooohs and wowwwws. Meanwhile my senses, if not my linguistic centers, are processing at full tilt. The ecstasy of transitions: Here in Japan, change ofspace and activity and interaction are marked in small, unavoidable, sensual ways. There are rituals of transitions, so that I am always conscious and carefully so, of each new situation, each tiny shift of geography: the slippers on, the slippers off. The heat turned on, the heat turned off, as one passes from the warmth of a room inhabited into the iciness of a room just starting to be occupied. The cooking of a meal can’t sprawl into a simultaneity of actions, a homogeneity of attention. Instead, space imposes a temporal discipline, each part of cooking requiring its own focus: one must chop this, set it aside, clean up, free up a dish and some space and then chop that. Then, when all is ready, and each phase of preparation has in its turn been completed, and space and dishes recovered, one may cook, fast as possible on the one burner, so that one thing is not cold before the second has been warmed. Thank god for the mandatory rice cooker in every kitchen, no matter how otherwise spartan its furnishment. Muryama park is a joy. I love the shrines ensconced in permanent gloam amidst the intimate sprawl of footpaths, ponds and bridges. Every time I go out I am constantly, vainly, trying to match the comportment of the japanese as my huge, careening body attempts to slip amongst the bustling crowds. I can’t stop myself from squeezing down the mad, market streets so that I may gaze upon the most breathtaking array of mushrooms. In these cases, I don’t care whose way I get in. I must study the alien fungus to decide if I want to buy the bouquet of tiny, tendrilled, spotted ones, or the enormously fat, cartoon specimens that come individually wrapped. Best of all maybe, is biking down the tiny side streets in the middle of the night, the cold, exhilarating night. This happens in quiet Kyoto, the biker slightly abuzz from beers around a small, sunken table in a very warm and very intimate restaurant whose soft, secret glow is carved into the pervasive subterranean gloom that lurks just off any major street. The dance rolls along. Four days rehearsal, I think. We have a dozen small dances that we could delve backinto. But already time feels like it is runningshort. We need to make some decisions that will allow us to push deeper into this thing. Everyone is such aspectacular performer, such lovely, strange, generous beings. We have to live up to that. The potential is so great. But so far we haven’t been able to really set the sail and run out into the wide open sea. We’re sloshing around the harbor right now. But soon, I feel sure, we’ll find the mouth and summon the wind and we’ll be streaking into unknown waters full tilt and sure.

David’s 2002 Kyoto Journal

Kyoto Journals
In 2002, Headlong was selected to participate in the first US – Japan Exchange in Dance. Two Japanese artists, Takeshi Yazaki and Ko Murobushi, came to Philadelphia for two weeks and New York for two weeks. Then David and Andrew spent two weeks in Kyoto teaching, collaborating, and performing. We wrote these journals during the trip:

David’s 2002 Kyoto Journal

Sunday, May 26th

David here. Its been a week and I’ve begun to synthesize some of what we’ve been experiencing. First, I must say that the plane was brutal. A shock. I can’t believe that this is how it happens. And I am someone comfortable in discomfort. I have criss-crossed the United States in the stinky, boozy air of late night Greyhound buses with heavy strangers slumped on me while I inhaled their moist air; I have travelled a thousand miles in the back of an open pick-up truck in freezing rain and worse. No way I have travelled compares to the weird combination of numbing oppression and acute discomfort that NEVER ENDS in the belly of a trans-pacific jumbo jet. Like Andrew said, every one of the HUNDREDS of seats was full. I, too, cried during the film The Majestic (movies do not get worse), but I think my body was just trying to find out if it was still alive.

In a kind of existential zero-balancing, the horror of the flight was soon erased by the exquisite experience of staying in the traditional Japanese ryokan that is our home while we are here. Here is what I wrote after a couple or days here:

I am staying in a traditional ryokan that is at the top of a hillish mountain, surrounded by an enormous park full of exquisitely tended trees, flowers, brooks, ponds, gardens, ancient shrines and secret stone pathways. To get home, I pass out of the bustling Gion district into the tranquil, finely manipulated nature of Muruyama park. I hike through this beautiful dream where I cross small streams in a myriad different ways, from stepping stones and diaganally laid stone planks to tiny, polished, wooden beams. I pass turtles sunning themselves on each other and rocks jutting up from shallow ponds; the fragrant air is filled with the commanding caws of huge crows and the sudden tinny rattle of ritual bells clanging followed by two sharp claps. Finally, I arrive at the ryokan of tatami mats, sliding rice-paper doors, secret stone corridors, and green tea. I wash and then bathe in a traditional Japanese bath and then sleep on the floor on a futon-like stack of thin pallets piled high with fabrics and blankets and rest my head on a dense, straw pillow beneath gliding, paper-shuttered windows looking out to the raking, watery mountainside of stone, moss and trees. During the day, my room is a little like being at the bottom of a well: dark and muffled with thick, watery air as the diffuse sunlight filters in from the steep, sloping-up channel formed by the mountain side that cuts down to just below my window.

Some food observations:

Every place that we have had coffee has served excellent coffee. Coffee is always served with real creme, not even half and half. Creme. Excellent! Puts Kyoto right up there with Philly as a good coffee town.

Vegetarians eat well in Kyoto.Real well, and its not hard to find places to eat. A couple of days ago Andrew and I ate at a tofu place. We were given a huge slab of fresh, creamy tofu with exquisite little garnishes to eat with it. It was just right. Kyoto is known for its yuba which is a kind of creme from the making of soy milk. We had it raw and fried and it was just what geeky, veggies crave. Maybe our experience is akin to a meat lover finding an escargot-like dish prepared with salamanders instead of snails that tasted especially divine.

The dance artists:

Our students are wonderful. We specified that we wanted creators, i.e. choreographers and directors as well as dancers, and we have an incredible bunch of artists. They throw themselves into the work with fervor and precision. Quite a few of the students are Butoh artists. I am learning how profoundly Butoh opened up the doors to all kinds of non-traditional performance here in Japan. Like Cunningham, the Judson Church and the DIY (do-it yourself) movement all rolled into one. Happily we have all these hungry freakers who run like hell with everything we give them. And there is a real sense of community here, like Philadelphia, so the artists have various degrees of familiarity with each other and often have performed with each other. I think it contributes to a friendliness and intimacy that makes the work we do in class more playfully embodied. And, much to my surprize, people will do any old weird thing with their bodies, including touch and contact. They seem much less attached than many americans we have worked with, to having to manifest dancerly skill, even though many of them are clearly well trained technical dancers. Again, I am assuming the Butoh influence is at work here. It must be said however, that we have a special bunch of artists in our class. Obviously, the dominant paradyme for non-traditional dance, here in Japan is “Classic Modern”, Jazz and Ballet. The Japanese Contemporary Dance Network, our hosts here, is striving mightily to create a space in the culture for the more experimental, contemporary performance work that, by comparison, we take for granted in the U.S. There is certainly nothing like a Fringe festival here.The Japanese culture at large, from what I can gather, has no room for this kind of work. The structures for learning, practicing, presenting smaller-scale, locally generated work seem to be sparse to non-existent. And the artists aren’t funded at all. Every one who does this kind of work here is juggling crazy schedules, no sleep, and crazy commuting to do what they love. U.S. resources, meager as they often seem to American dance artists, seems massive to Japanese artists. Here in Kyoto there is JCDN struggling for a foothold. But there are no CECs, Painted Brides, Fringe Festivals, DTWs, Danspaces, PS. 122s, the Kitchen, the Knitting Factory, The Japan Society in NYC, etc, etc. And nothing like the small foundation funding and state support for local, emerging artists on up to larger foundation support we get in the United States. Although these resources in the U.S. seem small and are highly competed for, being here in Japan makes me reflect on the acute language of deprivation that surrounds all discussions of resources for dance back home. In Japan, the U.S. is a model for how to cultivate and support independent, experimental dance art.


We have begun collaborating with Takeshi and Megumi! After 1 1/2 rehearsals we have come up with more material and ideas than we could possibly realize in the time we have left to rehearse. We’ll just have to come back to Kyoto or bring them over to the U.S. to truly finish this piece. Takeshi started us off with a knotty arm idea that has us grabbing and re-grabbing eachothers arms until we’re in a strange and beautiful quartet web. It reminds me a little of the section in “Gracelessness” where the women are gathered around Andrew and light touches turn into an entaglement of arms.Takeshi’s section has a distinctly Jackie Chan-like tempo and execution to it however. When we are working on it, the four of us always devolve into hilarious Hong Kong action flick chops and feints complete with expert sound effects.

Takeshi is one of the exchange artists in the this residency project and we had an instant connection with him when he came to Philadelphia in March. We met Megumi when Takeshi invited us, spur-of-the-moment to improvise with his company at a gallery opening here in Kyoto featuring photos of Takeshi’s company. She is one of his dancers and speaks english well. Nine of us were packed into a tiny corner of the gallery while we went for broke dancing. It was exhilarating. Composing elegantly in performance with dancers who you are laying eyes on for the first time is incredible. His dancers were all excellent improvisers. They were both structural and open in their dancing: alert to developing themes and ideas that appeared, composing the whole space as a group with a sustained sense of choreographic coherence; and they were idiosyncratic and fearless with their movement choices. Needless to say, we were in heaven.

Well, there is so much more to tell: the other things we tried out with Takeshi and Megumi; the mounting controversy about what exactly we are going to perform in the concert here at the end of the residency; and other cross-cultural exhilarations and confusions. But it’ll have to wait as I am off to observe a rehearsal of Takeshi’s company. Yay!

