The New York Times / Arts & Leisure
Cerebral Experiments That Can Take Flight
By Gia Kourlas
Sunday, March 24, 2002
Does experimental dance have to me intimidating? Not according to Headlong Dance Theater of Philadelphia, which likes to lace its cerebral offerings with sly humor. In “Subirdia,” the troupe’s latest piece, the culture of birds is mirrored in 1960’s suburban American, complete with miniature houses and white picket fences.
The dance portrays the antics of a single woman and two couples, with the men fighting over yards of swapping wives.
“We think of ourselves as being monogamous, but there’s a lot more partner-switching that you realize,” said Amy Smith, a director of the company. “The concept of the home is also important. Birds will fly 2,000 miles to South America for the winter, then come back and nest in the very same tree they were in the year before.”
Headlong is clearly not your typical dance company. Directed by David Brick, Andrew Simonet and Ms. Smith, all Wesleyan graduates, the troupe performs from April 4 through April 7 as part of the Dance Theater Workshop’s Around Town spring season at the Duke on 42nd Street. The three works of the program and quite different, but all are in keeping with the troupe’s motto that intelligent experimentation can be compelling and, in some cases, hilarious.
For such a dance, “St*r W*rs,” an enchanting homage to the George Lucas film the company won a 1999 New York Dance and Performance Award, or Bessie.
When Headlong creates a dance, one of the directors oversees it but all three are deeply involved in the creative process. In “Subirdia,” the most lighthearted work on the program, the job fell to Ms. Smith, 30, whose father, Macklin Smith, is a nationally known birdwatcher.
With the help of 50’s and 60’s cocktail music by Martin Denny – bird calls and all – Ms. Smith brings a swinging lawn party to life. The piece is more than simply funny: all of the characters in it seek escape, notably Heather Murphy, who as the single woman is an outcast envied by the wives and lusted over by the husbands. She finds solace after she is visited by a mysterious astronaut, with whom she performs an ethereal pas de deux right out of “Swan Lake.”
“I basically stole the choreography and altered it,” Ms. Smith said. “In the ballet, the man and woman rarely face each other even though it’s romantic. That was one of the things I liked about it. When the spaceman actually appears, they share a magical floating moment. It’s enchanting.”
The two remaining dances on the program represent the past and future of the company. One, “Impossible Dance,” a trio, features improvisation while the dancers talk to each other. The second, “Gracelessness,” a quintet set to music by Rick Henderson, depicts desolation and loss. But as the directors delve into more serious material, it is apparent that their intrinsic theatricality will render their work just as entertaining.
“Gracelessness” has none of the frivolity of “Subirdia,” but is just as smart. Directed by Mr. Brick (Mr. Simonet, 32, is in it), the haunting work began as a formal exploration of contact improvisation.
“There are some pretty weird images,” Mr.Brick said. “People end oup in odd body positions with their heads in each other’s crotches.”
Mr. Brick, 34, uses that awkwardness as a point of departure. He was also inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s drawings, particularly the grotesque “Big Fist Eat Little Fish,” in which a giant fish is split open to reveal dozens more. Dancers disappear only to reemerge among a tangle of body parts; eventually, Mr. Simonet and Nichole Canuso separate from the group.
And, as a further test of where contact improvisation can go, Mr. Simonet becomes blind in the last third of the work – by shutting his eyes. In keeping with Headlong’s talking tradition, Mr. Simonet is guided by Ms. Canuso’s voice.
“It feels like a wild roller coaster ride,” Mr. Simonet said. “I physicalize the experience of trust. This work is more vulnerable. It’s easy for us to get by on cleverness, but this feels risky.”
Headlong may be moving toward more rigorously experimental territory, but it is doubtful that the company’s basic mission will change. “I do think, ‘Is this going to be just like of of those bad, arty experiences that alienates the audience?'” Mr. Brick asked in mock horror. “But are we so self-serious? I feel we’ve developed so many skills as collaborators, and real ideas about what dance means. Ane we really do care about if the audience gets it.”
“May I end with a short phrase of regret?” In permit, Brick did it eloquently with his body. I’ll have to settle for type, but here goes: “I’m really sorry if you missed this show.”
Dance theater puts on a super show
By Molly Glentzer
May, 4, 2004
“May I begin with a question?”
