by Deborah Jowitt
September 24 – 30, 2003
Here’s what I learned this morning on the Web: For $14.95 I can get a swatch from an article of clothing Britney Spears has worn, attached to a collectible photo. And I’d be contributing to her favorite charity! It’s the perils and pleasures of this kind of media-driven celebrity that Headlong Dance Theater’s Britney’s Inferno wittily and movingly zeroes in on.
Metal light towers form the portal to this appallingly sleazy hell, and its flames are Mark O’Maley’s searchlights and red glare playing over “Britney” (Christy Lee) with her wig of yellow ribbons. Led by the singer’s “friend” (Nichole Canuso), a fickle, black-clad horde of demons (Headlong plus local recruits) now worship, now revile their bubblegum-pop princess. The sinisterly smarmy emcee-manager-Satan (Andrew Simonet), who controls events, mostly from a tower, makes us accomplices in a cyclical process (“The things we make famous are the things we most want to destroy”), while the voices of other pop icons bubble up in Rick Henderson’s score.
Simonet, Amy Smith, and David Brick collaborate in creating the Philadelphia-based Headlong’s pieces, with contributions from company members (including Kate Watson-Wallace and Lee Etzold). In the past, their smart collective gaze has lit on Star Wars, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and suburban backyards. In Britney’s Inferno, they find terrifically clever ways to show adulation and its decay (“Boredom is the new anger,” Simonet tells us). Holding a mic that conceals a video camera, Lee slowly revolves in a circle of admirers, cueing the fans she points it at to scream and jump up and down; their images appear on three suspended screens. The same camera projects close-ups of her famous belly, while the chorus members pull up their shirts and inspect their own. Among other ordeals, “Britney” is wrapped in plastic, tossed into the reaching hands of a supine and hostile moshpit, and undergoes a hilarious session with a choreographer (Watson-Wallace), who uses absurd metaphors to turn the blank-faced Barbie doll into a virgin temptress and make her body say both “Look at me!” and “What are you looking at?” In the piece’s slightly inconclusive ending, pink hearts of light swirl on the floor, while glittery snow falls from above. Ms. Spears, it could happen.
by Gia Kourlas
The three artistic directors of Headlong Dance Theater-David Brick, Andrew Simonet and Amy Smith-may have disparate views on how their dances are born, but as collaborators they share a few intrinsic qualities: healthy cynicism, the driest of humor and a love of formalism. They are guided by postmodern dance roots, but aren’t afraid of using entertainment, or their familiarity with pop culture, as a hook. In the full-evening Britney’s Inferno, they explore celebrity and pop culture as epitomized by Britney Spears, who is portrayed by a scantily clad dancer wearing an immense wig made of ribbons.
For Simonet, who teaches dance at a private school in New Jersey, the initial idea for their piece, which wittily and harshly illustrates the rise and fall of a pop star, began in his classroom. His students started imitating moves from Backstreet Boys videos; Simonet was riveted. “I’m fascinated by the split in our culture, where people dance all the time but the art-dance world is marginal,” he says. “The people making movement for the Backstreet Boys produce the most widely seen choreography in the history of dance! There’s something sad about that, but it’s also interesting.”
Brick and Smith share a slightly more cynical view of the MTV generation. “Andrew doesn’t think that pop culture is inherently destructive,” Smith says. “I feel much more negative about it. I think of pop culture as being a subset of consumer culture.” Brick, who grew up in a deaf family, approached the topic with more emotional distance. “I didn’t listen to music or go to movies until I was 19,” he says. “Andrew and Amy really remember being teenagers. But I do believe that no matter how crass our culture is, human beings are profound. So there’s a spiritual quest going on in this piece-the expression of this culture contains in it deep questions about appearance and beauty and self and acceptance and love.”
Framed by composer Rick Henderson’s remixes of pop songs by Spears and the Backstreet Boys, Inferno features a Spears character at its centerpiece. She rapidly rises to the top and crashes just as quickly, her breakdown facilitated by a Greek chorus of dancers who shout things like “I think she sucks!” and perform reconstructed movement lifted from music videos. One segment was inspired by watching videos with the sound muted.
“In one Backstreet Boys song, the body language of the people in the crowd is angry and intense and cold and really strident,” Brick recalls. “There’s all this wincing and fisted hands slamming down in the air. But the lyrics go, ‘I would never do anything to hurt you. I’ll always be here for you.’ So it’s all about fidelity and love, but when you turn the sound off, you see another world. We learned the gestures and put different music to it. For me, the process was like excavating the movement for layers of actual meaning.”