Tuesday, May 28

Now we are busy, busy, busy here in Kyoto. Its begun to feel like life in Philly: running from one rehearsal to a teaching thing to another appointment and so on. Yesterday we had a 6 hour rehearsal with Takeshi and Megumi, followed by a JCDN event called “The Possibilities of Dance”,where the exchange artists shared their residency activities and dance philosophies with the public.

I am loving the work on the new dance with Takeshi and Megumi. Playful and serious all at once. Even with the communication complications, specific ideas get tried out, re-worked, varied and tweaked. We all seem able to push any idea no matter who originated it. It feels very Headlong. Although, yesterday we were missing Amy and her ability to know when to put a stop to the endless experimenting with a single thing. After all, we are on a bit of a deadline here and need to perform this monster in a few short days!

To collaborate meaningfully — for a piece not to merely be a politelyarrived at jumble of ideas, or to be dumbed down to some kind of lowest common denominator between the collaborators — is a complex and difficult art. Strong vision and real investment in the ideas being worked on must be married with an ego-tempering sense of trust in the other artists; and good listening and imagining skills have to be deployed with complex communication abilities. Each collaborator must be a real leader, fearless in presenting and convincing others of the strength of their ideas, and at the same time an enthusiastic supporter of the other artists’ ideas. Of course it helps when you are delighted by the imaginings and beings of your partners! But I am stunned that we have found this in people we barely know, from a culture far, far away. But it truly seems that Takeshi’s and Megumi’s sensibility is very similar to our own.

We attended a rehearsal of Takeshi two days ago and watching him work with his lovely dancers (3 men and 2 women were there that day) was exciting. He seems to be interested in any performance technique that is right for the particular piece he is working on. Although his dancers are good technical dancers, there is no attempt to showcase the technique for the sake of technique as in so many modern choreographers’ work. The deep movement skills are deployed to generate and execute beautiful movement images that don’t neccesarily look like phrases of codified dance vocabularies. And yet, all the elements of phrasing, physical intelligence and control are there. For example, there was a section where four men are standing side by side with their arms hanging straight down. Very slowly their fingers begin to twitch and move slightly until they seem crawly and insect-like at the end of their arms. Then they begin to creep around on their own bodies, becoming more sentient and gropey. Soon they are groping each other, everywhere their arms can reach without moving their torsos. And then their arms are flailing amongst each other like dangerous blades that they begin to duck and ward off. Before you realize it, a full on melee with limbs flying, erupts among the disassociated and oddly helpless torsos of the men. Suddenly, with a crash they all freeze and one man lies crumpled on the floor with the others carved above him in an entwined and reaching tableau. A full-on, virtuosic movement event has occurred without a whisper of pre-digested technical dance vocabulary on display.

May 28 – June 3

Andrew and I have this basic vocabulary construction when we are in rehearsal and trying out new ideas. We’ll have barely begun to try something and then we’ll suddenly say “we could do it like this, or like this, or like this, and if we do it such and such way we could then do this or this. ” We’ll interrupt each other with a “hold that thought” and a few more “or” scenerios that involve alot of spatial gesticulating and body theatrics to indicate the possible choreographies, and the conversation will finally conclude with an “okay lets just try this one and go from there.” Usually after trying out one or two of the possible scenerios, the path becomes clear and we move on. I call this the “or, or, or…lets try it” approach. I think it can be pretty daunting to be around as we interrupt eachother and verbally change the course of a dance three or four times in a minute. In the beginning, with Takeshi and Megumi, we would remind ourselves to slow down and boil the “ors” down to a coulple of possibilities that we could present clearly to them. But in the last rehearsal, while all four of us were standing around talking about an ending that Megumi had proposed, I suddenly heard Takeshi say “or”. His one hand was floating in the air with his fingers splayed indicating where each of us were in space and then with his other hand he traced a second pattern in the air next to the first. And I realized that we had just gone around the circle with each person proposing variations on Megumi’s ending while someone else interrupted and elaborated with an additional “or” or two! Needless to say we immediately tried out one of the idea pathways with a shared sense of the other possibilities echoing all around us.

Speaking Japanese:

Saying something like, “hmmm, that would be okay” is like saying that would be awful. Saying, “thats interesting” is the same as saying that’s bad. I found this out when students in our class would finish a dance structure and I would say they made such and such choice and I thought that was interesting and their faces would invariably look sortof serious and disappointed.

I am on the plane home now and I am having the vague anxieties that I guess come with transcontinental dislocation. If I try to figure out what I am feeling anxious about, the best I can figure is that as Kyoto disappears so suddenly and thoroughly behind me, I begin to wonder if the last two weeks have been completely real. Will the things I have learned, the tremendously moving experiences I have had stay with me? It has seemed perfect, almost like a dream, doing fully, exactly what I love to do. We made a beautiful new dance with two incredible people who are now in my heart; we met a whole community of people and artists who were generous, intelligent and exciting to be around. What we had to offer in and out of our workshops seemed deeply appreciated which made us feel useful. That’s a special feeling: that what you have to offer is something that is hungrily taken, consumed as a need. The artists in our workshop were truly incredible, wonderful freakers making their own way in Japan in an art form that they could only be in out of sheer need to do exactly that. The pace of the days were perfect, long and busy, but surprizingly relaxed. This sense was no doubt aided by all the hours spent at the beautiful Kyoto Arts Center with its beautiful studios and a cafe serving endless runs of coffee and tuna-potato club sandwiches. After the second day in Kyoto, we were so busy that I didn’t do any sightseeing or shopping. So, on the last day I was rushing around with Megumi as my guide, dashing around Kyoto with many cell phone calls by Megumi to find out where this or that shop was. The most helpful calls were to Sada-san. He is the whiz-kid extraordinaire, who, in addition to making an exquisite hipster map of cool cafes, low-to-the-ground galleries and 2nd-hand clothing stores for us arty gaijing, dashed off an exquisite design for Headlong business cards which are absolutely neccessary to have in Japan.

“Arm’s Length” – the dance we made with Takeshi and Megumi:

There is this lovely section in “Arm’s Length” that occurs to a one-minute eltro song that repeats 3 times. First, Megumi dances a solo where she begins walking downstage straight towards the audience. Her arms delicately take flight and pull her torso in a swivel around to the side where she briefly begins going perpendicular to her forward path. Only briefly though: a limb pulls her body gently and all-of-a-sudden back to her forward-walking pathway. Now her body flickers to the other side and then, once again, resets forward. Finally, she abandons her path for good and walks off to her left where she passes a still Andrew who begins to follow her at arm’s length as she circles back upstage. As the music’s last meloncholy notes fade they come to rest at the place where Megumi’s solo began. The short song starts again for a second time and Megumi begins to go through the exact same motions she has just completed, only this time it is a duet where Andrew keeps almost catching up to her, almost touching her and continually falling away in the opposite direction from where Megumi’s body keeps tugging her. The duet ends with Andrew continuing to walk straight downstage, alone, as Megumi walks off to the left. They both begin to circle opposite sides of the stage as they head towards the upstage starting position for the third time. This time Megumi draws Takeshi and I into motion as she passes us: Takeshi follows behind Megumi while I begin to circle far downstage to end up directly opposite the three arriving together at the top of the stage as the song ends and begins again for a third time. Andrew and Megumi’s duet repeats exactly as it has before, the two of them continually missing each other in space and softly falling away from each other. Only this time as they drop and spin away from each other, Takeshi is glimpsed between them in the flashes of space seen between the swinging doors of the duet pulling away from each other and resetting again. Takeshi is alone in what is now a trio, dropping down to the floor and reaching up, sometimes reaching or waving towards the two figures moving faster and inexhorably away from him. This is my favorite moment in the whole piece as I am sitting very still downstage, back to the audience, hugging my knees watching them as they all move sighingly towards me, in and out of arm’s length of each other, dancing together and alone at once. At that moment I feel like it is a secret world that I am watching and I am its only witness.

I’ve been blown away by how sharp the dancers and choreographers in our workshop have been. Most of them seem to have had a clear sense of form, structure, and pattern. In the United States, we often spend a lot of time getting students to see, manipulate and compose space. In Japan we only had to nudge the class in the direction of considering space and they were quickly all over it. The same held true with variations and transformations of movement themes and qualities. And yet they were very fluid at generating and performing movement that wasn’t purely technical, but were rather more complexly expressive. But the expression came through a deep sense of form and structure. My naive speculation about this difference has to do with the manic way self-expression is stressed in the United States, an outgrowth of the national values of radical individualism. American artsits are often continually concerned with what they are feeling and the need to express their all important Selves. What amounts, in many cases, I think, to a fetishism of self. Americans are so obsessed with trying to express what they frame as a unique set of feelings with an identifiable energy and style that marks them as artists, that they don’t try to develop the formal and structural skills that give life to all that feeling. Its the form and structure which creates a bridge from that “feeling” to being understood by other people. Whereas (and this is rabid speculation), many of the Japanese dancers we were working with come at it from the other direction: they take form and technique for granted and perhaps are concerned with asserting, generally speaking, more of a unique self than has traditionally been embraced in Japan. But it happens in the context of inhibition about individual, Self expression. Japan, as many people told me this past two weeks, has had a tradition of a somewhat oppressive attitude towards any insistently unique expression. Artists are used to highly elaborated formal concerns that have long been established and approved. And this is where Butoh comes in as a radical door-opener and permission-giver. Butoh appears about fifty-five years ago, and on a movement level (I am not going to get into what it represents philosophically), it is characterized by incredibly unusual, idiosyncratic, bodily expressions. Signifying “ugliness” is acceptable. And it calls itself dance. The effect of that form on todays’ young dance artists, who aren’t soley identified with the classical Modern, ballet, and Jazz dance, I think is immeasurable, even when they don’t consider themselves making Butoh dance. These dance artists call what they do Contemporary Dance. Roughly equivelent to experimental modern or post-modern dance in the U.S. The Japanese dancers we met had no hang-ups about what movement should look like, even when they were incredibly trained technical dancers. And as I described earlier, when watching Takeshi’s rehearsal, many of our students were highly trained technitions although you would never see straight, technical, technique-class movement.