“May I tell you about a dance I saw Saturday at the Wortham Theater Center?”
“May I tell you that every movement phrase in it began with one dancer asking another, ‘May I?'”
Permit me to add, also, that every minute of the Society for the Performing Arts’ Direct From Dance Theater Workshop show featuring Headlong Dance Theater and the Donna Uchizono Company was super. Both troupes are regulars at DTW, a New York institutions that’s helped launch many major careers. (Mark Morris and Bill T. Jones are among those who started there.)
Art illuminates life, as they say, and these companies drive with the headlights on bright. Kudos to SPA, too, for pairing them so smartly. Headlong, based in Philadelphia, uses humor to help audiences see how its dances are built. Their pieces – Permit, Impossible Dance and Car Alarm – were an ingenious gateway to the excerpt of Uchizono’s more challenging Butterflies From My Hand.
One of Headlong’s founder/dancers has the last name Brick (first name David). Very apt, since their work (also engagingly performed by co-founder Amy Smith and Nichole Canuso) evolves layer by layer. A sense of humanity is their mortar, created through empathetic characters who – like all of us – are just trying to get through life in one piece.
In Permit (the Mother, May I – inspired dance), Brick and Smith construct, then deconstruct, a relationship. You can almost feel the friction when their skin touches, thanks to their taut body language; the polite, poker-faced formality of their acting; and a script that connects the physical and the emotional. (It grows from “May I enter the space?” and “May I turn?” to “May I send you mixed messages?” and “May I try to save you from yourself?”)
Impossible Dance pokes gentle fun at movement artists’ fanciful imaginations. They conjure up the physically impossible – as in, “My body breaks into nine angelfish!” – but also illustrate dance’s power to make you see things that aren’t really there. The trio watches something ricochet around the theater or pretends to fly into the balcony, and your eyes go along.
Headlong also wants to change the way people think. Everyone who saw Car Alarm will probably at least smile instead of scream the next time they hear one. “What is this sound to you? Painful? But what is this sound to us? An opportunity,” Brick says. Wearing a yellow construction hat and a device with a car alarm attached, he teaches the audience a folk dance whose moves change as the sound goes from “honk honk to “eeyaw, eeyaw.” Goofy, yes. Endearing, too.
Uchizono’s brilliant, provocative Butteflies From My Hand takes more of a mental commitment but makes a dance aficionado’s heart flutter. Four dancers (Andrew Clark, Levi Gonzales, Hristoula Harakas and Carla Rudiger – all sensational) fidget relentlessly through acts of cutting loose, crawling, migration and mating.
Much of the movement involves hands – holding scissors, patting bodies, wiping the floor. It’s all carried out with the utter resolve of butterflies trying to survive a trip over the Gulf of Mexico. The couplings have an asexual forthrightness, instinct-driven; yet a deliberate passion beats under the wings, too. Uchizono’s bodies bounce gracefully but unmercifully – the heads of feet especially: We’re a desperate species.
The title could be about so many things: how the act of creating a dance requires letting a piece of oneself go, like releasing a butterfly from captivity. How life mirrors nature’s migrations. How like butterflies we are, when we’re in love.
As a choreographer, Uchizono wields a magician’s hands, bringing all these possibilities to life. Her entrances and exits (bodies blown backward, arms out), the seamless metamorphoses of the dance’s sections, the use of diagonal and horizontal lines, the interplay of movement with Guy Yarden’s electronic score (which suggests, at various times, fluttering wings, insects swarming and droning, a hammerlike clock beating), colorful and imaginative costumes – this is the work of a master.
“May I end with a short phrase of regret?” In permit, Brick did it eloquently with his body. I’ll have to settle for type, but here goes: “I’m really sorry if you missed this show.”
The Village Voice
Word of Mouth
By Elizabeth Zimmer
October 13, 1998
Amy Smith, Andrew Simonet and David Brick run Philadelphia’s Headlong Dance Theater, opening Thursday at DTW.
Simonet: We didn’t want to be in New York; we wanted our own studio and the time and space to concentrate.
Brick: Experiment. Try stuff out.
Smith: We’re from the Richard Bull-Cynthia Novack-Susan Foster tradition of postmodern choreographic improvisation; recently we’ve stretched into music and making set dances.
