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Deliciously Drifting
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 12.

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 pans.

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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