I feel like I have said so little about actual Kyoto: the tiny winding alleys crowded with oversized doll houses that turn out to be actual homes and businesses (truly, on these hidden streets there would be many a doorway that came no higher than my chest and I am not a tall man!); major stores that exist up winding stairwells on 2nd and 3rd stories; the funky, small-tired, sometimes folding bikes that are everywhere; the sense of hidden and obscured things and places in very open space that has nothing to do with my assumptions about public vs. private; insistently traditional spaces flooded with flourescent lights; combinations in people of being direct and indirect, of having shame and modesty, that do not fit into a western opposition of these values. I experienced a deep sense of a consciousness thats ticked to a setting on an entirely different compass than that of the West.

Anyway I feel that there is so much concrete stuff that I haven’t even begun to mention. But, thankfully, Andrew has detailed alot of the actual facts of our life in Kyoto, so I don’t have to! And here I must say how spectacular Andrew was in Kyoto. All the Japanese fell in love with him. They adored him for his authoritative lucidity: quickly picking up on the colloquial and informal japanese ways of talking (he picked up enough japanese quickly enough to be able to tease them about their pronounciation of his name, as well as make fun of his and other gaijing pronounciations), and for his incredible geniality, generosity and spactacular kareoke abilities. His english is so good! they said alot, getting at a kareoke value that has its own evaluative category: the ability to pronounce the english like the original singers of the songs. It didn’t seem to occur to people that, being english speakers, that was an ability that came naturally! Although, the value of that fact may have been belied by my own feeble attempts to sing kareoke, producing results that were not consistent with the original versions of the songs in any of the categories of melody, rythym, intonation, style, or perhaps even, legibility of recognizable english sounds!

Kyoto was amazing, a truly special experience that will be resonating with me for a long time, influencing how I think of the possibilities of dance in the world. For one thing I feel determined to work harder, to make better dances! Its impossible to be around talented, intelligent artists and not feel spurred on to create a higher level of work. What does that mean exactly? I am not sure right now but I have some inklings. I’ve been thinking about the unique ways that a choreographic sensibility organizes meaning; how dances allow for all kinds of registers of physical meaning to associate and cohere in ways that contain both specific, physical moments and meta-levels of general meanings, moods, flow and patterns. And I’ve been thinking about how this can be applied to physical performance that need not look like technical dance but relies on profound physical intelligence and virtuosity nontheless. True, these are things I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but somehow, seeing the post-butoh, hungry, fully physcial, virtuoso, wide open artists that we met in Kyoto has opened up my thinking even more along these lines. I feel less stuck in a dance-y-dance vs. theatrical and athletic physicality opposition in my own mind. I feel like many things were begun in Kyoto and I look forward to continuing them. Headlong must collaborate with Takeshi, Megumi and Arrow Dance Communication! I would love to explore the possibility of inviting a handful of the super talented Kyoto artists we met to come to Dance Theater Camp next year.

Andrew’s 2002 Kyoto Journal

Kyoto Journals
In 2002, Headlong was selected to participate in the first US – Japan Exchange in Dance. Two Japanese artists, Takeshi Yazaki and Ko Murobushi, came to Philadelphia for two weeks and New York for two weeks. Then David and Andrew spent two weeks in Kyoto teaching, collaborating, and performing. We wrote these journals during the trip:

Andrew’s 2002 Kyoto Journal

Sunday, 5/19, I-don’t-know-what-time

The trip begins before daybreak in the pouring rain. Frances, my lovely new puppy, actually refused to step outside for a walk at 4:30 AM when she saw the downpour. A quick trip to pick up David at the parlor. (He has had no sleep; I have had two hours — a sort of pre-jet lag.) A wait for the egg-and-cheese stand to open at Philly International. The sun starts comes up and will remain up for about 26 hours.

Long-distance travel can mean only one thing: time to catch up on sentimental Hollywood movies. We are now four hours out of Japan and I have seen four feature length films. The theme was the tragic Russell Crowe-Meg Ryan romance. A Beautiful Mind-Proof of Life-Kate & Leopold. I loved them all. I even cried during Majestic. Something about the complete lack of shame inherent in travel. (The only reason I am now writing is that Beautiful Mind is playing again, an unfortunate overlap due to our flight connection.)

Along the way, we broke out the homeopathic remedy for jet lag, provoking an extended conversation with my seat mates. He engineers ATM machines for NCR, she travels along for fun. Apparently the new Euro notes are a big headache for these guys, too small and too stiff. The jet lag remedy is from a company that also sells No Hangover and No PMS. I am skeptical.

My seat mates also produced a bottle of whiskey early in the flight and have made serious inroads. They move from jovial chatter to mouth-breathing sleep to sudden bathroom visits to vicious spats with each other (including wife intentionally spilling ice water on husband’s legs).

From my guidebook, I learned that Japanese people politely line up when waiting for trains and then push and shove mercilessly when it’s time to get on. They also cannot abide nose-blowing in public: sniffing stuff up is fine, but expelling is unwelcome. I look forward to this being a terrific problem for David and myself.

Did I mention that there is not a single free seat on this flight? We are packed in. I am practicing reigning in my reckless American physicality, reducing the size of my kinesphere, putting the group before my individual needs.

Monday, 5/20, midnight

Just returned from a lively dinner chez Nori (also the JCDN 24-hour center). Ko arrived in dapper suit, having withdrawn from staying at the ryokan (surprising, as he had told us, “You must stay at the ryokan.”) The ryokan is too relaxing and loaded with memories for him, so he stays downtown at a business hotel. We will miss his humor here, though not his smoke output, which has expanded in our imaginations to industrial proportions.

Dinner was a splendid series of dishes, many vegetarian for the Headlong crew. Patrik, David, and Ko drank heartily of the wheat sake after it was announced that it did not produce hangovers. Ko was a flawless conversationalist, producing topic after topic is his genial way.

Today was a lovely day, and David and I reveled in our lack of jet lag (thank you homeopathy, I take back everything I said) as we walked through the warm, sunlit city. We visited the beautiful Kyoto Art Center, and saw the breathtaking studio, a half-acre of wood floor surrounded by ten-foot windows. OK, we’ll move here.

Tomorrow the workshops begin. We plan to work with talking and dancing, a fascination of ours and, according to Nori, uncommon in contemporary dance here. We hope the language barriers are an opportunity, not an impediment, in this work. We plan to use the language difference in creating dances together: maybe a two-language version of Permit. Translator Bo will be an important collaborator in all of this. We shall see…

Tuesday, 5/21, 11 am

I am sitting in the lovely garden in front of the ryokan. It a truly warm and sunny, something that has apparently been a rarity here in recent days. There are three trained bamboo shoots, old, nubby, and meandering, in the center of the pebbled garden. I sit at the low tables on a (slightly too) low stool, writing and thinking in the dappled sunlight. David is in his room, attending to Headlong business. Yes even on the other side of the world, administrative work pursues us like a demon. At one point this morning, David, Patrik, and I were all in the kitchen with our powerbooks, three itinerant choreographers looking for a data stream to tap.

The rooms here are marvelous: sliding screens, tatami floors, small futons with piles of warm bedding. Sitting on a cushion in my room late last night at the low table, I read and wrote with a wonderful sense of peace and quiet. Being low to the floor is centering. I may have to adopt this style in my home office.

Wednesday, 5/22, midnight

Second day of our workshop with a larger group (14, up from 10). We did some basic work on organizing space in improvisation and then returned to our duet structure. Each dancer made a four-movement phrase through a guided accumulation. Then they paired up to teach and combine their phrases in to a longer 8-movement phrase. We watched the unison duets (very elaborate and inventive — many dancers with experience in butoh), and then did a short structure: do the unison phrase once, then allow yourself to play with time only. So you may speed things up, slow them down, be still, repeat movements. But you may not go back. The dancers did some wonderfully sensitive work here. For the last structure, we started with the unison phrase and then allowed them to vary the movement, to “riff” off the original phrase like jazz musicians. Again these duets were beautiful and full-bodied. The last group kept dancing so long after the music ended that I played a second piece of music and they ended up making 6-minute dances. A truly adventurous group.

After rehearsal, we chatted with some of the students. Shina produced from her backpack a Headlong program from 2000 (Ulysses at Dance Theater Workshop), and mentioned seeing us at APAP. Much curiosity and interest in how you start and run a dance company.