Brick: We come out of concept art, but we’re interested in being entertaining as well.
Simonet: Bull and Foster did incredible work with form and structure; we try to bring a little more content.
Brick: Stories, personal and appropriated from the culture. Teen Tragedy Trilogy is inspired by the teenager who killed a little boy who came to his door selling candy, and Melissa Drexier, who gave birth at her prom, and schoolhouse shootings. It’s not particularly funny, though we do get laughter.
Simonet: A choreographer asked, “Don’t you want to make things that are universal?” That never crossed my mind. I want to make things that are local, for others like me, strange people floating around in this culture.
Smith: We’ve been getting support from the Pew Charitable Trust, city and state money, and small foundations, but we’re getting bigger, and we don’t have the infrastructure.
Brick: We’re extraordinarily lucky by all these measures, yet all three of us are still working jobs: I’m a sign-language interpreter and I do arts-in-educations consulting.
Smith: I work for a small corporate private-investigation firm, keeping the books, doing the billing–an ad hoc CFO.
Simonet: I teach dance at a private high school, and teach decision-making to primary school kids all over New Jersey.
Smith: We don’t have trust funds. We’re actually poor.
Brick: We opened for Jonathan Richman when he performed in Philly. A local producer wanted a retro happening so we performed at that rock show as well, and we got a younger audience: “My friend told me that I would really like this, and I’m sold, and I’m coming back.”
Dance You Can Try At Home: Headlong Dance Theater brings an often-lofty art form down to street level.
By Eileen Fisher
September 3, 1997
OH GOD IT’S HAPPENING AGAIN. One minute your body is heavy with sleep, your mind’s floating into the past. The next, you startle to the sounds of the here and now: yaaa da, yaaa da, whoop, whoop, whoop; beep, beep, beep, beep. It’s 4 a.m. and the most annoying car alarm in the world is raving its paranoia right beneath your open window. What to do?
For the antidote to this urban nightmare, look to an unlikely source: a dance company. To be sure, Headlong Dance Theater’s recent premiere of The Alarm opened with the enigmatic kind of entrance we’ve learned to expect from dancers in theatrical mode: Andrew Simonet walked onstage, without affect, and confronted some sort of device on a table. But the solemn pause that followed turned out to be the kind comic timing demands: Simonet then unleashed the identity of his little box and sat nodding patiently as the thing screamed its familiar aria. Finally, he let us in on the plan. The Alarm, it turns out, is an instructional dance.
The next time you hear such a cry for help emanate from a pile of steel, get out of bed and go into the street. There, Simonet told us, you can join your neighbors in the fun and funky “folk dance” that he and fellow Headlongers Amy Smith and David Brick demonstrated next.
Go ahead, jab the air with your fist as you pace a circle and interpret the gesture as you like: Thanks to the company’s happy turn on multilayered meaning, you could be the agitated car owner, a frustrated neighbor, even the hopeful thief himself. (For this effect, simulate the resistance and sudden release of breaking glass.)
You can do this dance whenever you hear the call; Brick and Smith even go on to show a one-handed version designed for drivers. The point is, as Simonet announced during Headlong’s June performance ofThe Alarm at the Drake Theater – on a program called “Pop Songs” – it’s your dance. Own it. Personalize it. Teach it to others.
“Pop Songs,” as its name implies, also included works set to music by groups as the violent Femmes, the Blake Babies and – tongues practically piercing the cheek – Air Supply. It was the best performance by a local dance company last season – one of the best seen here, period. (Lucky for us, the company will reprise some of the same works as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival late this month; pieces by Headlong members and a group of collaborators culled from their August workshop, Dance Camp, provide the traditional season kickoff at the Painted Bride this weekend, September 5 and 6.)
On hand at “Pop Songs,” as ever, was a whole troupe of fans – not just the fellow artists and family members you usually find at concerts by small dance groups; Headlong attracts veritable groupies, and a surprisingly diverse bunch they are. For the finale of The Alarm, these self-consigned were only too willing to come up onstage, joining Simonet, Smith and Brick in demonstrating the moves as a large-scale ritual. And, in yet another of the kind of encounter that keeps them coming back, they had a grand time doing it.
