By Jonathan M. Stein
Headlong Dance Theater sought to challenge its long-standing collaborative process, as well as the audience, in its new 2009 Live Arts Festival work, more, a provocative and sometimes haunting work that references both old and new directions for this 16-year-old company. The group took new risks with structures and content, like the use of stasis and silences, but also continued a long interest in exploring dualities of existence that center around our bodies and movement.
Headlong is one of the few performing groups in Philadelphia- whether in the dance or theater worldsÑ whose mission includes the public unveiling of its creative process. Headlong’s free open performing sessions at First Fridays in Olde City, and its on-stage unraveling of the making of dance- often with ironic and hilarious impactÑ were an effort to reveal the artistic process to audiences.
For their current work, the Headlong dancers undertook a two-year association with the analytically verbal New York choreographer Tere O’Connor to shake up their long-time collaborating habits and to document them for the dance community and larger public. (See www.danceworkbook.org for video segments. This website even provides some exercises we can do at home, including discerning the “it-ness” of a wall.)
O’Connor comes with a host of interesting ideas for choreographer and lay person alike, such as discerning potential meaning and structures out of experimental movement, as opposed to creating a work from a particular narrative or emotion. The process required each of the three Headlong co-directors- David Brick, Andrew Simonet and Amy Smith- to create, entirely separate from each other, works for the same dancers and then perform them on the same program last spring, sort of the way the Surrealists collectively assembled images or words in a compositional sequence. Having shaken their creative juices into a new collaborative cocktail, the three co-directors and their dancers then created the new Festival work presented at the Arts Bank this month.
More begins (and ends) with less: Devynn Emory, in a barren space that could be a rehearsal or performance space, commences a fierce solo, with repetitive arm-swinging movements, that suggests a high energy as well as high anxiety. But this energy gets sidelined, literally, as she moves downstage so that a living room carpet can be unrolled in the center space with chairs, sofa, tables and other accoutrements of domestic life. The imperatives and space of a life of the ordinary and mundane are quickly interposed and juxtaposed with those of the creating and performing artist. Yet in their conception of this piece, both the performing artist and the mere mortal artist- eating, sitting, waiting- inhabit the same space, and the same bodies. And there’s the rub.
In this living room writ large, we are presented with a slew of duets and ensemble dances, accomplished with virtuoso speed and precision by Nichole Canuso, Niki Cousineau, Emory, Jaamil Kosoko and Kate Watson-Wallace. These dances are often short, frenetic and gestural, quickly appearing and disappearing into the landscape of this domestic setting. These burst out and co-exist with the mundane, such as Watson-Wallace’s vacuuming.
The dancers also simply sit- often in a small group on a vinyl sofa, perhaps waiting, perhaps listening, perhaps thinking, within bodies that possess the potential for extraordinary movement. They are bodies structured and shaped by the space of their furniture, their habits of living, and life’s other imperatives, into the ordinariness of stasis and silence. The contrasting states of being and movement reveal and heighten these dualities within the same person.
What, you may ask, is revealing about a motionless body? The Headlong crew answers the question when Cousineau, having brought a microwave on stage to cook her meal in real time, stands in her own silence, captured by the appliance, while three other dancers, sharing the same space, motionless in silence too, look skyward, in anticipation of something that may be extra-terrestrial or perhaps exists only within their and our imaginations.
Christina Zani, whose Achilles tendon was seriously injured during rehearsals, plays a central role while encumbered, or one could say enhanced, by wearing an orthopedic boot, and also using a wheelchair. By movement and metaphor, her performance reflects the intersections of our vulnerable and fragile lives and bodies with our efforts to transcend our bodies’ limitations. Zani performs some graphic and somewhat risk-taking demonstrations of choreography for her fellow dancers, who crowd around her in avid anticipation, only to return to their living room sofa, never having executed her directions. Have they been appeasing her? Has Zani asked them to do the physically unattainable? Are they ultimately rejecting her?
Zani’s seeming isolation and rejection as the “other” brought to mind Merce Cunningham’s in his 1980s work, Quartet, a piece for five dancers in which Cunningham’s age and physical infirmities set him apart in an awkward isolation that ultimately compelled his exile from the much younger quartet. But in more the bonds of community, in and out of the performance world, keep Zani integrated into the dance, loved and even healed by her collaborators (an actual scene of healing may be the emotional focal point of the work).
Other epicenters, such as a head-to-head duet almost at the lip of the stage by Emory and Kosoko- where Emory lovingly shares some of her straight cut hair with Kosoko’s forehead- also display loving connections amid conflicting lives and imperfect bodies.
In many ways, more continues Headlong’s fascination and exploration with life’s tormenting yet delightful polarities. In the 2006 festival work CELL, (in which I performed), a solo audience member was directed for more than an hour by a cell phone caller who had the audience member under continual surveillance yet offered the audience member serendipitous opportunities to grow experientially through discovery and play amidst indoor and outdoor city spaces. Headlong’s 2007 Explanatorium had us terrestrials explore the supernatural and the inexplicable.