Then we rushed to a gallery in north Kyoto to see an informal performance by Takeshi’s company, Arrow Dance Communication. They were performing and talking in the middle of an exhibit of photos of the company in rehearsal and performance. (Many of the pictures reminded me of Headlong rehearsals). We walked in as they were finishing a short improvisation. Takeshi spoke, and then improvised solo. Then he introduced us and had us come to the front. He introduced the next improvisation (speaking Japanese), and it gradually became clear that David and I were to be in it. Hell, yeah. So the eight of us (including five of Takeshi’s dancers) did a swirling mix of duets and group dancing. His dancers are beautiful improvisers — intuitive, responsive, idiosyncratic. The movement vocabularies were both kinetic and human, full of all the stuff I love in dancing. Afterwards, we met all of Takeshi’s dancers, and talked about possible collaborations over dinner at the photographer’s restaurant.

A great day, full of vibrant, fascinating people.

Friday, 5/24 2 pm

David, Ritsuko, and I are riding the train to Shikoku to teach a workshop for deaf students. It is a brilliantly sunny day, and the train rolls through tunnel after tunnel, small villages and farms nestled in the narrow plains between mountains.

Yesterday, we had Day 3 of our workshop and continued with our work on choreographic improvisation. In the workshop, I have been stressing the importance of being both present in your own body and present in the room. That combination of inside-outside is so often seen as contradictory; I think it is essential to see them as unified, not mutually exclusive. Here in Japan, many of the butoh-trained dancers are more internal, a refreshing change from American dancers’ outward focus. Dance, in this way, is political. The communities we show onstage embody a politic. And I find that the butoh dancers have an amazing presence inside themselves, but are lacking the connection, the mutual perception and response, that I crave in performance.

Happily, the tradition of butoh has made those exposed to it incredibly open in their ideas of dance. Their movement vocabularies and invention are stunning, ranging from behavioral to image-based to full-bodied explosiveness. There is no need to tall these dancers that all movements can be dance. As they accumulated phrases in duets (each contributing four movements), they made surprisingly long, intricate, and specific combinations, shifting rapidly from locomotion to subtle postural shifts. Their abilities to compose this movement improvisationally has been our focus, and they have risen to the challenge well.

Ritsuko says that butoh is dying as it has become “tradition.” She says true butoh is always new, always changing. Such a wonderful puzzle: how do you create a tradition with training, practices, audiences that can continually change and reinvent. American Modern dance wanted to be that but soon stabilized. I wonder if postmodern movement-based performance can continue to reinvent and adapt even as it becomes something you can study. It’s a bit like game theory, I think. What do you structure, and what do you leave open so that the ‘players’ may learn from experience and tradition while continually reinventing the game?

We also had a rehearsal with Takeshi. We will make a short piece for the final performance with him and Megumi, one of his dancers. We had a great first rehearsal. Takeshi gave a starting image: two Americans facing two Japanese. A quartet of arms: as Takeshi says, part Jackie Chan, part negotiation. We added quick stepping patterns, weaving the the two duos in and around each other. It was a truly cooperative rehearsal, with Takeshi, David, and me jumping in and out of leading and following, suggesting and selecting.

After our workshop, we had coffee with several students: Yum, Yuka, Mushi-chan, Mihiro, and translator Bo. Mihiro whipped out her tiny laptop and showed a video of her recent work. We had great discussions about making and showing work. They all say there very few outlets for showing, and it dawned on me that there is little or no artistic feedback available to these artists. So how about having a showing?

On the train, we told Ritsuko our idea about having informal showings. In general, showings don’t exist in Japan, and people are wary of giving feedback and scared of receiving it. Ritsuko said that JCDN is starting in-progress showings this year for certain artists. It seems to me that Kyoto dance artists are hungry for this. Many of the artists in our workshop, when asked expressed first surprise and then enthusiasm for the idea of showing their work to us. The art of feedback is so important in an artistic community: hearing and understanding the different perspectives, trying to give feedback that supports an artist in her work. Ritsuko believes — and I agree — that this is quite difficult for Japanese artists. Showings are the key for forming the sort of connections, communities, and critical, experimental thinking that Nori and Ritsuko want to bring to Japan. Hard to get going, but unstoppable once they do.

So we are going to talk to the artists in our workshop about having a showing on our last day. We’ll show the piece we’re making with Takeshi (a nice example of a very in-process work), and maybe Sarah and Patrik can be there to exemplify the feedback vibe. We’ll see. Forthrightness is a truly American trait. The idea of ‘speaking one’s mind’ has no analog here. It’s not that people consciously “hold back;” feedback immediately taps into the subtle Japanese art of understatement. The ongoing tensions between tatamae (stated position) and honne (real intent) are everywhere. So when we ask our translator Bo (a wonderful dancer) about a certain dish at a restaurant, she says, “Yes, it’s OK. Hmmmmm. Yes, quite good.” That way, we know it’s disgusting and we shouldn’t go near it. How do we work with this energy in a feedback showing? Maybe it’s not possible; maybe there needs to be a completely different form. Certainly, we cannot bring our brash American ways here, but maybe it’s possible to create the form of a showing and allow it to be filled by the local artists.

Same day, 10 pm

On the train back from Shikoku. An amazing day spent in the whirlwind of a Japanese deaf community. Wonderful students, teenagers through adults (plus one 5-year-old). David was masterful at combining American Sign Language, a bit of Japanese sign, and pantomime to keep the 20 students focused and unified. We did some physical warmup, some “energy-passing” in a circle, and a series of mirroring exercises. Then we moved on to a version of Richard Bull’s improvisation structure “Jesus’ Blood.” In this piece, the dance begin together in a clump in the center of the space. They follow an imaginary slow-moving point on the horizon, so that their facing slowly and constantly shifts (in unison). The dancers look out as they slowly rotate, but strive to dance with each other. It is a lovely, stark, and moving image. And by the third time we tried it, the students did amazing and daring work together: jumping, crawling, running, reaching, and, what was surprising to me, touching. I had been wary of initiating contact, since I assume my overly forward American “touchiness” will cross boundaries. But the students started touching each other and us. And once it started, it became a beautiful theme in the dance: dancers pulled each other back, leaned on each other, even climbed on each other. And of course, all in silence (the dance is usually done to Gavin Byars’ “Jesus Blood”). In a day filled with copious translation (English-Japanese-American Sign Language-Japanese Sign Language), this dance was a delicious moment of unmitigated physical communication and community.

The students were excited and gratified (three will even come to our performance in Kyoto — an expensive three-hour trip). And I’ll say it again: David was The Man.


Saturday, 5/25, midnight

A roller coaster of a day.

Up early to scout out a tape recorder for use in our workshop. Japanese electronics are so damn beautiful! I longed to buy a streamlined thousand dollar stereo system.

Then, we had a wonderful rehearsal with Takeshi and Megumi. We filled out the ideas we had started on, and embarked on a few new ones. It’s fascinating watching the collaborative dynamic emerge, as individuals step forward with ideas, innovations, and responses.

Then, in our workshop, we started working on talking. After a brief physical warmup, we did some vocal work: releasing the throat and mouth, shaping the breath, finding our resonators. Several dancers struggled to actually release their throats and shoulders. Overall, there were many ah-ha moments. We moved on to our “Language of Dance” structure. A soloist dances, a “describer” conveys the dance verbally to the “repeater,” who has her eyes closed. Then the repeater does a solo based solely on the verbal description. We also did the more nuanced version: the describer talks into a tape recorder, and the repeater (who covers both ears and eyes during the initial solo) dances based on the playback of the tape. The dancers did amazing work. We started building the skills required by the structure, even the verbal skills. The work was refreshing and invigorated.

At the end of class, we mentioned our idea of a showing, and after much back and forth with translator Bo, we finally managed to convey what it would be. There was so little response at first that I wondered if we would get anyone to show. And just as we were about to leave it as “talk to us after if you want to show,” Bo brilliantly suggested a show of hands. Mihiro’s shot up; Maho and her partner’s soon after; then Bo herself and, with a little encouragement, Mushi-chan. So it’s really gonna happen!

So exciting…..

But then a difficult (as the Japanese say) night at JCDN. Nori had earlier decided that he wanted us to show not the dances we had prepared to show, but a talking dance. We don’t have the costumes or the personnel to do a talking dance, and JCDN does not yet have interpreters that could translate. But we said OK. Let’s try to do what would be most interesting for this community. What ensued was a convoluted conversation for over an hour. Five people sat around at Nori’s with me and David, debating which of our pieces should be done and in what way. Nori himself admitted that his English is not good enough to understand the talking in our dances; that is, he has never fully understood a talking dance of ours. All that Japanese discretion and lack of directness tonight was difficult. Coded criticisms with no possibility of discerning the bottom line.

The goodwill of all involved notwithstanding, it was confusing. Exchange involves both communication and struggle, I suppose.

Part of the reason Headlong is here, as I understand it, is to model a process-oriented collaborative artistic model. That is why I think we should choose the truly process-oriented option: we perform ONLY our piece with Takeshi, and it includes a talking section. Risky? Of course. Being process-oriented is inherently risky. It trusts the intuition of artists and it demands a lot of the audience. Amen.

Also, tonight, David and I share a room due to some unnamed celebration here at the ryokan. So on the one night I crave a little space to think and emotionally process the day, we are laptop to laptop. Two too tall men sitting on the floor. Wondering what the hell to do.

