By J. Cooper Robb
January 21, 2004
Although the Philadelphia dance community has begun to gain national recognition, it remains largely undervalued here at home–due primarily to a lack of visibility, little promotion and no permanent space for companies.
But from Jan. 21 through Feb. 8, several of the city’s top dance companies will be performing on alternate nights as part of the third annual DanceBoom! festival at the Wilma Theater.
Curated by Nick Stuccio (the co-founder and producing director of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival), DanceBoom! is (along with the Fringe) one of the few opportunities for the area’s dance companies to reach a wide audience.
This year the event has a decidedly Eastern flavor. There’s the appearance of the Philadelphia Chinese Opera Society, Group Motion Dance Company’s new Direction of Harmonization with Tokyo’s Dance Theatre 21, and You Are So Beautiful, a collaboration between Philadelphia’s Bessie Award-winning Headlong Dance Theater and Arrow Dance Communication of Kyoto, Japan.
After meeting at the Japan-U.S. Dance Exchange in 2002, Headlong co-director Andrew Simonet says he and fellow co-directors David Brick and Amy Smith felt a connection with Arrow that was “fucking eerie.” So the companies decided to enter into a full collaboration–the first for Headlong with another dance company.
Simonet describes the relationship between the two companies as being like “long-lost siblings. More than any other company we’ve ever met, we have a muscular kinship with them.”
While rehearsing in Japan for Beautiful‘s Kyoto world premiere, Simonet says the companies connected by performing together in rehearsal.
“I’m struck by the chasm between the performative moments of rehearsal and the structural/intellectual moments,” Simonet says. He further explains this difference as that between “having sex and discussing it. It’s just not the same thing.”
Describing this ability to relate on a physical level as “one of the great gifts that contemporary dance has to offer,” Simonet portrays the companies’ physical relationship as being “utterly comfortable and deeply challenging.”
Initially focusing on karaoke to explore the parallels between Japanese and American culture, You Are So Beautiful ultimately became about the two companies’ interaction together as rehearsals progressed.
Unlike more recent Headlong efforts such as St*r W*rs, The Story of a Panic and Britney’s Inferno, all of which were based on a central theme, Simonet says the less structured and story-based Beautiful is more of an “experiential travelogue” with an openness and intuitiveness that has made developing the work both thrilling and a little frightening.
Simonet’s ideas for a more specific throughline were universally derided by the show’s other seven members, but Beautiful has retained what he calls a “strange logic” that makes directing the work like “composing a score for a film that doesn’t exist yet.”
Because of Headlong’s intimate experience with Arrow, Simonet now calls the dance “an orgy of encounters [and] a suite of intersections.”
Although Simonet says some of Headlong’s early work was inspired by the performers’ personalities and idiosyncrasies, he describes the absence of a “big idea” in Beautiful as something of a departure.
Instead of portraying characters in a story, the performers play “aspects and dilations” of themselves. The result is a more personal piece that moves away from the theatrical structure of Headlong’s latest productions.
What does remain is the company’s appealing sense of humor, especially in the scenes where the performers from Headlong and Arrow struggle to overcome the language barrier–which Simonet says caused a number of riotous misunderstandings in rehearsal.
Because Beautiful is inspired by the two companies’ experiences working together, it’s perhaps more personal than St*r W*rs or Britney’s Inferno. Still, Simonet stresses that the piece is not at all confessional.
One of Headlong’s goals is to produce contemporary dance that can be enjoyed and understood by a large audience–and Beautiful retains that sense of accessibility.
“Preaching to the converted gets old quick,” Simonet says. “With modern dance, you have the advantage of [new audiences] expecting to hate it. So if you can connect to them at all, they’re ready to have their minds blown. And the Wilma’s audience is pretty bold. They have that we-like-art thing that makes them less apt to insist on being passively entertained in a familiar way. So this strange and lovely piece is perfect for them.”
By Maura Nguyen Donohue
NEW YORK — Philadelphia’s Headlong Dance Theater is, in short bursts, one of my favorite companies. The seemingly utopian union of directorship among Andrew Simonet, David Brick and Amy Smith often leads to varied, well-crafted, witty works. In short. In short they are masters. But when they forge into evening-length work, usually with a central theme, I find myself mentally meandering through my to do lists. Something falters in their usually brilliant formula when they move into longer pieces and big groups. They never seem to pay off or sustain the promise that abounds in their shorter works. However, this past weekend at the Japan Society, Headlong managed to bring both bigger and longer together in a highly successful collaboration with Kyoto’s Arrow Dance Communication. The companies gathered together a treasure trove of small gems for a hearty reward titled “You Are So Beautiful.”
The work opens with the sound of running water and I’m back in Kyoto strolling along the canal on the Philosopher’s Walk near Nanzenji Temple. Smith steps on a small stool while Brick follows her with a tidy stack of stools. She takes one, meticulously places it down and slides it forward into a tiny spot of light. The two make their way across the front of the stage this way and reveal two simultaneous images; they could be gingerly stepping on stones across a creek or carefully teetering on the classic Japanese Geta clogs. As the work progresses, the stools are moved and stacked around the stage to demarcate different spaces for a series of bright, fleeting dances.
I cringe slightly when Simonet begins a sequence with Takeshi Yakazi, Arrow’s director, Megumi Matsumoto and Kentaro Satoh with the oh-so-overdone Japanese bow joke. It’s an easy target, that whole bowing thing. Hell, after six months in Japan my husband and I would catch ourselves bowing while speaking on the phone. However, it has been done and done and done. But, ahhh, we are saved because these Headlong folk, they’re smart. Simonet times it perfectly and cuts the whole awkward scene off with casual aplomb, slapping a bit of American impatience on in an instant of directorial command: “And we’re done.” We watch as Simonet tries to talk the three Japanese dancers through the choreography for a quartet. They’re obviously only catching random words and the ensuing dance is perfectly outrageous. Later we see a reverse of the formula when Yakaki tries to do the same in Japanese with Smith, Brick and Nicole Canuso. Both sequences sent me into belly shaking, head tossed back guffaws. It’s riotous cross-cultural miscommunication that could only be handled so adroitly by equally adept peers.
It is overwhelmingly apparent that the Headlong folk have found their Asian counterparts. Two years ago the choreographers met through the US-Japan Choreographers Exchange Residency, co-produced by the Japan Society, Dance Theater Workshop and the Contemporary Dance Network in Kyoto. Though the exchange was process-oriented it proved highly fruitful. These two groups meet each other with similar styles of movement and an uncanny shared sense of humor and self-awareness. The dancers are equally smart in physicality and cultural references.
As the show winds down into a karaoke-inspired lovefest I’m elated to have witnessed this connection between artists. The kinship between the two companies is genuine and enviable to someone who spent the first six months of last year collaborating with artists in and/or from India, Japan, Cambodia, China and Vietnam and is currently struggling through a long-distance collaboration with a peer in Vietnam. These things don’t usually go off so incredibly well.