In more, at one level the ordinariness of domestic life is juxtaposed with the life of the artist. But what makes this dance and choreography- art that BSR’s Jim Rutter has questioned- is that these meanings are communicated through bodies in and out of motion, and through movement gestures and movement vocabulary.
Just when we think we may have gotten more, Headlong provides us with what initially appears as a disjunctive ending: The carpet and furniture get tossed into a corner, the floor gets literally ripped from the stage, and a small corral over a green surface is built to allow a spotlit Emory to offer up a dance of delight as a latter-day dancing faunÑ half animal, half human, warmer, and more undulating in curvaceous movement than her opening dance.
We are left in the magical world of the extraordinary and of pure, delicious movement. Resonating in our minds with the Emory dance is the showÕs use of Doris Day singing, “More” (“More than words can ever say…”)- an old pop song with a cheesy ring perhaps, but one that, in this context, helps explain why we still need dancing and feeling in our lives.
By Jonelle Seitz
If you’ve ever pondered the meaning of life while vacuuming – and who hasn’t – you can relate to Headlong Dance Theater’s more., a study in domestic life overhung by the subconscious’ questioning of it all.
Co-directors David Brick, Amy Smith, and Andrew Simonet created the hourlong piece, in collaboration with the six dancers, under the mentorship of pretty famous New York-based choreographer Tere O’Connor. According to the program notes, the Headlong directors, after working together for 15 years, engaged in a two-year conversation with O’Connor to invigorate their material and methods. Having never seen the Philadelphia-based company pre-O’Connor, I can’t attest to any transformation, but I can tell you that more. was a weighty piece, both cerebral and immediate. While my reaction to the piece as it was being performed was to distance myself from its retro-cool facade and stark movement, I found that with time, more. stayed with me, the images loosening into a contemporary archetype that I recognized not so much with the mind but with the consciousness.
The work began in silence as a female dancer, androgynous in a gray suit, introduced the type of percussive movement that continued throughout the show. The movement was repetitive and characterized by the momentum that drove it. For example, the flapping of a single hand gained momentum until the hand reached the other arm, pushing it outward, and the arm pulled the body to the floor. It seemed organic in a real carbon sense: The movement seemed purely of the body, not of emotion. In contrast, there were times when a dancer broke into a completely free, twirling type of dance with arms upstretched, as if representing near-freedom from the body.
While the stage was bare at the beginning of the work, the dancers soon began to haul in furniture to create the living room that was the set for much of the piece. In an exploration of domesticity and ritual, the dancers arranged and rearranged themselves on the turquoise vinyl couch (set and costume design by Maiko Matsushima). One dancer removed a medical boot from her foot and performed strengthening exercises with a Thera-Band; another vacuumed the rug. An iPod appeared, and a recorded voice attempted to explain their state of existence: “You seem to have a lot of questions about what goes away and what stays. Body parts go away, but the heartbeat stays.” They took turns changing the soundtrack, and various relationships evolved and disappeared. Even within the seemingly cozy limits of the living room, nothing was stable.
Often, ritual was familiar yet bizarre. One dancer performed acupuncture on another, and large tree branches were placed around the furniture, transforming the space. A microwave appeared, and everyone stood and waited as one dancer heated, and ate, a frozen quiche. Up until this point, the piece was contained in the living room, giving it the confinement of a television sitcom. But here the dancers carefully disassembled the living room, bringing each piece of furniture to a pile downstage right, and the quiche-eating dancer added herself and the remainder of her meal to the pile.
After the careful upending of couch and tables, the gray-suited dancer, having shed a couple of layers of restricting costume, began peeling off strips of the marley floor, revealing a bright-green subfloor and a completely new environment. Those remaining brought in lengths of wood and constructed a fence around the green area, containing her. Looking over the fence as if observing a baby farm animal, they chanted, “Hip, hip, hooray!” before exiting the stage. The enclosure was clearly a lightening transformation for the now-alone character, as her movements, still stark but no longer tight, showed rejoice in release from the limitations of objects and customs.
September 12th, 2009
I’m down in Philadelphia this weekend to see Philly’s Headlong Dance Theater’s premier of More. Headlong was founded by Co-Directors David Brick, Andrew Simonet and Amy Smith in 1993. I met Amy and Andrew in 1991 at the Center for New Dance Development in the Netherlands right after they’d graduated from Wesleyan. They were there in their post-bac year trying to decide in what American city (other than New York) they should locate to start making dances. David, Andrew and Amy collaborate in the creation and performance of all Headlong’s dances and share credit for all the company’s work. I served on their board for several years.
One criticism I’ve had of their work over the years is that because of their steadfast commitment to the ideal of collaborative directorship their pieces have tended to sometimes lack the clear voice that a singular director would provide. Also, because each is a very creative artist, but each with a very different focus, the work has changed radically in tone, structure and content from piece-to-piece. This has sometimes been a good thing; they are open to a lot of different ideas. But sometimes, I feel, it has not let some of those ideas to develop fully.