Sunday, 5/26, 2:30 pm

We are at Takeshi’s rehearsal (Arrow Dance Communication) at Studio Claudia. His dancers are amazing, switching fluidly from clowning consciousness work to beautiful, idiosyncratic dancing. Two women do a butt duet, writing Japanese kanji characters in the air with their butts. This weaves into complex spatial patterns and a building vocabulary of movement, all inspired by the ass. Then, four men enter and stand in a line, stating out at the audience. Incredibly slowly, they begin a hand dance with one another, reaching, clasping, gesturing. the volume on this builds imperceptibly but relentlessly until they are grabbing, throwing, slapping and one is tossed into the air and down onto the floor. The remaining three link arms balletically and promenade through the space, breaking apart into frenetic, popping arm movements and another sudden stillness. I LOVE THIS WORK! It contains so much, so many aspects of each dancer/human. The worlds we enter are magical, and non-literal, but we know them well. His male dancers display an astounding range of expression: dancing, acting, clowning, physical theater.

They try a new improvisational structure: obsessive movements whirl them through the studio, isolated and colliding. They dance frantically for 5 minutes and then collapse. The whole scene reminds me of a Headlong rehearsal in many ways: running sections, trying new structures, discussing possibilities. But there is a depth and complexity to Arrow’s work that I want in Headlong. Bravery and precision. Images, not gimmicks.

In other news, David and I have decided to build a talking section into our collaboration with Takeshi and Megumi. David is interested in a quartet version of our Permit piece. In Permit, the two dancers ask each other for permission for all movement: May I step toward you? May I do a dance of longing innocence? David proposes pairing up American and Japanese, and crossing the answers. For example, I dance with Takeshi, but when I ask for permission, David, dancing with Megumi, answers. Mixed up languages and roles. Crossed lines of communication and interpretation.

Later the same day….

Well, the debate about Headlong’s performance seems to be resolving. We will perform our duets, and we will put a talking section into our dance with Takeshi and Megumi. All sides seem satisfied (I think actually satisfied), and I think/hope that the show will go well and all of this will seem a distant memory.

Tues, 5/28, 9:30 am

Oh, what a night……

Yesterday was spent in a five-hour rehearsal with Takeshi and Megumi, adding on to our opening section (stepping around each other, knotted arm grabs), creating solo versions of our tangled arm phrases, and working with talking. We tried a dizzying number of Permit variations. The variables were: who is paired up, who answers whose questions, and are we “linked” (i.e. David and I always dancing the same tasks.) The endless permutations of relationship, language, and space were fascinating. Takeshi and Megumi, having never danced this structure, were of course amazing. We gravitated toward a communal structure: the whole group gives approval/disapproval for each question (even though, for example, David and I have no idea what the Japanese questions mean). Also, maybe a section at the end in which Megumi shouts NO over and over, stopping us, silencing us. Then she proceeds to the corner for some kind of solo. (Once I found out that Megumi and Takeshi were both in musical theater when they were younger, I envisioned a bilingual version of “Summer Lovin” as the closer. Little interest from the group on that one……) It was a Headlong-y process, trying out more and more permutations of the improve, layering structure upon structure. I am confident we will find something interesting. I am thinking that we need to show it to a couple of Japanese and get some feedback on the talking and interacting.

Collaborating with Takeshi and Megumi is going amazingly well. All seem quite ready and able to express opinions with out giving or taking offense, and everyone is getting comfortable stepping forward with ideas and input. Not art by committee, but art by synergy. Like the students in our workshop, Takeshi and Megumi possess an incredible openness and willingness to risk in the dance studio. Outside of the studio, all are more reserved and (I speculate) feel bit less open. Perhaps the studio, and the practice of dancing, are realms in which all play is possible, including gender. In any case, it is remarkable, after witnessing Japanese politeness and reserve, to work so intensely with these full-bodied fearless artists.

After rehearsal, we went right upstairs for the “Dance Discussion: The Possibilities of Dance.” Well, there was a hell of a lot to talk about. Each artist/company gave an intro statement. I showed a section of Permit on video (it is Headlong’s very first dance), and talked about speaking and dancing. I described how talking both allows us to get at subject matter and allows to open the art form up to more people. Permit was inspired by Antioch College’s sexual assault policy. Antioch students were required to ask for each “ascending” level of intimacy: may I kiss you? May I take off your shirt? If you didn’t ask and receive a clear “Yes,” you risked being charged with sexual assault. Such a fascinating idea: that you can put into words all acts of intimacy, and that such acts exist on a commonly understood progression of increasing intimacy. Is it more intimate for me to stroke your ear or to lick your fingers? Are feet more intimate than armpits? And more broadly, the Antioch policy was an attempt to impose the supposed clarity of language onto the infinitely complex and subtle realms of sexual experiences. Take the complexity of embodied experience and put it into words. That interplay is central to Permit (and to many of our talking pieces). In the dance, Amy and I take turns asking permission to do certain movements. May I enter the space? May I walk in a large circle? The questions exist on two levels: choreography and relationship. May I contrast your long diagonal with a slow curving walk? May I try to attract your attention with strange arm gestures? May I move in unison with you? So we are laying bare both the making of the dance and the boundaries of our relationship. As such, the talking in Permit is both a way to get at specific (political) content, and a lens into dance making for those who are unfamiliar with dance. Many members of our audience over the years have told us that our talking dances like Permit taught them about looking at dance. Movement is something you can look at, analyze, and interpret. And the meanings of dance are not set, they depend on your interpretive lens. We hope that this work can diffuse the biggest obstacle for new audiences, namely the idea that there is some secret, specific meaning to modern dance that they are not getting.

I also spoke about our community in Philadelphia, and the idea of showings, both free performances to bring in new audiences and showings to get feedback on works-in-progress. I said that we always proceed from the premise that people love dance, people need dance. If you give the a little entree into the art form, it becomes very meaningful to them. So often in America, I sense the idea that dance is obscure and not particularly relevant, and people need to be tricked into coming to see it. We sneak dance into the culture like broccoli into a child’s meal. This self-hating idea of dance does much to keep people away, I think. And it leads to the dumbed-down “accessible” dance that sacrifices art for subscription audiences.

Anyway, I used up our whole 15 minutes, so David graciously offered to speak later. (Sorry, Dabido-chan.) Sara and Patrik gave a lovely video/talking presentation about site-specific work. The video was so essential, a beautiful lens into their wide-open world of site work. Sara also situated their work in terms of American modern dance history from Isadora to Trisha Brown. In retrospect, I realize that this is very meaningful to a Japanese audience. I had emailed Roko Kawai (Philadelphia choreographer and performer) asking advice on doing a feedback showing with the Japanese students. She (brilliantly) recommended explaining it as a system, a school of thought (such as Liz Lerman’s five steps for feedback) that has been effective and respected in America.

The discussion was hampered by the elaborate translation needs, and by the wide range of topics JCDN wanted to cover. But in the end, I think seeds were planted, and this conversation will continue. I have the impression that Ko, asked about community and collaboration a la Headlong, responded that he does not collaborate or have community and therefore has nothing to say on the topic. With the translation and the politeness, it is hard to say how harsh this moment was. Interestingly, Takeshi, not often one to step forward in public speaking situations and not all inclined to contradict Ko, insisted on speaking next and said that he was very impressed with American communities, collaborations, and showings, and felt he had a lot to learn from it. I’m not exactly sure, but I think that was a rather heavy moment.

After the meeting, the night really took off.

Fourteen of us went to restaurant called Laugh-Laugh. We sat in a private room with a sunken table (so you can sit upright) and a large lazy-susan built into the table for distributing food and drink around. We ordered piles of cheap food (an interesting mix of bar food like cheese poppers and elegantly prepared Japanese dishes) with much discussion of what was bejitarian. It seems very difficult for the Japanese to get a handle on my vegetarianism. Like my friend Pierce’s mother growing up, every meal begins with an elaborate series of questions concerning WHAT EXACTLY ANDRIU-SAN DOES EAT. Halfway through the meal, I asked Sada (young club kid hipster who does graphic design work for JCDN) about the massive TV in the corner of our room. I was thinking sports bar. He said it was karaoke. Bo-chan, always the mischievous and daring one, said, “Andrew you will sing a karaoke song.” I nodded and laughed as she flipped through the massive songbook. She wasn’t joking. A minute later, the TV was up and running, she handed me a mic, and I launched into Purple Rain. Hot damn! I was in utter heaven.

Well, that sure got everybody’s attention, and an evening of raucous and touching karaoke ensued. Kathryn, the cultural attaché from the Australian Embassy kicked out Madonna’s Borderline with Brick. Bo-chan, unrequested, booted up Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone for me and an Australian man (so many words in that song….) And after a couple of false starts, Ko-san sang a couple of old Japanese songs. Watching this man, one of the last true butoh masters, sing songs from the culture he left decades ago, was intense. The most moving of the night was Sato-san, head of JCDN, singing a very sad Japanese song. Truly from the heart. And then a duet with Ritsuko, his wife. Karaoke at its best. And after refusing to sing all night, Bo-chan and Yuka-chan closed the session with a glorious theme song from a Japanese anime show. Bubble gum pop meets Hannah-Barbera. It brought down the house. The amazing thing about Bo is that she had engineered the entire thing surreptitiously. If we had had a big group discussion about karaoke, it would never have happened so fluidly, so generously. Thank god for Bo-chan.