Of course, to behold such hokey movement vocabulary-in all of its mechanical and repetitive simplicity-in an experimental dance setting is odd. Simonet’s goal all along, however, has been to reveal the movement in music videos as a contemporary folk art. “To move like the Backstreet Boys is really the least cool thing you can do in the art world,” he admits. “But for us, it’s both a simple and very difficult process of taking what’s actually happening in culture and throwing it through a funny lens that both condenses it and shakes it up.”
The work was first performed a year ago at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, after Spears had peaked in popularity. But such a factor feels irrelevant to the threesome; to Simonet, that reality even underscores their point. “I love that!” he exclaims. “We premiered it after she had her first little meltdown in Mexico City and walked offstage after singing only a few songs; there was a riot and she said, ‘I’m taking a break.’ Her albums were still huge, but if you thought about it, you just knew: This is the peak. Now when you see the piece, you really do have the feeling of ‘God-Britney Spears! I almost totally forgot about her!’ You’re almost in a better setting to get into the mood of it.”
Headlong Dance Theater is at Dance Theater Workshop Wednesday 17 through September 20.
By Dan DeLuca
Friday, August 30, 2002
I’m starting to feel sorry for Britney Spears. American Idol notwithstanding, the moment of teen-pop super saturation is long gone. In fact, the Idol frenzy argues in its own way that the era of talent-free automatons has receded. Say what you will about the desperate-for-fame survivors of Fox’s Darwinian smackdown, but sinister Simon Callow wouldn’t have let the remaining contestants get this far if they couldn’t at least, sing.
That’s more than you can say for Britney, whose true vocal limitations weren’t as fully exposed as her body until she made the error of opening her mouth on that dreadful HBO special last fall.
Since then, the road’s been bumpy: At a mere 3.8 million, Britney moved fewer than half the copies its predecessors did. Justin Timberlake went off with the real Janet Jackson, rather than a pale imitation. The industry is moving on, intent on “Building the Post-Britney,” as a recent New York Times Magazine profile of malleable Amanda Latona put it. And after tabloid yammering about a Mariah Carey-style crack-up, Spears’ mother defensively told People her daughter had “never, ever been close to a breakdown.”
Into this narrative steps Britney’s Inferno, Headlong Dance Theater’s conflation of Dante’s Inferno and MTV culture, which will premiere Thursday as part of the Fringe Festival. It takes place, according to Headlong co-founder David Brick, “in a weird, hybrid world that’s as if pop culture was an actual society.” (You mean it isn’t?)
For Headlong, Spears is a pure product too tempting not to use in a conceptual piece about celebrity, identity and manufactured consumer need. That may sound like a drag, albeit one of a different kind from Britney, Baby, One More Time!, the movie that showed at the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and claimed its subject as a heroine to transvestites everywhere.
But trust me, it’s not. I don’t know dookie about dance, but I do know that Brick is way too savvy to turn a subject as juicy as Spears into a boring high-art discourse on the vacuity of pop. “The goal is definitely not to say, ‘Look how stupid pop culture is,'” he told me last week at a rehearsal of the troupe, which in the past has put clever spins on Star Wars and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Its connections to the Italian poet are mostly a good joke, but befitting the title, Inferno does have a hellish heart. The show is not about Spears per se, but features a “Britney” character that is anointed a media goddess. There’s a Pepsi-slurping Svengali, and a hilarious bit where the icon-in-training is shown how to signify “business” and “pleasure” with body language.
“Britney” ascends the pop altar, but the false idol is betrayed by the same fans who worshiped her. “She needs a brain transplant!” they protest. When a ubiquitous space-taker like Spears stumbles, schadenfreude is in order. We’ve seen quite enough of her belly button, thank you. Though beware: The post-Britney era will produce a different breed of genetically engineered stars, only programmed to appear more real, like skater-girl Avril Lavigne.
But while we’re waving good riddance – in a Garth Brooks-like move, Spears has announced a hiatus – let’s not forget the pleasures of pop. Sure, Spears comes across as a vacuous Barbie doll, but she rose to the top not only because her boobs are bigger than Mandy Moore’s. She was also packing with her share of Swedish-written ear-grabbing songs.
Inferno understands that. Indie-rock alchemist Rick Henderson did the music, and at the run-through, his remix of the Neptunes-produced “I’m a Slave 4 U” succeeded, no matter how sucky Spears’ singing. And the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” sounded glorious deconstructed.
So, as Inferno closed with its protagonist’s fall complete, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the real Britney. It’s sad, really. Pop stardom’s Warholian clock is telling her that, at 20, it’s time to remake herself, or step aside.