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Flash Review 1, 10-14: Sly Dances
Headlong's Many 'Uses' for Ulysses

By Anne-Marie Mulgrew
Copyright 2000 Anne-Marie Mulgrew

PHILADELPHIA -- At first, I was daunted by Headlong Dance Theater's conceit to build an evening-length piece on James Joyce's "Ulysses." David Brick, Headlong cofounder, assured me that "the dance work should be seen on its own terms and that 98% of the audience hasn't read the book." I would beg to differ. The Friday, October 13 crowd who attended Headlong's "Ulysses: Sly uses of a book by James Joyce," presented by the Modernist Studies Association at Iron Gate Theater, was deep into the Joycean consciousness, bordering on fetishism.

The Iron Gate Theater has undergone renovations. The wings and black box structures have been removed to expose the church-like architecture. The stage is visible from all sides. Headlong covers the 40' by 40' floor with a floating white fabric that serves as movable set, wearable costume, and place, designed by David R. Gammons. Chairs draped in cloth and filled with assorted props and costumes by Lisa Leaverton are around the perimeters. Music is by Andre Popp, Les Paul & Mary Ford, City of Horns, Tony Martin, Column Mac Oirechtaig, John MacCormack & Reginald Werrenrath, Beethoven, and Francis Lai, in a soundtrack designed by Rick Henderson.

In the opening scene, Andrew Simonet questions a dancing Christy Lee (at the same time revealing to the audience snatches of a narrative) about a relationship between a husband (a florist), his wife, and the wife's lover. Brick enters dancing with Lee and the text; a hilarious awkward athletic duet ensues, based on styles of lovemaking. I wonder how much is written and improvised? Simonet asks, "How did the fireman enter the house?" Lee replies, "Through the open window." Questions abound -- "What song is the fireman listening to?" "What does the florist really want to do with his wife?" "When making love, who comes first?" "Who's lonely?" "Who does the wife really love?" As the scene builds, the audience realizes there are multiple answers to these basic questions, depending on who answers them, and this realization sets the tone for the evening.

During this opening, I feel as though I am in someone's house, perhaps a living room watching a domestic scene, a perfect place to see Headlong's charming, intimate, accessible, text-driven, tongue-in-cheek theatrical and very human Ulysses. The playful dancer/performers (Nichole Canuso, Heather Murphy, Amy Smith, Simonet, Lee and Brick) are people first. They live, talk, share secrets, tell little lies and dance with abandon as if no one is watching (yet they know everyone is.) Headlong slyly sets up physical jokes and replays them with aplomb and mature innocence. I love Brick and Smith's cool straddle lifts morphed into bulging butt hug/lifts.

Choreographed by HDT founders/collaborators Brick, Simonet, and Smith with contributions from the dancers, "Ulysses" borrows devices from the book such as the question and answer structure, use of repetition (expect lots of it) and the episodic nature. Skits are seamlessly and effortlessly woven together, connecting the audience to the circuitous subject matter -- meaning, understanding, misunderstanding, how one sees, remembers and reproduces an event.

For instance, one clever motif shows a dancer dancing a dance, as another dancer talks (like a sports announcer but more matter-of-factly) the language of the dance while a third dancer stands on stage with a bucket over the head. After the dancer finishes, the dancer with the bucket on the head attempts to dance the dance that was only heard, to the same dialogue or music. The situation is incongruous, much like life and events. The audience experiences this motif repeatedly.

Each time the end result is the same -- it is not the same dance.

As observers, we know the dance is never the same (even if the vocabulary, such as leaving downstage with a leap, is more generic dance vocabulary). It's fascinating because it becomes about the journey and one's willingness to try again and again for better, to gain information (even if it's the same). In "Ulysses," Brick's solo followed by Simonet's interpretation of the words and music brought down the house last night. Brick interpreted "stag leap" as an athletic dance leap with the front leg bent exploding into the air. Simonet's "stag leap" was that of a timid deer. We saw the same words bringing radically different results. Please keep in mind that even the term "stag leap" is one one-hundredth of this particular dance. This gimmick continued, culminating with three people under one large bucket listening to the talking dancer as a solo dancer danced and then all three under the bucket gallantly attempted to dance a solo as a trio.

Then there's the magical duet turned trio for Brick, Simonet, and Smith. Here, Smith and Brick begin with a smooth ballroom dance reminiscent of French court dancing. In a heated moment, Brick manages to take off Smith's green satin jacket, revealing some arms. Brick's so totally smitten by holding/smelling/rubbing his face in the jacket, he doesn't realize that Smith's costume is unraveling down to her knickers. At the same time, the rascal Simonet enters fully dressed in red, undresses to expose red underwear and dances passionately with Smith while Brick is still holding onto the jacket. Brick allows himself to be rused, preferring a piece of clothing to the real thing.

A personal favorite is an ensemble section showing very simple walking and running, stopping and pausing. The dancers gather, collect, make diagonal lines, straight lines. At first, Brick is not part of the group. He's the outsider. The action builds to include him -- only to have him disconnect before the entire two-minute section is repeated. I appreciated the fierce honesty and clarity of this section. I was surprised (after seeing so much repetition as to that choice). Why the instant replay? However, I found myself obsessed with looking for the same actions, such as how Brick is admitted into the group, how he is expelled and the placement of the dancers in their varying spatial formations. What a delicious little personal quiz on memory and perception!

Another notable skit features the four woman doing a spoof on Irish Step dancing to honor (?) Joyce's roots -- sort of like Sean Curran meeting the Trocks. Lee, Murphy, Smith and Canuso deliver the suds with fancy foot work, bopping up and down on all fours, with "to die for" facial expressions. There are some magical usages of the white fabric, such as when Lee is lifted by Brick a la bridegroom carrying the bride-style, Canuso's joie-de-vivre approaches during her language of dance solo, and the incredible playful child-like ending where the fabric turns into a swimming pool complete with the cast diving, yelping, floating, and belly flopping. It made you want to join in! All this made for a very satisfying evening.

Headlong's "Ulysses" was commissioned by the Rosenbach Museum and Library, where it premiered. It repeats tonight in Philly, and opens at New York's Dance Theater Workshop Thursday. For more information on that run, please visit the DTW web site.

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