Then a bike ride back to the ryokan with Kathryn, the Aussie. Fascinating conversation about feminism and sexuality in Japan. She talks about coming from second-wave feminism in Australia to Japan, where there has not really even been first-wave feminism. Must remember this……


Thursday, 5/30, 10 am

Yesterday was the last day of workshops, and a damn long day it was. First, we rehearsed with Takeshi and Megumi for three hours, a less productive rehearsal than the previous. Then right to the workshop where we did more assignments for the first hour. We made four small groups with different assignments: a solo of just head and eye movements, a full-body solo initiated from the head, a solo of just the butt, and a full-body solo initiated from the butt. We showed the groups in various combinations, encouraging them to tweak the time and space of their solos in order to make a dance together. At the end, I combined two big groups and gave them a timing structure, and it didn’t work. It really didn’t work. The particulars of each group’s movement were lost, which was great, because it led to an excellent discussion about trying things out. One of the great things about working in this way is that you can fail. You can try out many ideas and variations quickly. You can make space for the happy accidents (the Japanese quite like this expression and often giggle when it is translated).

Then we began our Informal Feedback Showing. We introduced the structure as a school of thought, a technique developed by Liz Lerman (who actually borrowed it from someone else, yes?) and used to good effect in many situations in America. (Is it just me or is my English getting really weird and awkward?) The choreographer shows the work with no preface other than title (no apologizing allowed). For step one of the feedback, we first go around and say something we noticed, something that stood out (no interpretation allowed). In step two, the choreographer describes what she is working on, where she is in her process, and asks any questions she wants answered. Then we have an open discussion based on WHAT THE CHOREOGRAPHER IS WORKING ON. We stressed this over and over: we are not here to make this person’s work more like ours; we are hear to support her in achieving her artistic vision, following through on her artistic questions. This is of course a subtle point, because we do want to react honestly and from our own eyes, mind, and heart. Simultaneously, we want to harness our reactions and thoughts in support of the artist’s work.

So we began.

Maho and her partner (they have a company called Selenographica) performed a raucous ten-minute duet. Shifting between skimming the floor, manipulative partnering, and intense sequential movement, they fought, searched, flew. It was quite striking and beautiful. She is strong at partnering and he is a fearless throw-your-body-around contortionist (occasionally provoking startled cries from the audience). The discussion was great. Everyone said something they noticed. There was some misunderstanding here, and I struggled to communicate that they should say SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED: a movement, a moment, a specific quality. They tended, throughout the showing, to be more general: I noticed your relationship, I noticed you were searching for something. But still, step one grounded the conversation in what actually happened, and broke the ice by making everyone speak. In step two, Maho described that this a ten-minute version of what they hope will be a twenty minute piece. We had a great discussion of the images and strengths of the dance, and many in the audience agreed that the dance felt complete; if they want to extend, it needs to move in a new direction. And we questioned the ending (Maho, after searching and searching on the floor, mimes finding a contact lens, sewing up the piece too cleanly), which Maho seemed to agree with.

(Days later, maho and Shuichi, her dance partner, will tell us that the showing was tremendously helpful, and unlike other “feedback” experiences they have had.)

Bo-chan showed a delicate, jewel-like solo full of personal movement. The piece provoked a great discussion about possibilities. People focused on the specificity of the movement vocabularies, the “Bo-ness” of the dancing.

>Then Arrowhead (the collaboration of Headlong and Arrow Dance Communication) showed an excerpt from our quartet: the four-way Permit section and the accumulating solo-duet-trio to a one-minute Eltro song. The audience clearly got the talking section, and the bilingual play was compelling rather than distracting. Mihiro said she felt a bit of a letdown after the talking section, that it is a hard act to follow. Others disagreed, quite decisively (ah, now we’re having a dialogue!). We wondered if playing the one-minute Eltro song three times in a row (solo-duet-trio) was working. We were considering spacing the three versions through the piece. But there was resounding support for the repetition. (In the end, we perform it like that, and Yoko-san later tells me that she thinks this section should be the ending.)

We moved to the large tatami-matted traditional space norally used for traditional Japanese performance. First, we watched a truly transcendent solo by Mushi-chan, who is utterly fascinating to me (Philly folks, think Mauri Walton plus Deirdre Egan in the physicality of Myra Bazell.) She emerges from behind a sliding screen door in white lingerie, her shaved head and muscular physique transformed by its femininity. As she turns around, we see a bulge in her butt, the image already layered and playful. She begins a controlled butoh-like cross through the space, her face utterly alive. When she pulls black fabric from her butt (first a tail that thrashes around, then a lasso carving the space), the piece climbs to new level. Pulling the fabric over her head, it drops down as a slinky black dress and a sultry French love song plays as Mushi-chan unleashes a mind-bending solo melding seduction, contortion, butoh, and exaggeration. She is utterly convincing and we are mesmerized. Then she launches into her own song (in Japanese), a butoh nightclub explosion. (Seeing this dance in a room suited to dancing in kimono adds to its power). This discussion is fast and excited, and humble Mushi-chan bows after each comment. There is great admiration for the sexiness of the dancing, unusual for Mushi-chan and, I think, for contemporary butoh. The over-the-top drag show energy is a magical catalyst for the concentrated power of the butoh. There is talk of some transition problems, gaps between strong moments.

Last, we watch an opening image for a piece by Mihiro. She takes a long time setting it up. At last we enter the darkened room. Just the light from my laptop glows (her attempt to have low lighting) behind a cardboard box. Smoke rises and we hear the sound of someone coughing inside the box. After 30 seconds, Mihiro enters and picks up the box to reveal a tape recorder. That’s it. This is a perfect piece for us to watch. Over and over, Japanese have told us of their wariness about showing unfinished work. We talk about the value of watching Mihiro’s tiny work-in-progress, both for her (she has a lot of technical aspects to work out) and for us (we can imagine the piece that emerges from this image). It is a great ending to our showing.

We then talked for a while about the showing. Takeshi contrasted the positive feedback here with the highly critical feedback many Japanese give. We emphasized that if you begin with the premise of helping an artist achieve her vision, you can critique and still be on the artist’s side. Many authority figures give what is to me remarkably critical feedback, sometimes just before or after a performance. It seems either nothing is said (Japanese politeness), or scathing categorical judgment is unleashed (Japanese right/wrong educational thinking). No wonder people are nervous about feedback: they are anticipating being harshly graded by a teacher figure. Experimental art is not like handwriting, it does not strive toward a commonly-agreed standard and it does not profit from scolding. Honesty, yes, with a healthy dose of love, remembering always that great art emerges from doing fully, not doing correctly. As I tell my high school students: when your dance reaches a point where it seems to be falling apart, you know you are on the right track.

I asked all the artists if they would want more such showings. Sato-san had indicated he wanted to create a mechanism for showings and feedback, but he was unsure about interest and participation. All the artists strongly supported the idea. They want to show work, and they want to learn about choreography by watching and discussing other artists’ work.

This showing felt to me the most important “exchange” we have to offer here. Tapping the intelligence and insight of the artists in this community goes a lot farther than any “teaching” we may impart.

Friday, 5/31, after midnight

Another 12-hour day at the Kyoto Art Center. First, we went with Megumi to look for costumes for our new quartet (“Arm’s Length” is the English title; the Japanese title is similar but, I think, lacks the metaphor). At Uni Qlo (I think it’s supposed to suggest “unique clothes”) we found some lovely short-sleeved collared shirts that we will wear buttoned up. And after much wandering through grungy, expensive hip-hop shops, we found some pants that Megumi will shorten into knickers. Yazaki-san met up with us mid-shopping after a blistering series of cell phone calls between him and Megumi. Cell phones are of course ubiquitous, sleekly beautiful, high-tech (many if not most are also low-res digital cameras), and endowed with a dizzying assortment of rings. Tonight, during a run-through of Takeshi’s solo, a delicate piano etude broke through the silence of the opening section. Unfortunately, it was Ritsuko-san’s cell phone. The music faded as she fled the theater.

We returned to the Art Center and ate lunch in the cafe there. Which reminds me that it’s about time to convey the wonder, the glory, the goddamn righteousness of the Kyoto Art Center.

1. It is located in a beautiful old school in the center of town.

2. As you enter, you walk past a lovely garden and the outdoor eating/smoking tables.

3. There are two MASSIVE studio/theater spaces that we have been using. The top floor space has gigantic 10-foot windows, and measures at least 80’ by 50’.

4. Throughout the beautiful building there art art studios, classrooms, dark rooms, and galleries and so much stuff happening all the time. The feel of a art school, only with professional artists.

5. There is a magnificent cafe open all day long serving food, coffee, alcohol, and sweets. They will even send a waiter to deliver your order to the rehearsal studio!!!! I AM NOT JOKING! Or you can sit at the old wooden tables, or outside in the sunshine. The coffee is strong and delicious and you get a special deal on “Cake Set.” Cake Set is one of the first Nihongo words I learned, as it means coffee and cake served together, often at a 100-yen discount. Oishii. As if I needed another reason to drink coffee and eat cake.

6. They sponsor exchanges, workshops, residencies, and amazing projects like the upcoming “Coaching Project,” in which Takeshi and Megumi will work with selected dance artists thrice weekly for several months, creating a new work and teaching both technique and choreography.

7. There is a staffed office open until 10 pm every day to answer questions, loan out CD players, etc. I mean this place has resource and uses it right.

8. There is a huge sand/clay courtyard in the center of the horseshoe-shaped building. At different times of the day, this yard is configured for tennis (a net is carried out and set up) or, my favorite, croquet. Well-dressed middle-aged Japanese with large plastic numbers pinned to their clothes mercilessly send one another’s croquet balls out of bounds. Can you imagine sipping iced coffee on a rehearsal break and watching this?