They saw some of these shortcomings as well. In 2007 they sought and received funding (gotta love Philly) to invite Tere O’Connor to serve as a mentor on a new research project. To quote Tere: “For this project they aimed to take stock, to see where they were as a group, and to look forward afresh.” For the project Tere suggested that they work for several months completely separately, not even speaking to one another about what they were doing. They each worked with the same six dancers – Nicole Canuso, Niki Cousineau, Devynn Emory, Jaamil Kosoko, Kate Watson-Wallace, and Christina Zani. In April of this year they had a public “reveal” of the three pieces they had made. They compared notes, talked (a lot, if I know these guys) and with a residency at The Silo made a new piece, More.
Watching last night, I was moved by More more than by any previous Headlong piece for the stage. (The site(s) specific “Cell” being a unique exception.) I found the level of movement invention and recombination, remarkable, the overall tone darker and more sophisticated, and even though it was still a collaboratively directed piece it spoke with one voice. The dancers interpretation of the work was outstanding. The use of stillness and silence was stunning. The detail and refinement of movement was light years from what was seen in their 1998 ST*R W*RS A special shout out to costume and set designer Maiko Matsushima whose collaboration greatly contributed to the sophisticated and finished feel of a very non-linear, non-narrative piece. A more detailed description can be found on Lisa Kraus’ blog Writing My Dancing Life – (http://writingmydancinglife2.blogspot.com/).
I think the whole idea of a company bringing in another dance maker to mentor them is brilliant and brave.
To quote Andrew from the program notes, “After collaborating for 15 years we wanted to shake things up. We wanted new tools and approaches, particularly around creating and refining movement. And we wanted to rethink the process of collaboration. Working with Tere O’Connor changed all that and more.
Usually on first viewing I form a composite sense of a dance’s elements in the same way that we all perceive movement while watching films – our brains link what are actually still shots. “more.” initially defies this kind of synthesis. Its nature is of fracturing and fragmentation. Its six dancers do not interact so much as co-exist, demonstrating, at times for each other, at times for the space itself, their personal movement statement of the moment, then settling back into a generalized passivity – a state of waiting, watching, slightly irritated togetherness. All acts dissipate like waves in an ocean.”more.” is dark, something no other Headlong piece I’ve seen could truly be called. Christina Zani, her left leg in a big brace and often seated in a wheelchair, embodies physical dissolution. At the piece’s emotional center, she enthusiastically marks out for the five others a dance she envisions, but they slip back into their default position, poised on a four-seater turquoise couch in their living room set. Zani’s dance never happens. She is left alone, wheelchair-bound, facing the audience. The subtle play of responses passing over her face is wondrous – I see despondency and the kind of “bucking up” self-talk our society favors. Her story is of the fragility of the body, and isolation, and contrasts with Nichole Canuso’s repeating far-upstage displays of balletic virtuosity. Nice, in a chilling way.
Zani later receives a healing treatment onstage and the space is transformed into a verdant oasis with the addition of leafed-out saplings. Maybe things aren’t so bad after all…
Most of “more.”’s movement is spasmodic . Occurring in snippets rather than arcs, movements are nearly all small, repetitive, and gestural, like enlarged tics with interruptions and responses. With an exception or two, no one dances “together” in more. Instead, unisons performed in close proximity or spread apart have the effect of underscoring the movement and calling attention to the space and its composition of seated figures, furniture, and upright dancers. Decisions are formalist and transparent- how do moments arise and transform and cut off? How does a phrase replicate itself at different times in different configurations?
Three of “more.”’s players are nearly faceless. Nicole Cousineau in particular recedes, seeming to create a character whose modus operandi is vanishing . At one moment she stands up after having been concealed for some time behind an overstuffed armchair. It resembles a moment of seeing someone who had been previously “invisible,” suggesting a forbearing housewife or mother (“oh, don’t worry about me…”).
Headlong has often seemed less drawn to using movement as a medium for its intrinsic qualities than for its versatility as a vehicle for communicating about other concepts and states. The dancing in “more.” sometimes appears like chatter: something to occupy its players, like random statements blurted out into an infinite ether. But “more.” delves more deeply into the nature of its movement than any Headlong piece to date, with a movement palette that’s exploratory, thoughtful and of a piece. It unspools in a way that continually reveals the minds of its makers, and the myriad decisions comprising the whole. “more.” could benefit from being pushed further structurally to reveal a logic for its myriad short movement bursts that now seem underdeveloped.
“more.” is not warm and fuzzy. It’s not cute. But it has a tender regard for some of its characters – Devynn Emory begins and ends the show as an androgynous, human-animal spirit. She is given a whole new environment at the end – perhaps it’s the place of her dreams. This marks a moment of generosity in the piece, and isn’t saccharine, being tempered by the trivialization of a cheering throng.
Dance addresses the ineffable. One of Headlong ’s members said to me after the show that “more.” is the first of the group’s dances where what it’s saying can’t be captured in language. I agree. While an unsettling viewing experience, I find it an exhilarating leap in the company’s artistic adventure. And, I wonder whether it might be one of those very few shows that yields its fruits slowly, being puzzling on initial viewing and later coming to mean a great deal, or even representing a turning point in theatrical convention.
[Disclaimer: I have worked closely with several of the performers and directors of “more.” and cannot claim impartiality or absence of conflict of interest.]