Though The Alarm clearly doesn’t invite too much serious analysis, it does bring together many of the qualities that make Headlong widely popular: laugh-out-loud literalism set against ironic abstraction; contemporary subject matter delivered on a skateboard, not a soapbox. It’s hip, cosmopolitan and downright funny. Is this dance we’re talking about?
Glad you asked. Yes, this is dance – but it is, more than most, dance you can talk about. Which is to say it’s not that evanescent stuff born of highly personal motivations, those mysterious signals practiced by their creator alone in a studio until they reach their most idiosyncratic form, then placed before an audience, still wrapped in their cocoon.
Brick, Simonet and Smith come from a solid common base in the postmodern aesthetic, and in particular, in the highly disciplined yet free-flowing practice of structured improvisation (choices are made spontaneously, but from a predefined, cohesive menu). They all majored in dance at Wesleyan University, graduating around the same time; Simonet and Smith, who finished in ’92, like to tease Brick about his graduation about a year-and-a-half earlier, after somewhat more than four years in college. (And about his advanced age: “Be sure to put in the article that Dave is 30!”)
But it’s their way of making and performing dances, even more than their oft-cited youth, that makes their stuff at once accessible and sophisticated. In everything they do, these three telegraph a kind of openness rare in a field where protecting your artistic integrity sometimes means shutting out the world. The choreography – drawing on ideas that seem straight out of an era when these dancers were barely toddling — is wholly collaborative. Ever since they started in ’93 they’ve credited all of the dances to Headlong as a group, none to individuals.
Within the dance community they’re known for their annual summer Dance Camp, a miracle of networking that provides a month of free, collectively taught classes all day, five days a week, every August for themselves and for other working choreographers who can’t afford traditional retreats. They’ve even performed at a couple of rock concerts, taking advantage of the broad appeal most of their work comes by naturally. “It’s not something we have to struggle with,” Smith says.
Perhaps their most striking foray beyond dance’s traditional stomping ground, though, is their no-reservations-required, free (donations optional) performance of works-in-progress every month as part of Old City’s First Friday gallery scene – and their request for feedback. Other local companies do informal showings of their choreography. Others find ways to open their studios to the public on a regular basis – most prominent is Group Motion’s Friday night participatory extravaganza. But none so doggedly churns out new work every month and bids the hoi bolloi to chat about afterwards. You can easily picture that happening in the small couch-potato area that borders the big, open dance space in front.
“We expressly invite people to hang out after First Fridays and tell us what they liked and didn’t like,” confirms Smith, whose thin body, topped by a stylish close crop, perches neatly on an oversized chair anyone else would sink into. “We like talking about dance almost as much as we like making dance!” And First Fridays are more than an “incredible audience-builder: Those comments, from visual artists, teenagers and people off the street who just want to sit for a few minutes, do influence what the company ultimately puts onstage, as does response from a large network of dancer friends.
But lest Headlong be reduced to pandering and lose itself while gaining an audience, most important are the conclusions reached within the company. “Pop Songs” had plenty of the parody, the improvisatory wit and drama, that Headlong is know for; the men’s duet and ensemble finale (with four guest dancers) of the Violent Femmes Suite leaned toward straight-ahead physical comedy. Alongside the conceptual jokes, though, was one work that was pure concept: three dancers walking sometimes contrasting, sometimes coinciding patterns in space, with the co-inciding patterns in space, with the cool-to-frosty music of Galaxie 500.
“The walking dance in “Pop Songs” [called Galaxie] was almost universally hated every time we did it,” says Brick. “But that didn’t matter to us…we loved the piece.” The intensity of his words makes him rise slightly from the depths of the couch.
He stays there, seemingly levitated for a fraction of a second, and Smith jumps in. “Galaxie had a symbolic value,” she says. “It became for us the piece that we liked in spite of the fact that we perceived other people not liking it. We said, ‘A lot of our work is funny and engaging on a more visceral level. This is our piece where it’s very minimal, abstract, about space and composition. And who gives a shit if people don’t like it.'”
As seemed the habit among these best friends, Simonet doesn’t finish Smith’s sentence, but provides the perfect coda to Smith’s crescendo, affirming the power of democratic art nonetheless to lead its flock: “Two of our favorite audience members, after the ‘Pop Songs’ concert, said, ‘Now I’m starting to like it. Now it’s really going somewhere.'”