Saturday, 6/1, 5:30 pm

I am in the Kyoto Art Center cafe, on a break from our long day of run-through/dress rehearsal/performance. I am eating the “Vegetable Sandwiches,” which varies from day to day. Today’s six slender, crustless sandwiches include icy tomato, canned white asparagus, delicious potato salad (on the sandwich), and some horseradishy mustard. Vegetables are good here, but they tend toward the daikon-squash-onion realm. It ain’t the world of the big, ripe summer tomato. The cafe also offers “Fruits Sandwiches,” which feature strawberries, bananas, and grapes layered with whipped cream (!) on six slender, crustless sandwiches. It’s a real treat, but not great pre-dancing food. Yesterday, with Takeshi and Megumi here, I managed to get a delicious spaghetti in tomato sauce, but I am wary of trying to order it on my own. I am offered many bejitarian dishes here that have “just little bit pork.”

The show is rather long (at least two hours with the intermission) and Megu-chan (that’s Megumi’s nickname) says that dance shows in Japan usually run one hour. I got to watch Sara and Patrik’s lively and often funny piece, a shifting text and movement romp, though I missed them dropping eggs, jell-o, and sugar onto the floor from a ladder. (They are saving the mess for performance.) And I saw Ko’s duet with the the 17-year-old woman. Wow. I did not really get this one. They have some charming and playful interactions (at one point, they have a conversation in Ko’s signature screech-voice.) All in all, a brave move, but to me an inscrutable dance. Ko doesn’t really cut loose, and the young woman is a valiant but in the end unconvincing performer. But many people are saying how touching it was, how moved they were by the images of old man and young girl. So maybe it’s a cultural thing. (I got a bit creeped out at one point.) I wonder if the fact that it’s Ko-sensei impacts people’s reading of the work. What would I think if Merce Cunningham danced this piece?

Afterwards, we will have a talk-back which Sato-san claims will last 20 minutes. First each of us has one minute to talk (plus one minute for translation), which will take 12 minutes if everyone is short. then questions from the audience, though folks are skeptical (me too) about anyone asking a question. It’s not the way the education system works here, and we have experienced many times the silence and thoughtful stares that greet any offer to take questions.

Monday, June 3, crossing the international date line…

We are going home.

Last night we had a huge dinner with tons of folks, and then Sato-san (God bless him) reserved the karaoke room at Laugh-Laugh. It took a little while to get going, but we had a rockin time. The key to satisfying karaoke with Nihonjin is to make really popular song selections. Hotel California, Tears in Heaven, Stayin’ Alive, Dancing Queen, and Let’s Groove Tonight were all winners. Other highlights included Mushi-chan’s heartbreaking renditions of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors, a valiant attempt at Bohemian Rhapsody, and more anime theme songs (a real crowd-pleaser). Sato-san ordered us lots of wheat sake, Mina and Yuka hit some beautiful harmonies, and we finally got kicked out around 2:30.

We lingered in the room, at the shoe-frontier, and outside on the street for over an hour. Good-byes intertwined with talk of the future. We finally caught a cab back to Yoshimizu and stayed up till about 6 am packing and talking.

Time for some general observations.

Our students were amazing. They were brave, well-trained, thoughtful, collaborative, and fun as hell. More than anything, they possessed an expansive idea of dance, including the full range of movement and performance. In my two weeks in Kyoto, I never once encountered dancey-dance. Everything I saw in classes and showings contained a humanity, a sense of dance as a bodily art form, not a specific movement tradition. I imagine that the community we entered is a special one, but still I was impressed and excited.

Our collaboration with Takeshi and Megumi was energizing, productive, and magical. Just because you like someone’s work (and like them personally) does not mean you will be able to collaborate. Somehow, it was fluid and fast. Takeshi has an amazing sense of timing/rhythm/flow. After run-throughs, he would make tiny, sensitive adjustments to our timing. In the end, the dance had a strong sense of continuity given our section-by-section process. Lights up on the David and I facing Megumi and Takeshi just right of center stage. A shortened version of Megumi’s one-minute solo ends with her walking through us to a small tape recorder upstage. She presses play, joins the group, and the Beatles’ She Loves Me plays from the crappy tape recorder. We shift places in increasingly complex (and fast) patterns. We grab hands, arms, slap. Megumi gets stuck in a frantic arm-slapping loop until she asks (in Japanese) May I stop? Takeshi says Yes; David and I say Hai. A bilingual, patterned version of Permit ensues. David and Megumi do the romantic twister section; Takeshi and I stand together and provide Yes’s and No’s. A short men’s trio leads to Megumi’s repeated and vehement NO NO NO NO. The Eltro music propels her into her solo, I join as the music repeats, Takeshi joins as it repeats again. She Loves Me returns full-volume for a final explosive improv. In the last image, we are together again, hands slowly intertwining but not touching. Takeshi asks May I touch you? I answer Hai.

In five rehearsals, we made a 20-minute quartet. And it was truly enjoyable to perform. Dancing together was easy, funny, inspiring. I am deeply grateful to connect with these two brilliant artists.

People had time. After our workshops, students would sit around talking, stretching for a LONG time. Then maybe we would go for coffee or dinner. And our Arrowhead rehearsals would inevitably go long by an hour or two. This sense of time really helped me connect with people. The language barrier meant that communication took longer. And lingering in the dance studio (instead of the outside world) meant more openness, as the dance studio was a clear refuge from formality and politeness.

There is no money for contemporary dance in Japan. Arrow has no money. They get free rehearsal space, no one gets paid, they do costumes in-house (Megumi), a couple of small sponsorships and ticket sales pay for performances. If you can win one of the choreography competitions, you can tour Europe and maybe get some corporate money. That’s why JCDN is so important. God bless em.

Butoh’s influence is vast and beautiful. The closest analogy in America is contact improvisation: experimental dancers who have done contact are open to partnering of all kinds in their dancing and dance-making. Japanese exposed to butoh seem open to all kinds of emotionality, ugliness, imagery in movement. In America, we constantly have to argue (to presenters, to funders, to critics, to dancers) that dance is the movement of the body, all of it. Not just the pretty stuff, not just the stuff to counts, not just the difficult stuff. In Japan, I never once had to encourage dancers to open their minds to non-dance-tradition movement. Wow.


  • Feeling ironic. Next to the decorous genuineness of my Japanese friends, I felt cynical and full of irony. It’s a good insight, and I am using it now that we’re back.
  • Tech people dabbing the audience carpet with tape, picking up dust and tiny hairs. Truly meticulous, rendering the carpet an inside, shoeless space for the audience.
  • Auto-flush urinals that flush twice: first while you are peeing, and then several seconds after you leave. I can’t imagine the reason for this, but I have encountered it many times.
  • Textured rubber matting everywhere (sidewalks, airport, Art Center) for navigational use by the blind. Also tones indicating when it is safe to cross the street, and even a few recordings announcing the name of the intersection.
  • The massive, often beautiful stones sunk into the ground at street corners. A bit of nature, of bonkei, in the middle of the city.
  • The utter lack of T-shirts with kanji characters. It’s all Eigo, all the time.
  • Sachie and Ely, two wonderful students in our workshop for the deaf in Shikoku. Despite the double language barrier, we connect. They are graceful, open. They travel three hours and sit on cushions in the front row of our performance.
  • Mushi-chan and Bando, two thirds of Hanaarashi (stone-flower), a contemporary butoh company. Shaved heads, huge smiles, very little English. We have intuitive movement conversations and running jokes. Mushi-chan does an astounding solo, one of the best dances I’ve seen in a long time. Hanaarashi schedules a special showing with us (when Bando is available), performs a delicate and full improvisational duet. They listen earnestly and intently to feedback. They tell us that they spend much of their creative process on the spiritual and emotional aspects of their art. I encourage them to focus on choreography as well (shaping, transitions, rhythm) so that we may all better share in the deeper aspects of their work. It is a great discussion, raising questions of passion versus form, inspiration versus communication.
  • Big group dinners inevitably ending with Ayaka (JCDN’s secret strength) using her cell phone as a calculator to tabulate each person’s share of the bill. All food is served communally, and no distinction is made in payment.
  • The heated-seat toilet at the ryokan. A dream. It has an electronic bidet system, too. Sadly it is wedged into a tiny W.C. space. David and I wanted to unbolt it and bring it back to Philadelphia, but we didn’t have any metric wrenches.
  • The tricked-out tinted window vans with Harley-loud pipes, cruising the streets or just parking and profiling. Rebellious rooms on wheels in a country with little square footage to spare.

(A Day in the Life of an Ugly American)

You get large, often quilted moist towelettes that wrapped in plastic (“Sawa Windy”) before every meal. it is nice to wash the hands, and towelette is somewhat fair game for dabbing the fingers clean during the meal. But there is no equivalent of the Napkin, which has shown me just what a sloppy eater I am. Chopsticks do help, as you can place the food inside your mouth before releasing it. But suffice it say that David and I make our share of messes on the table and on ourselves, with no easily available cleanup mechanism.

The sight of a man pissing seems rather accepted. Some bathrooms have frosted glass windows in front of the urinals, and doors that open directly from the urinals to the outside world. In Shikoku, a unisex public bathroom features stalls for women and male pooing; the urinals are at the entrance. Luckily, I finish pissing just before two 10-year-old girls enter.

You have to take off your shoes to go into store dressing rooms.

No jaywalking. It’s so established that if you do go against the light, you may well lure into the street unsuspecting Japanese who will assume the light MUST have changed.

No tipping. Anywhere.

Waiters leave the check at your table, usually when the food comes. You take it up to the register.

