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Flash Review 2, 9-19: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here
Headlong into Hell with "Britney's Inferno"

By Alissa Cardone
Copyright 2003 Alissa Cardone

NEW YORK -- Through Saturday at Dance Theater Workshop, Philadelphia's prized Headlong Dance Theatre, the healthy collaboration of dancer/choreographers David Brick, Andrew Simonet and Amy Smith is performing "Britney's Inferno," and if you're in New York and want to be entertained at the expense of Ms. Thing, you should go see this performance. It's funny, it's creepy, and it has the wit to make you muse about some of the more unfortunate sides of human nature.

A strong work of cultural critique and postmodern irony, "Britney's Inferno," seen Wednesday, doesn't just let the audience passively watch hell unfold -- it puts them in it. Before the lights even came up on the stage Wednesday an oddly irritating but intriguing (in a psycho-pathological kind of way) male voice announced he'd like to consider us "partners," not audience members. From the beginning we knew we were in it together, participants in the rise and torture of one of pop's plastic icons.

In an age where it's been said that 'boredom is the new anger,' the best way to comment on something seems to be to make fun of it. Is there another road beside irony? "Britney's Inferno" relies heavily on exaggerated stereotyping that thankfully is still funny. The stage was set like a pop concert at Madison Square Garden (complete with a metal studded ramp and bi-level cage), while the flashy, impressive lighting design by Mark O'Maley was at times more affecting than the choreography. There were striking primary color cues backing the cast that created eerie ambiance around the evil chosen one. At one point, amidst a heavy silence, spots searched the audience as if looking for the next big thing. I was scared.

Headlong's press release says that the company wants this piece to "sift the evidence of fame and identity," asking the question, "Why do we torture our celebrities?" "Britney's Inferno" seems to answer the question by saying it's because people won't waste their efforts on compassion when the subject is more image than human. This piece reminded me of junior high, a time and place that is not only a breeding ground for Britney fans but also a site of social warfare. At that age, building up and tearing down people is a routine exercise, and I'd hope one that we'd grow out of.

On a lighter note, it was so easy to enjoy the unison phrases to the pop pastiches of Justin Timberlake and Spears's music mixed by Rick Henderson. He made the 4/4 phrases repeat like a skipping record creating trance-like bubble music that skillfully bordered on but never crossed over into MAKE IT STOP. 4/4 is just so likeable, so simple, and gosh it is really satisfying to see the in-synch body punctuations video dance is good for.

When the piece ended I was a little dumbfounded; I wasn't ready for this conclusion. My head brain kept looping that infectious pop music beat as my head bobbed almost imperceptibly up and down. However, when these "In-Synch"-esque routines appeared during the piece I felt the choreographers could have pushed the phrases further, made some element of them more unsettling, more creepy, a little less likable. With the intelligence this team has in scripting and juxtaposing ideas I'm certain they could tweak the ending to make it stronger.

In Dante's "Divine Comedy," when the protagonist completes his journey through all the levels of hell, after he meets Satan he is redeemed (symbolized in his reunion with Beatrice, his love). There is no such luck for our Britney automaton. Played adroitly by Christy Lee, who cleverly never sings a single note, Britney postures and pivots like a good robot doll, her poised and sometimes intense blankness beaming only the reflection of what the crowd makes her -- at first, pretty and nice, and later, once they've had enough of her act, lame and stupid. Lee's microphone, instead of giving her a voice, is smartly equipped with a mini-camera which projects her image in real time on not one, but three ceiling mounted video screens. (Did you know that if you search Google for Britney Spears you'll get 3.3 million results?)

In the press release for "Britney's Inferno," Headlong poses the question, "If we all 'Learn To Dance Like The Backstreet Boys,' can we really dance together?" Well. Learning to dance like the Backstreet Boys is a hell of a lot easier than learning to dance like Mary Wigman or Merce Cunningham. And to a lot of people, MTV-style dancing is more accessible and less intimidating than modern dance. It seems strategic that the only modern dance looking phrase that comes up in Headlong's piece arrives after the hoi polloi shouts Britney down by calling her lame and boring. It's then when a mortally harmed Britney rips off her blonde helmet/wig and watches longingly as the dance crew sheds its universal gestures of pop culture for pitch turns and release technique. What if Britney really did get into modern dance? Would this dance scene support her change of heart or would we still rip her to shreds?

"Britney's Inferno" is performed by Christy Lee, Nichole Canuso, Kate Watson-Wallace, Lee Etzold and guest dancers from local high schools. For more information, please visit the DTW web site.

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