Project: Video Excavation from Headlong’s Scholar-in-Residence

I.

Hi. Let me introduce myself. My name is Laura Vriend and I am Headlong’s new Scholar-in-Residence. I have a Ph.D. in Critical Dance Studies from the University of California at Riverside and my scholarship centers almost exclusively around the work of Philly dance artists, including Headlong, Nichole Canuso and Kate Watson-Wallace. I’ve known these Headlong folks for awhile now and this summer we created this title/position for me after I volunteered, yes, volunteered to tackle the ridiculously colossal job of archiving Headlong’s video materials. These materials were being kept in old bankers boxes in what we call “the dirty basement”. Their recovery was not unlike excavating an archaeological site. Thankfully, the collection, while still in the process of being fully inventoried, digitized and boxed, is now safely above ground. As a dance scholar, I have already dedicated innumerable hours to thinking about – and written tens of thousands of words on – select Headlong pieces. So, perhaps my initial desire to take on this project was simply to make my own research easier. However I came to this seemingly crazy decision to wade through boxes of old media, create standardized numerical inventory systems, deal with digitizing frustrations or tolerate the numerous impulses to defenestrate my laptop because Excel randomly decided it did not agree with my formatting decisions, I am still here doing this work. It’s exhausting and exciting, but now that we have some older dances digitized we’re hoping to share them (hello vintage Headlong screening parties).

(scroll down to section III if you want to skip my more academic-y musings on archiving and discourses of ephemerality or section IV for vintage video goodness )

II.

In dance studies, a significant amount of discourse has been dedicated to thinking through questions of the ontological status of performance. Words like “ephemeral”, “disappearing” and “vanishing” are common. For instance, Marcia Siegel begins her 1972 book At the Vanishing Point: A Critic Looks at Dance with the following:

Dancing exists at a perpetual vanishing point. At the moment of its creation it isgone. All of a dancer’s years of training in the studio, all the choreographer’s planning, the rehearsals, the coordination of designers, composers, and technicians, the raising of money and the gathering together of an audience, all these are only a preparation for an event that disappears in the very act of materializing. No other art is so hard to catch, so impossible to hold.[1]

In many ways, dance writing in rooted in this very concern: if dances are always vanishing – falling away from us into some kind of “lost dances” vortex – using language to create an evocative experience at least helps to manage some the anxiety of dance’s “plunging into pastness”.[2] Another influential way of thinking about dance’s “ephemerality” comes from performance theorist Peggy Phelan who sees the supposed disappearance of performance as a profound resistance to capitalism. The idea goes like this: if performance disappears, only representations of performance continue on and since a representation of a performance is not a performance itself, a performance cannot be reproduced and circulate ad nauseam in a capitalist marketplace like, say, a postcard of a famous painting.[3] But, let’s not worry about that for now.

Working on this archive has had me thinking quite a bit about these discourses: are these tapes and now this archival project an attempt to “save” these dances from disappearance? Am I driven by an anxious desire to “catch” them? What is an archive’s relationship to these questions surrounding the ontology of performance? The process of doing this work has clarified my thinking around these questions. In addition to the archives usefulness to my own research and as yet still only imaginary book project about Headlong, so far this process does seem to have helped Amy and David and Gen access previous work for creative, pedagogical or marketing purposes. As for this problematic word “ephemeral”, watching these pieces again reminds me how active and alive my affective experiences of Headlong’s work still are. These works did not disappear nor have they ceased acting upon me. The archiving process has reinforced my own conclusions around these discourses of “ephemerality”, that began to take shape particularly while reading Jacqueline Shea Murphy’s The People Have Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Modern Dance Histories and André Lepecki’s Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement in graduate school.[4] With the entanglement of my own experiences of performance and my engagement with these scholarly works I have arrived at the very strong belief that the work of a performance extends beyond what we usually think of as the “end” of said performance. Dances move us, they speak to other dances and performances, they influence communities of creators, they are active in time and space and they continue to do all these things – to be live and alive in our conscious bodies – long after they are “over”. The word “ephemeral” when applied to dance now makes my ass twitch.[5] I can no longer think of dance in such a way. It acts too strongly upon us, it does too much in the world and as long as it generates these effects, I cannot think of it as disappearing. I too can use Siegel’s metaphor of the vanishing point, but I see a different interpretation. The vanishing point as the 2-dimensional representation of the geometry of perspective is not actually an end-point. It is only a representational mode wherein the point itself is suggestive of the infinite continuation of the lived. The lasting effects of performance too can be felt and followed past this point. I could provide further exposition on this statement using theories of performativity and affect, but I’ll leave that for a later date. So yeah…that’s what I’ve been thinking about during the archiving process from a “scholarly” perspective. If you did read this section, feel free to ignore/forget/disregard it as per your preference.

