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 —www.headlong.org.)

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 www.headlongperformanceinstitute.org 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, www.headlong.org–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 tohttp://www.headlong.org.


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

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