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Diving in with Headlong
By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2004 Lisa Kraus
PHILADELPHIA -- Headlong
Dance Theater, generally conceptually wry and determinedly accessible,
is a controversial lot. The company can enchant or infuriate, depending
on one's taste. It would be hard, though, for anyone to resist the
charms of "Hotel Pool," seen in the Live Arts Festival September
Performed in and around
the Society Hill Sheraton's 4th floor pool, "Hotel Pool" opens with
a lone older lady swimming laps as we find seating, having been
forewarned that if towels are on our chairs, it's for a reason.
The lady finishes, towels off, and walks out. Amy Smith, one of
Headlong's three co-directors, enters in traveling business attire,
cell phone to ear. On the phone with an assistant, she seeks help
with her quandary: rather than a normal room, the door her card-swipe
opens is to the pool.
This astutely limned
control freak (we get her micro-managing style in her amusingly
directive spiel to a hotel clerk) eventually settles pool-side.
We hear single tones from a piano, a spacious relief from her speedy
entry, and are gently ushered into a whirl of dreamy sequences.
The pool lights up from below. Dancers then shoot head first through
the water in that stunningly streamlined way that otters do, fanning
out from a central point where they'd been concealed. Where and
how they'd remained hidden is a mystery; the complete surprise engenders
a sense of wonder that you feel as audience member and see on Smith's
face. The swimming dancer-creatures with heads covered in colored
hoods and wearing goggles move slowly, circling, looking, waiting
and watching with simple attention as animals do. As the businesswoman
drifts into sleep, the atmosphere slips toward fairy tale. We hear
sonar, whale songs, and tinkling music box or xylophone as the hands
of the creatures draw her gently, fully clothed, into the pool.
Her wide-eyed astonishment and slightly hesitant but captivated
body-language imply that the pleasure of this encounter may be just
a bit too much. She wants these whale/otter/seal dancers to tenderly
carry her buoyant body, drifting easily, cooperating wordlessly.
She wants to enjoy the big splashes they make, how they set the
water roiling, how they twirl her, social-dance style. It's WATER,
not her overloaded workaday world. It's a world where you hold your
breath and move, slowed by resistance. Can she really go there?
Smith emerges up the
steps, dripping and briefcase in hand, for a bizarre business meeting
at a table set in the whirlpool. The slightly sinister fellow she
meets makes her a "very generous offer," a pile of towels. The dialog
is full of puns and comical riffs on hard-boiled confrontation scenes.
A rock song plays over her phone, then on the sound system, with
unintelligible lyrics. Questions arise for this viewer: what's the
connection of this musical style with what we're seeing? Is it the
stylization in the acting that makes this scene gel less than the
wetter ones? Or is Headlong trying too hard here to mold the piece
into a clean plot-line?
We feel a pleasing relief
when our businesswoman re-enters her watery world. The creatures
carry her on high, gliding like a proud ship into port. They flop
themselves onto the pool's deck, like so many fish out of water;
they splash big and tumble. In this long sequence, where the movement
is eye-poppingly exceptional, they use water to cushion falls, opening
a new movement range. They lift each other on high, then plunge
into the pool holding corkscrewy shapes. They hurl themselves backwards,
thwacking the water's surface. Pool-side, the fluidity that water
engenders informs every move. Slightly slowed, their contact doesn't
look generic. It's water-creature play, lifts and twirls altered
by their sinuous slurpy quality.
One breathtaking move
is repeated in varying pairs. Two seal creatures twine arms around
each other at the pool's edge and begin spiraling, turning and tipping
themselves so they fall back in the pool. It's an ultimate watery
surrender, joyous and satisfying. Our heroine wants in. We're reminded
of silkies, those legendary Irish women/seals who long to return
to ocean even though they make lives and even families on dry land.
The only time the movement
is less-than-captivating is when the creatures appear to be "walking
on water" -- standing on invisible tables, perhaps? It's clever
but disconnected from the rest of the piece's movement language.
Toward the end we see
the colorful creatures from a new perspective -- on live video feed
from underwater, disoriented through the camera's tipping and swooshing
Ending cleanly on an
uplifted fairy tale note, "Hotel Pool" reasserts itself as a modern
fable, washing over the drag of speedy contemporary life with the
sensuous pleasures of a watery world.
Having looked recently
at a number of excellent video works made underwater (among them
Cathy Weis's "Dunking Pool," and Laurie McLeod's "LuoYong's Dream" and "Teatro Iva") it's clear to me
that Headlong is a pioneer in creating group choreography that makes
effective use of water's qualities and movement potential. But how
many people will ever get to see "Hotel Pool" live? For that reason
there ought to be a well-made film of "Hotel Pool." The audience
is small by necessity, but the ideas are big, and "Hotel Pool" is
a work that deserves to reach a much broader public.
Lead collaborator for
this production was David Brick working with co-directors Amy Smith
and Andrew Simonet. The fine performers in addition to Smith were
Brick, Olase Freeman, Mark Lord (who was also dramaturg), Lorin
Lyle, Heather Murphy, and Kate Watson-Wallace.
One wishes the music
supported the work better. Strongest at the beginning, it grows
cloyingly sweet with excessive repeats of the xylophone/music box.
There's some folky guitar, also with incomprehensible lyrics. It's
just perplexing what it's doing there.
Lighting by Jason H.
Thompson effectively sends ripples of watery light onto the ceiling,
lends eerie or fanciful color, and amplifies individual droplets
from glorious splashes.
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