In a certain way, the two guys of Headlong seem to balance each other. Brick and Simonet are both average-height, both short-haired (since Brick lost his ponytail) and can sometimes look similar when together onstage. Yet when they dance solo, Brick, who is slightly more muscular, has a jump-right-in kind of strength, while Simonet’s is more likely to hold him at arm’s length, the ironic narrator surveying the scene. “Dave’s Headlong, Amy’s Dance and I’m Theater,” Simonet jokes.
Even beyond the collaborative nature of the company, the three are personally close knit: Brick and Smith also live in the Old City space that holds the company studio. They give themselves a month off each year – “and we go on vacation together!” Smith laughs. Which might sound like a little too much togetherness, but these dancers just don’t seem to get sick of each other.
“It is remarkable, “Simonet acknowledges. “More often we need time off from the headache of running a company [than from each other]. But we do hang out together socially. It’s shocking!”
All told, this is a company cohesive enough to hold onto its identity – with a recent performance at Dance Theater Workshop’s Fresh Track showcase that pleased both the Village Voice and the New York Times – even while daring to open its creative process to whoever might happen by on North Third Street.
Just do it. Somehow Headlong’s way of conducting business brings that never-subliminal advertising cliché relentlessly to mind. And perhaps the shoe fits; after all, the company is given to skewed appropriations of equally ubiquitous pop culture – those priceless Romantic Moments to Air Supply’s Lost in Love, for instance, when the guys lift Smith in a cross-stage leap schlockier than any possible prom memory to the same score.
Part philosophical intention, part an accident of birth in this decade…however you characterize it, the pared-down, do-it-yourself nature of the Headlong enterprise suits the ’90s perfectly. Come into being in the era of no funding, this troupe never had an oh-so-’80s marketing director to lay off when the pseudo-corporate structure once common to arts organizations grew economically unviable. The three principals are accustomed to doing all the company work themselves, in addition top holding down part-time jobs as book-keeper for a private detective agency (Smith), a dance teacher and counselor (Simonet) and a sign-language interpreter (Brick, whose parents and younger sibling are deaf).
They regularly present their own performances in their own space. Only recently, along with acquiring official nonprofit corporate status, did they acquire a board of directors. And, say Philadelphia Dance Alliance director Pearl Schaeffer, they are very good at being self-sufficient, “because they’ve never know anything else – and because they’re extraordinarily bright.”
Their location here, too, seems a combination of coincidence and planning. Landed back in the area with Simonet’s father after a post-grad stint in Holland, Smith and Simonet – soon joined by Brick, fresh from New York – were at first situated in Philadelphia more by default than by design. Their only intention, following advice Brick once received from leading choreographer Bill T. Jones, was to stay out of New York. That way they could own their own space, produce lots of pieces and get good at making them. “We woke up one day and realized we’d decided to live in Philadelphia,” says Simonet; all add they’ve been happy with the choice.
They originally rented a place at 20th and Snyder, which taught them plenty about how to negotiate a lease, recondition a floor and heat a big space. But, off the beaten track, it didn’t allow them to build an audience or a professional network in the way they wanted.
Old City, on the other hand, was a place women dancers would comfortably come for the company class – more of a lab, really — that Headlong offered first for free and then for $5. And it was a place audiences were already used to a place audiences were already use to coming. The main thing was the floor needed no work.
First Fridays were an additional boon. A was their newfound acquaintance with the former tenant of their space, Jim Sutcliffe, who happens to work for Electric Factory concerts as a publicist with occasional booking privileges. And who, it turned out, found happiness as a self-described groupie in a decidedly non-rock-‘n’-roll setting. Sutcliffe is no a dance-lover. He’s seen the Alvin Ailey company; no other names occur to him offhand. But when it comes to Headlong Dance Theater, the word fan pales in context.
With regard to Headlong, Sufcliffe invokes the rock ‘n’ roller’s most hallowed ground. Conscious of how overblown he may sound yet unable to contain himself, he compared them to…the Beatles. “Their work has layers of intellectual, complex ideas,” he says, “but it also has a good beat and you can dance to it.”
Beyond analogies to rock, Sutcliffe was so convinced of Headlong’s ability to cross over, he booked them both for the reopening of the Electric Factory venue in October ’95 and – in these dancers’ dream gig – as the opening act for Jonathan Richman’s solo show at TLA in the spring of ’96. Sure, hip-hop dancers opening for rappers we’ve heard of, but a group in the modern-dance lineage opening for a rock act?
