Playing the Pool
Headlong Dance Theater moves from the stage to the water.
By J. Cooper Robb
September 8, 2004
Even for a company known for reinventing itself with each new production, it seemed that Headlong Dance Theater had finally gone off the deep end when its new production was announced. Dancing in a swimming pool? Isn’t that activity reserved for those skinny girls in sparkling outfits who compete in synchronized swimming at the Olympics? Nevertheless, that’s exactly what the troupe has done forHotel Pool, a production that’s imaginative and daring.
Created by David Brick, Amy Smith and Andrew Simonet as a sort of over-the-rainbow-and-into-the-water experience, Hotel Pool centers around a cranky business traveler (Smith) who wants to do nothing more than check into her room and lie down. One hitch: The card key she receives at the front desk isn’t actually for a room, but for the hotel’s pool. Furious, she calls the front desk and demands they rectify their mistake. But is it a mistake?
A journey into a magical realm occupied by five aquatic nymphs, Hotel Pool explores the cost of selling your soul to the corporate world. Harried and exhausted, the business traveler is trapped in the ever-spinning wheels of commerce. It’s a world in which time is always short and simple joys are nonexistent.
The production, which has considerably more text (written by Pankaj Venugopal, Mark Lord and Smith) than the average dance show, has parallels to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. But where Peter is intent on never growing up, the business traveler’s journey is a return to the joyful innocence of youth.
With co-creator Brick serving as the show’s lead collaborator, the nymphs (Brick, Kate Watson-Wallace, Lorin Lyle, Olase Freeman and Heather Murphy) are inquisitive, joyous creatures that splash and play like a school of young dolphins at recess, churning up great waves of water, oblivious to time and all other adult concerns.
Much of Hotel Pool is thrilling and utterly delightful. Using the natural buoyancy of the water, the experimental dance is both effortless and enormously fluid. Capable of creating the illusion of walking and dancing on the water (due in part to Matt Saunders’ clever set), the dancers twist and turn on top of the pool or glide underwater before lifting and propelling each other through the air. No longer restricted by the rules of gravity, the dancers reach heights unattainable on the ground, and the effect is both freeing and exuberant.
But for all the fun in the water, there are also quiet, even poignant moments.
Initially reluctant to play with the nymphs and then incapable of joining them, the traveler is like a vacationer permanently attached to her cell phone, PDA and laptop. She wants to escape, but remains electronically and psychologically tied to work. Not until she surrenders completely to the freedom of the water can she fully immerse herself in this oasis.
The obstacles to producing a work in a pool are daunting. And while not everything works completely (an adrift sailboat never becomes more than a bobbing craft, Kelly Cobb’s costumes are unimpressive and a meeting between the traveler and a mysterious businessman played by Lord is obscure), the show’s technical and artistic achievements are remarkable.
Certainly more variation in the underwater lighting would be desirable (though most likely impossible considering the expense and obvious limitations of using a pool intended for the Sheraton’s guests), but Jason H. Thompson’s above-water lighting is striking and Rick Henderson’s sound and original music are tremendously evocative.
The Dance Insider
Diving in with Headlong
By Lisa Kraus
Headlong Dance Theater, generally conceptually wry and determinedly accessible, is a controversial lot. The company can enchant or infuriate, depending on one’s taste. It would be hard, though, for anyone to resist the charms of “Hotel Pool,” seen in the Live Arts Festival September 12.
Performed in and around the Society Hill Sheraton’s 4th floor pool, “Hotel Pool” opens with a lone older lady swimming laps as we find seating, having been forewarned that if towels are on our chairs, it’s for a reason. The lady finishes, towels off, and walks out. Amy Smith, one of Headlong’s three co-directors, enters in traveling business attire, cell phone to ear. On the phone with an assistant, she seeks help with her quandary: rather than a normal room, the door her card-swipe opens is to the pool.
