By Miriam Seidel
Tuesday, December 22, 1998
By now, Headlong Dance Theater pretty much owns the hip, smart-alecky choreography concession in this town. Its performances Friday and Saturday at the Painted Bride showed the company can still use stinging smarts to make witheringly funny dance jokes. At the same time, it’s moving to expand its territory.
Take, Take, Take It Yeah (the first of two premiers) is one of its bagatelles. Danced by Headlong’s three original members (David Brick, Andrew Simonet and Amy Smith), it offers a series of over-the-top snapshots of dance styles “inspired” by a succession of pop sax solos: lyrical, voguing/angular, jazzy, inspirational, go-go-ish . In this food court of stock choices, the message seems to be that everything ends up tasting about the same. Take, Take is like the ’80s-era collage-paintings of David Salle, only more fun.
In the second premiere, Story of a Panic, based on the E.M. Forster story, a darker subtext takes over. The pasted-on cheer of the six dancers at the beginning (established to the cheesy strains of “Somewhere My Love”) is perforated by increasing moments of terror, and escalating efforts to return to normal. There is some good body-flinging in the panicky parts, and the murmuring toward the end, as they try to remember themselves, is scary.
ST*R W*RS was bigger, messier and more touching than anything else here. First performed at this year’s Fringe Festival, refined slightly since its run at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop, it is both homage to film and a painful coming-of-age memoir, a loose retelling of the movie conflated with teen party scenes from the ’70s, when the Star Wars juggernaut was launched. In one brilliant moment, for Princess Leias (Smith, Nichole Canuso, Christy Lee and Heather Murphy, all wearing brown earmuffs) simultaneously reenact her holo-recorded plea to Obiwan Kenobi. What a marvelous condensation of several layers: the original scene (itself a series of repetitions) with the longing of teenage girls, and the emotional immersion in the movie made possible by VCR culture.
At moments like this, it seems that Headlong is playing us, plucking the strings of our collective media-memory like a virtuoso harpist. But ST*R W*RS goes beyond this, showing how real passion gets pasted onto pop-culture icons in a media-saturated world.
By Gia Kourlas
October 8-15, 1998
The finale of Dance Theater Workshop’s Freshtracks series in the spring of 1997 was nothing short of remarkable. Headlong Dance Theater’s Take 3 featured three dancers wearing fanny packs, ski hats and Walkmans playing different music – Prokofiev, Indian mantra chanting and Gang of Four, as the audience eventually learned. Straight-faced and out of breath, they loudly commented on the inspiration for their animalistic movements with lines like “Been watching the Discovery Channel lately” and pointed out obvious improvisational choices: “Notice our diagonal line.” But beneath the witty surface, Take 3 took a tremendously insightful look at the redundancy of self-involved modern dance.
Thankfully, this Philadelphia-based company (led by David Brick, 31, Andrew Simonet, 29, and Amy Smith, 27) is returning to DTW to present a full evening of work, including pieces from Pop Songs and the premiere of ST*R W*RS. You won’t find a linear interpretation of the 1977 George Lucas hit, but the music (with the exception of one song by the Beastie Boys) is taken from that era and includes everything from the Bee Gees to Blondie. The chorographers think of it as a “fantasia” based on the movie. “There are movement-theater scenes that are plucked from the movie and then abstracted,” explains Smith.
The bar scene, for instance, in which Luke Skywalker first meets Han Solo and Chewbacca, becomes a junior-high-school dance – with some of the characters present. “David plays Luke, Andrew plays Han, and all four of the women play Princess Leia,” says Smith. “But the characters move around – sometimes we’re kids from the ’70-s acting out Star Wars characters, and sometimes we’re kids from the ’70s in the basement having a make-out party or getting wasted on drugs. Some of it is just going off on memories of being a young teenager at that time.”
The movie plot drifts even further from recognition with a series of duets based on Star Wars fantasies. “Remember when kids used to sit around and say, ‘What if Han and Leia did get together? Or Luke and Leia?'” asks Smith. “So we have certain characters dancing with each other.”
With all of this Star Wars dissection going on, it seems possible that the choreographers could be, well, lost in a galaxy far, far away. They insist that it’s definitely not the case. “We didn’t even watch the movie again – we wanted to go with our weird cultural memory of it,” says Simonet. “We weren’t like, What a great idea for a dance,” adds Smith. “We’d been talking about a commission we received to make a piece based on James Joyce’s Ulysses. The main characters are two men and a woman. We were joking around, ‘Next, Headlong does Othello,’ or Headlong does Star Wars!'”
The three met at Wesleyan College in the late ’80s and formed Headlong in 1993. From the beginning, they wanted their company, to be a collaboration, in which sharing the credit or the blame for each piece would be a political choice. Beneath the comedic layers, Headlong adheres to a postmodern aesthetic – they’re obsessed with choreographic formalism.
“We’re real form nerds,” admits Smith. “We like humor, because it’s one way to engage people. Most people’s complaint about modern dance is that they don’t understand it; it’s too self-serious. And that’s my complaint, too: Watching somebody in their own internally focused world, dancing about some personal thing – it’s very abstract. It doesn’t engage me.”
In Philadelphia, Headlong has performed as the opening act for local rock shows, as well as for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (according to Smith, Richman was wary at first; he asked the presenter, “What are they, like, mimes or something?”). That type of broad exposure to non-dancers, along with frequent free performances in the city, has brought the troupe an unofficial fan club.
“This success is a little surprising,” admits Smith. “It’s such a dire time for dance. It’s an absurd notion that you’d want to be a successful chorographer, because it’s so impossible. At least if you’re in a rock band, you can say, ‘Well, maybe someday we’ll get signed,’ but in dance, you can’t even bank on being able to support a company for ten years, quit your day job and have health insurance.” She shrugs, grinning. “But that’s not really our plan.”