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Flash Review, 3-13: Back to the Future
Head first with Headlong into a Bad Year

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2006 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK -- Headlong Dance Theater is consummately clever. Its directors -- Amy Smith, David Brick, and Andrew Simonet -- are my favorite makers of dances short and sweet. In response to the miserable 2005 we collectively endured, the Headlong collective has returned to its roots by creating a collection of small, simple works without sets or involved technical elements. Mixed Tape for a Bad Year, which received its New York premiere earlier this month at the Ailey Theater as part of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival, reflected on war, resistance, murder and the Bush Administration. In their program notes the directors stated that these were just the dances they felt compelled to make to take their minds of the natural disasters, bitter politics and war.

The program opened with "Swinging," an unassuming study of copycats in cadence. Nichole Canuso began standing alone on stage, creating a movement phrase using accumulating gestures while continuously bouncing. She was joined by Heather Murphy, who sometimes mimicked and matched her before deviating and altering the pattern. Smith then joined them and the dance became like a game of telephone. The winsome trio maintained the playful bouncing while shifting through compositionally satisfying variations. I was reminded of games played by girls at recess and the hypnotic perpetual motion toys that seduce my children into submission on Baby Einstein DVDs.

"Thrash" is a kind of home movie, a video record of an experiment Headlong conducted in late 2005. In an effort to find a way to express their reactions to the Bush Administration's actions, the company listened to speeches by the president and then videotaped their own physical responses. When they screened the videos at dance showcases, audience members began asking to be included in the experiment. The resulting work -- or work-in-progress as Headlong calls it -- is a record of one pissed-off population, both young and old, dancer and civilian. It was at once witty and sad.

David Brick and Andrew Simonet joined Canuso and Murphy in "Yonder," a quartet set to a collection of traditional Southern murder-ballads. Bodies were carried, bodies fell as the tone shifted quickly back and forth from one set by coy flirtations to one infected by malicious violence. At one point Simonet dangled Canuso off his neck, rested her on his knee and then dropped her to the floor as if into a river, creating beautiful visual storytelling.

"Hippie Elegy" was a light-hearted lament for the good old days when folks knew that war was wrong. A riveting, and twitching Jeb Kreager and Smith shook and frolicked just like ma and pa during their crazy days. Not mine, mind you -- my parents were actually active participants in their own Miss Saigon drama. Regardless, this much excellent Joni Mitchell and Neil Young goaded me to get back to the garden and turned my general malaise into a more active need to act.

The program also included a sneak preview excerpt from "Shosha," inspired by the 1978 novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer set in pre-WWII Warsaw. Simonet (who has written for this publication) spoke casually to the audience before directing Brick and Canuso into ridiculous physical postures from which they had to enact a scene from the novel. The work played with structure and informality in a typical and successful Headlong manner. The timing and silliness is such that you are never quite sure how much is orchestrated and how much is spontaneous, so natural and comfortable are the performers.


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