III.

For now, I’ll share some particularly memorable finds from the degrading boxes of VHS tapes (that are now labeled, inventoried and stored in archival quality VHS boxes). I dug out my old VHS tape player and was determined to watch unlabeled or poorly labeled tapes so I actually knew what was on them. Here are a few things I found:

A Dance Dear to David

I found a single unlabeled tape. I saw: David, Amy and Andrew in blue and black tights and t-shirts, a Cunningham-esque dance (super nerdy), audience members sitting at tables with the option of listening to several offered soundtracks on audio cassette players and an audible soundtrack of voices commenting upon the dance as they were seeing it. I recognized one of the voices to belong to Lorin Lyle (Lorin has performed with Headlong many times). In the office the next day, I brought my observations to Amy who informed me that the piece, performed at the PMA, was called Blue Bodies on Wood. I instinctually put it in the priority digitization pile since I’m a huge nerd (see above for evidence) and it’s such a beautifully nerdy dance. When David returned to the office from his artist mentorship trip at the Yard in Martha’s Vineyard, he told me he had been thinking about that very piece and was even interested in creating a new version. I was so glad I intuited that it needed priority digitization.

Mission: Impossible

Yes, there was a VHS tape of Mission: Impossible. Yes, the very first Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible with the Larry Mullen Jr./Adam Clayton version of the theme song (so good). There was a post-it on it, but the writing was illegible (David?). Needless to say, I was pretty sure there had to be something on the tape Headlong-related. My answer: a First Friday performance at the old Spirit Wind Performance Space circa late 2004/early 2005: some improvisational structures, excerpts from Hippie Elegy and a Custom Made for Dito van Reigersberg (Founding Artistic Director of Pig Iron Theatre Company). Wait, I thought. A Custom Made for Dito? I remember that. I was at that First Friday. I watch again. I can see the back of my head.

MASTER! DO NOT TOUCH OR PLAY

On the shelf in the office was a VHS copy of ST*R WA*RS (yes, the piece that won Headlong a Bessie). A copy of the program was taped around the box with a handwritten warning: Master! Do Not Touch or Play! I was slightly concerned that this may actually be the only copy. BUT, as I continued dusting off boxes in the dirty basement, I pulled one from the bottom back corner of a shelf, opened it and found…the 8mm motherload. While most were labeled “rehearsal footage” or simply by date, deep in the pile I found the original 8mm tape of ST*R W*RS and Other Stories recorded by DTW (New York Live Arts). It has since been digitized and we now have plenty of touchable and playable DVDs as well as a digital file of the show.

IV.

For anyone interested, but especially HPI students past, present and future: I chose this piece from 1995 to give you a taste of what David, Amy and Andrew were making early in their careers. There’s a whole lot more that I want you to see, but this is pretty special. Some of you may have even heard about it. It’s called Routine. You may want to plug in some speakers or headphones, as the volume in the file itself is quite low. Note: we’ve come full circle hairstyle-wise as Amy is once again blonde and David is rockin’ the headband.

Keep an eye out for more videos and images from the archive.

Peace Out,
Laura

 


 

[1] Siegel, Marcia. At the Vanishing Point: A Critic Looks at Dance. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972

[2] Here, I’m borrowing André Lepecki’s phrase “plunging into pastness” from his book Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement. NewYork: Routledge, 2006

[3] Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 1993

[4] See the following works for additional scholarly thinking that rejects the notion of performance as ephemeral using theories of performativity, affect studies and the philosophy of Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze: Lepecki, André. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement. New York: Routledge, 2006 and Murphy, Jacqueline Shea. The People Have Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Modern Dance Histories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007

[5] Here, I’m borrowing a variation of the line “my ass is twitching” from French Kiss. dir Lawrence Kasdan, 20th Century Fox, 1995, film