“I don’t know how to say this,” Sutcliffe allows, “but I don’t know of any other dance troupe that could hold the attention of the rock ‘n’ roll audience – 300 people who were standing to watch them [TLA has no seats] and really enjoying it.”
But Richman’s fans, it turned out, were game for such pieces as Headlong’s Take Three, a humorous improvisation whose framework sets the dancers each listening to different music on headphones, and devising the most absurd – and most entertaining – movement concepts to express the private world between their ears. And Headlong? Well, you wouldn’t have to twist their arms for an encore.
They’d all been fans of Richman and his former band for years and often experimented with movement to the music. (It was only after the TLS show that Headlong actually set a dance, Brick’s solo Never Called an Asshole, to a song by Richman and the Modern Lovers.) Smith describes this as “one of the most exciting gigs we’ve ever had,” though she does recall initial skepticism on some fronts.
“When Jim told Jonathan, ‘There’s a modern dance company I’d like to have open for you,'” she reports, he responded, “What are they, like mimes or something?” But these viewers not only gathered around the stage and paid attention, they yelled things out. Which these particular dancers, in turn, enjoyed.
“I have to say I love that crowd,” says Brick. “These are people who never watch dance. They would not be interested. A lot of them are younger kids. But there’s an openness with them that’s really great. Some of them, since we did that set, have started coming to First Fridays.”
Clearly, rock ‘n’ roll is not such a far stretch for this company. After all, Headlong loves spontaneity – their adept performance improvisations and the off-the-cuff, Let’s Put on a Show enthusiasm of Fist Friday prove that. And these choreographers find easy footing in ’90s subject matter. Headlong takes its lessons wherever it finds them.
“There are great models in the music industry,” Brick continues. “Bands perform all the time; there’s a whole subculture of people who keep their eye out for posters and decide on the spur of the moment to go to a concert.
“That’s the right energy. That’s what you want in a performance. You don’t want people circling a day on their calendar three weeks in advance, and when the day comes they might not feel like going, but feel obligated to go.”
Adds Simonet, who looks up from the toy car he’s been idly rolling on the coffee table to weigh in with another pithy wrap-up: “We’ll be a rock ‘n’ roll band some day – after we’re a ballet company.”
Well, it’s not exactly ballet… but Headlong’s newer repertory does lean more toward set works and less toward improvisations than before. Maybe that bespeaks a maturity born of years making the instant choices structured improve requires. Yet you get the feeling Headlong’s work will always be of the moment, a spirit the company continues to celebrate both in its prolific output and in its choreography – and in an audience steeped in the First Friday marketing philosophy. What other arts organizations actually encourages the cultural equivalent of an impulse-buy?
“The terrible thing about most dance companies,” says Simonet, “is even if you hear that one is really good, you have to wait eight months to see it and its sots $12…It’s so hard to get an audience that way. But if it’s free and only half an hour long, you just show up…”
“It’s more part of the flow of life,” Brick adds. “It’s not like you have to be an ‘art patron’ to attend…And there’s something about the say artist think of themselves when they make only two or three pieces a year. The frame around what that means is so self-serious. When you’re making work all the time you let go of, ‘I need people to understand what I really think as an artist.'”
So, with its new board behind it, Headlong continues to work down the list of Things Artists Are Supposed to Do – at its own rate, eliminating many items (like, Become Famous in New York, at all Cost!) that will dissipate energy, not to mention funds.
Sure it would be nice to get that kind of national reputation. But New York visibility has just recently become a conscious goal; these dancers are wary of offering themselves as the arts flavor-of-the-month. Yes, it would be great to tour “Pop Songs” – the perfect program for this troupe to really go somewhere, literally and figuratively – but only if the company is presented at its venues, guaranteeing the take and cutting the pressure. And it would be nice not to work outside jobs, some day. But these three aren’t given to whining about the artist’s life in the ’90s.
“The money is a huge issue, and can affect things. But what it doesn’t affect is making the work – and loving making the work,” Brick asserts. “It can’t affect our dance-making…We are absolutely committed to keeping the joy of creating dances alive.” Which has a considerable effect on the joy of watching them.