Avoid the word “interesting.” It’s Japanese for “I hate it.”

Japanese pedestrians have an immediate Pavlovian response to the sound of a bicycle’s bell. I was a bit shy using mine at first (on busy streets, bikes are ridden on the sidewalk), till I found that I could clear a path and no one turns a head or interrupts a cell phone call.

Get a bike.

Lots of bowing, some handshaking, almost no hugging. Freaker Japanese can be convinced to hug, usually only in the lean-forward-so-our-chests-don’t-meet way. A couple of quick, annoyed pats tells you the hug is over and was probably a big effort in the first place, Mr. Gaijin. If you want a nice American bear hug, bring a friend from home.

>Meishi (business cards) are a huge deal. Bring nice ones, keep them in a case, offer them with both hands, accept another’s with both hands, bow, read it carefully, comment on it, bow, bow a little more, and put it somewhere nice. Don’t fold it or write on it.

Dancers are less modest than others, but still change in and out of dance clothes in a private space.

A small hand towel will make nifty addition to your Japanese dance wardrobe. Curl it into your collar (think Rocky Balboa) while you dance and wipe off sweat with it during breaks. If it’s good enough for Ko-san and Masayo-san, it’s damn well good enough for me.

>Say Eh-Toe and Ah-No a lot. It’s like saying ummmm. It buys you time while you look up how to say “I’m sorry I spilled green tea on your meishi.”

Oh, the coins. So many of em. The smallest bill is worth about eight bucks. Coins pile up in my room and still every day my pelvis goes out of alignment from the weight of the day’s yen in my pocket. Spend em early and often, especially the discus-sized 10-yens.

The ethic of I’ll-get-the-check-tonight-you-get-it-tomorrow doesn’t really fly. We can’t even buy Takeshi and Megumi a coffee without them foisting more leaden Japanese coins on us. When Brick insisted on paying for a dinner ($40 for four people), there was dismay, followed by outrage, followed by shame, followed by profuse gratitude.

Say “Gozaimasu” constantly, but don’t ask Japanese what it means. It is apparently meaningless, and they quickly grow angry when asked to consider that fact.

No syllables are accented (think “Go! Team! Go!”). If you can master this (it’s so hard for Americans), you may actually be able to communicate a bit. And Nihonjin will praise you lavishly.

Avoid saying things are “difficult.” It’s Japanese for “No way.”

Little gifts and cards go a long way. They are exchanged constantly. (When Japanese exchange students come to the high school where I teach, I often get a small card/gift at the beginning and end of the term.) We received several lovely gifts from our students and a box of “interesting” Japanese sweets when we went to Shikoku. Wrapping counts, and I had trouble finding it. (Try a big book store where they often sell single sheets.) The stationery here is beautiful, so a nice note will do quite well.

Shower before you get into the bath. I guess a lot of Americans blow this one, cause I was told it about 27 times. No soap or dirty bottoms in the baths.

If you have big feet, bring slippers from home. They’re everywhere here, but they-re all size 3 extra narrow.

Questions end with “ka” and are not necessarily inflected up.

Watch your head, especially in traditional architecture.

Slurp you noodles but not your beverage.

Don’t blow your nose, fart, or burp. Do snort your snot up into your head loudly, use toothpicks, talk with your mouth full, and smoke.

When not using your chopsticks, balance them on a chopstick rest. If there is none, fold the paper chopstick holder into a v-shaped pup tent and balance on that.

OK to bring the little plate up toward your mouth for more effective chopsticking. Some folks even shovel it right in, but I try to avoid that.

Alcohol tolerance seems to break two ways: those who down quarts of sake and keep calling for Americajin to sing Bon Jovi, and those who take two sips of beer, turn red and start acting like Bon Jovi groupies. I’m a lifelong lightweight, and I must confess I savored outdrinking my comrades every night. Even Mr. Two-Beers-And-I-Can’t-Ride-A -Bike can feel hardcore.

Learn how to say “I don’t speak Japanese” (Nihongo ga wakarimasen.) and “Do you speak English?” (Eigo o hanashimasu ka.) Much better than just launching into English.

Other people are -san, not you. It’s like bragging if you -san yourself.

You can -chan a fair number of folks. But wait to see if anyone else does it.

The women on the street trying to get you to take them to a bar are hostesses, not hookers.

Most bars charge a sort of cover (on the bill, not at the door).

Though some Japanese don’t drink the tap water, it seemed damn fine to me. Sure better than South Philly water.

The shoe thing. It’s complex, but basically you want to distinguish between outdoor space (shoes) and indoor space (slippers). There are subtler distinctions as well, but gaijin are not expected to grasp them. Try to master the tricky skill of taking off your shoes in the outside, “dirty” area while you land your stockinged feet in the “clean” area. Untie your shoes, loosen the laces, and turn them around to make your departure graceful.

Not much cheese (chizz-u), and hardly any good cheese. Big deal. Have some more daikon.

Cars go on the left, bikes go on the sidewalk. On the little streets, anything goes.

When using an ATM (or the door to get into an ATM machine), don’t believe the diagram showing how to insert your card. Try it the opposite way first. Something about the international date line, I think.

The silk suit-wearing young men with long dyed hair and cell phones trolling the street corners of the nightlife area are trying to turn young women. Stone cold pimpin.

There are subtle and complex codes about where one may and may not park a bicycle. A bit like learning how South Philadelphia Italians demand respect of the sidewalk space (it is like an extension of their living room).

Convenience stores offer great rice balls, beer, wine, and yogurt for the dairy-craving. I eat two rice/nori pucks and three yogurts a day.

No one in Japan is gay, OK? So just shut up about it already. All right, maybe there are a few, but can’t we talk about something else?

If someone says you have “gay atmosphere,” laugh heartily and change the subject. If that doesn’t work, blow you nose and get in the bath without showering first.

Don’t mention marijuana or any other drug. Drug laws are super-strict. It’s like asking someone if they know any rapists. Japanese who seem stoned are just thinking.

Miso soup is amazing, but hard to order alone. Ritsuko laughed heartily when I ordered it at the train station. Akin to ordering just ketchup at McDonald’s.

Mister Donut is not bad at all.

Starbucks is everywhere, but Japanese will hate you if you go there. (OK, that’s a lie. But why go to Starbucks when there are so many amazing cafes?)

Some trains you have assigned seats, some not. Always your ticket requires you to be in certain cars. Line up early (look for marks on the platform…..the trains are utterly accurate) and you might get to see the battalion of train-cleaners AND the automatic seat rotation system for trains reversing at the end of the line.

Fluorescent light is ubiquitous (poor Sara-san). My beautiful tatami-matted room has sliding screens, a lovely low table and a TEN-FOOT DOUBLE ROW OF FLUORESCENTS!

Do karaoke, avoid pachinko. Like speaking four words of Japanese, any modicum of karaoke ability will attract lavish praise. And requests. In the generous spirit of karaoke, I consented to such requests as Tears in Heaven (Clapton), and Luka (Suzanne Vega). Just don’t ask me to sing those songs in America.

Clap with hands together in front of you, prayer position, like the wind-up monkey with the cymbals. If you want someone to “come here,” extend your hand PALM-DOWN and flap the all fingers as one. Palm up is like calling a dog.

The “u” following the “s” at the end of many Nihongo verbs is almost silent. It just means you start to turn the “s” sound toward a “u” before cutting it off. Pucker up a little but don’t go “oo.”

Don’t walk the streets with a cup of coffee. You can, for some reason, walk around with ice cream.

The coffee is delicious and strong. No refills.

Glasses of water, sometimes though not always offered with meals, will be tiny glass thimbles. Encourage the waiter to refill your glass 10-12 times. Make em earn that zero-yen tip.

Behavior that Americans consider rude is called “shy;” what Americans consider friendly is called “rude.”

Traditional hotels (ryokans) give you a futon on the floor (much thinner than the plump American liberal arts futon) and one of those seed husk pillows. If you want a little softness for your head, do what I did and steal an airline pillow on the way over.

If it’s hard for you to sit on the floor, choose the side by the wall and lean. Women can sit legs-to-the-side style, men seem to stick with kneeling and cross-legged.

Many traditional sit-on-the-floor restaurants have metal hangers on the walls for your coat.

You are not supposed to put shoyu (soy sauce) on certain dishes, I can’t for the life of me figure out which ones. But it’s more specific than Americans’ idea of soy sauce as hipster salt.

Japanese pickle everything. Whole stores are devoted to the Wide, Wide World of Pickles, and they are often served with dinner.

No sudden moves at those low-to-the-floor-tables. An errant, oversized American knee can send dinner for six across the room.

Japanese students rarely attend classes. Mostly they wander the shrines, parks, and streets of Kyoto with strange written surveys for English speakers. Where do all these surveys end up?

There are two names for 4 and two for 7. Abstract numbers are a different system from numbers of objects. Some numbers change for telling time. Damn. But they are almost always written as numerals, not kanji.

Don’t have a name with a “r” sound, “u” sound, or short “a.” People named Andrew, for example, might consider going by a nickname like Hahnj-leeoo.

Dance Insider

Dance Insider
In 2001, I started writing occasional articles for danceinsider. (visit the site; you’ll be glad you did.) These five articles, technically reviews, were chances for me to explore what I (mostly) love about Philadelphia art and artists. So it’s half dance criticism, half artist’s journal. When I go back and read them now, they seem so damn optimistic, utopian even.

– Andrew Simonet