Through its nearly twenty-year history, Headlong Dance Theater has been stretching boundaries. Stylistically, the company has incorporated such movement backgrounds as ballet, jazz, Bharata Natyam, sports, and sign language. The inspirations behind its dances have ranged from Britney Spears to James Joyce.
Most provocatively, Headlong has challenged the accepted divide between audience and artist, encouraging and facilitating participation by everyday people, even those who find dance theater an off-putting foreign country. “In many ways, it’s an artificial divide,” says Andrew Simonet, artistic co-director of Headlong. “Some bodies on one side watching, some bodies on the other ‘performing.’ We all have a body, there’s nothing we as dancers have that you don’t.”
This inclusive philosophy was exemplified in Headlong’s 2006 Live Arts piece, Cell, in which one audience member at a time was taken on a performance journey, interacting physically with people who may or may not have been part of the piece. This Town is a Mystery, the group’s entry into the 2012 Live Arts Festival, will transform four households in Philadelphia into living-room dance theaters — with the residents as the performers.
The expansive focus on “citizen dancers,” as Simonet calls them, was one barely envisioned when the company began in 1994: a three-person collaboration between Simonet and two fellow alumni of Wesleyen College, David Brick and Amy Smith. But from the beginning, the group aimed to proselytize the wonders of dance. “We’ve always felt that the stuff that dance offers is amazing and more people can and should get into it,” says Simonet. “One of our aims is to make dances for people who aren’t really into dance.”
This aim is more than just grant-proposal subterfuge to Headlong. For Pusher, part of the 2000 Philly Fringe, the company actively sold dances on the streets of Philadelphia, like a drug dealer pushing his product. “And people bought the dances!” exclaims Simonet. “There’s a theme in the art world of making things easier to experience, sometimes it’s a great thing to make things a challenge and a risk instead.”
The group gained acclaim from outside the city, (“Fiendishly Inventive” — The New Yorker; “a super show” — The Houston Chronicle), but it has found Philadelphia and its Live Arts Festival audience especially receptive. “It was something of an accident that we ended up in Philadelphia,” says Simonet. “We knew we wanted to found a collaborative dance company, and we made a shortlist of cities.” Philadelphia wasn’t on their list, but a visit to a friend convinced the trio that the city would be receptive to their aims. “We really wanted to make a lot of dances, and here we weren’t just another dance company. At the time we moved here we felt really useful.”
Simonet traces three stages of the company’s evolution. At first the group made a lot of simple trios and duets: structured improvisational pieces that could be staged on a limited budget. As the company progressed, the directors became interested in narrative. “We wanted to explore the difference between what an event is and the telling of that event.” Pieces included Ulysses: Sly Uses of a Book by James Joyce, an exploration based on Joyce’s opus, and Britney’s Inferno, which fused the narrative structure of Dante’s exploration of hell with videos of the then-current crop of pop stars.
In its current phase, as in Cell and This Town is a Mystery, Headlong is on creating intimate, site-specific work which brings the audience into the action. “Dance is a funny thing,” says Simonet. “Watching it can be lovely, but doing it can be transformative, it changes you. Some of that comes across to someone watching it from a seat, but there’s something integral that can only be understood through participation.”
Looking to the future, Simonet and his collaborators see a broadening range of projects based on this principle. But just as Headlong’s present-day success and focus would have surprised its recent-grad founders in 1993, its long-term trajectory is likely to yield unexpected delight. As Simonet puts it, “The great thing about making art is that you are following your urges, your curiosity. You never know where you’re going to go.”