This astutely limned control freak (we get her micro-managing style in her amusingly directive spiel to a hotel clerk) eventually settles pool-side. We hear single tones from a piano, a spacious relief from her speedy entry, and are gently ushered into a whirl of dreamy sequences. The pool lights up from below. Dancers then shoot head first through the water in that stunningly streamlined way that otters do, fanning out from a central point where they’d been concealed. Where and how they’d remained hidden is a mystery; the complete surprise engenders a sense of wonder that you feel as audience member and see on Smith’s face. The swimming dancer-creatures with heads covered in colored hoods and wearing goggles move slowly, circling, looking, waiting and watching with simple attention as animals do. As the businesswoman drifts into sleep, the atmosphere slips toward fairy tale. We hear sonar, whale songs, and tinkling music box or xylophone as the hands of the creatures draw her gently, fully clothed, into the pool. Her wide-eyed astonishment and slightly hesitant but captivated body-language imply that the pleasure of this encounter may be just a bit too much. She wants these whale/otter/seal dancers to tenderly carry her buoyant body, drifting easily, cooperating wordlessly. She wants to enjoy the big splashes they make, how they set the water roiling, how they twirl her, social-dance style. It’s WATER, not her overloaded workaday world. It’s a world where you hold your breath and move, slowed by resistance. Can she really go there?
Smith emerges up the steps, dripping and briefcase in hand, for a bizarre business meeting at a table set in the whirlpool. The slightly sinister fellow she meets makes her a “very generous offer,” a pile of towels. The dialog is full of puns and comical riffs on hard-boiled confrontation scenes. A rock song plays over her phone, then on the sound system, with unintelligible lyrics. Questions arise for this viewer: what’s the connection of this musical style with what we’re seeing? Is it the stylization in the acting that makes this scene gel less than the wetter ones? Or is Headlong trying too hard here to mold the piece into a clean plot-line?
We feel a pleasing relief when our businesswoman re-enters her watery world. The creatures carry her on high, gliding like a proud ship into port. They flop themselves onto the pool’s deck, like so many fish out of water; they splash big and tumble. In this long sequence, where the movement is eye-poppingly exceptional, they use water to cushion falls, opening a new movement range. They lift each other on high, then plunge into the pool holding corkscrewy shapes. They hurl themselves backwards, thwacking the water’s surface. Pool-side, the fluidity that water engenders informs every move. Slightly slowed, their contact doesn’t look generic. It’s water-creature play, lifts and twirls altered by their sinuous slurpy quality.
One breathtaking move is repeated in varying pairs. Two seal creatures twine arms around each other at the pool’s edge and begin spiraling, turning and tipping themselves so they fall back in the pool. It’s an ultimate watery surrender, joyous and satisfying. Our heroine wants in. We’re reminded of silkies, those legendary Irish women/seals who long to return to ocean even though they make lives and even families on dry land.
The only time the movement is less-than-captivating is when the creatures appear to be “walking on water” — standing on invisible tables, perhaps? It’s clever but disconnected from the rest of the piece’s movement language.
Toward the end we see the colorful creatures from a new perspective — on live video feed from underwater, disoriented through the camera’s tipping and swooshing pans.
Ending cleanly on an uplifted fairy tale note, “Hotel Pool” reasserts itself as a modern fable, washing over the drag of speedy contemporary life with the sensuous pleasures of a watery world.
Having looked recently at a number of excellent video works made underwater (among them Cathy Weis’s “Dunking Pool,” and Laurie McLeod’s “LuoYong’s Dream” and “Teatro Iva”) it’s clear to me that Headlong is a pioneer in creating group choreography that makes effective use of water’s qualities and movement potential. But how many people will ever get to see “Hotel Pool” live? For that reason there ought to be a well-made film of “Hotel Pool.” The audience is small by necessity, but the ideas are big, and “Hotel Pool” is a work that deserves to reach a much broader public.
Lead collaborator for this production was David Brick working with co-directors Amy Smith and Andrew Simonet. The fine performers in addition to Smith were Brick, Olase Freeman, Mark Lord (who was also dramaturg), Lorin Lyle, Heather Murphy, and Kate Watson-Wallace.
One wishes the music supported the work better. Strongest at the beginning, it grows cloyingly sweet with excessive repeats of the xylophone/music box. There’s some folky guitar, also with incomprehensible lyrics. It’s just perplexing what it’s doing there.
Lighting by Jason H. Thompson effectively sends ripples of watery light onto the ceiling, lends eerie or fanciful color, and amplifies individual droplets from glorious splashes.