Planting Where They Bloomed: Headlong, Pig Iron, and Performance Training in Philadelphia

(Photo: Audience and faculty look on at an HPI Open Salon showing.)

The City of Brotherly Love has long suffered a reputation as, put bluntly, “philthy.” A ride down the antiquated Broad Street Line (token, please) might convince you there’s some truth to the tale—but artistically speaking, the dirt here is fertile.

Headlong Dance Theater, known for its choreographic innovation and elucidations of pop culture, and Pig Iron Theatre Company, category-shrugging makers of “dance-clown-theatre,” are the earliest tillers of the city’s hybrid dance-theater scene. Combined, they’ve premiered over 60 pieces on Philly soil since the mid-’90s, many of which have toured nationally and internationally. Besides teaching and workshop gigs across the country, these works have yielded a healthy crop of recognition for the two companies, including a Bessie for Headlong; two Obies, an Edinburgh Total Theatre Award, and a FOX News jab for Pig Iron; and Pew Fellowships in the Arts for all of the two companies’ co-directors (Amy Smith, Andrew Simonet, and David Brick of Headlong; Quinn Bauriedel, Dan Rothenberg, and Dito Van Reigersberg of Pig Iron).

What do you do with all that rich soil?

Grow gardens, of course: In 2008, Headlong founded Headlong Performance Institute, a fall semester-away program for undergraduate and recently graduated student artists, in collaboration with four other Philadelphia artists (Aaron CromieEmmanuelle Delpech-Ramey; Headlong’s Dramaturg, Mark Lord; and Pig Iron Co-Director Quinn Bauriedel) and nearby Bryn Mawr College (where Mark Lord is also Professor and Chair of Theater). Housed in South Philly’s Arts Parlor, a former mortuary that’s functioned as a grassroots arts space under dancer-choreographer Lorin Lyle for over a decade, HPI will enter its third year this fall. Meanwhile, in the fall of 2011, the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training will kick off a two-year postgraduate certificate program, followed by the opportunity for a third-year fellowship with the company. The program will be housed in a 19th-century schoolhouse currently under development by Crane Arts in the city’s Kensington District.

Quinn, who will serve as the school’s director, still remembers Philly when it was grungier—when historic Old City was still just a twinkle in realtors’ eyes, and a new frontier for experimental artists. A young Pig Iron, composed of a group of Swarthmore College alumni, had moved into town following a successful run of an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey at the Edinburgh Fringe. They’d caught wind of Philadelphia’s first, five-day Fringe Festival (13 years later, it’s the renowned, 18-day Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe), and while hanging up posters for their show, “I think I sort of dreamed a memory of being on about Third and Market and seeing a large piece of tumbleweed roll across the street,” says Quinn. “It felt like a good kind of wasteland—like the sky’s the limit.”

Not far from the tumbleweed in question was the studio and home of Amy, David, and Andrew of Headlong, friends from Wesleyan who had been living and working together in Philadelphia since 1993. Quinn remembers recognizing Headlong as “kindred spirits” at a time when, generally speaking, “theater was either very traditional or extremely Fringe-y, with nothing really in between. It felt like there was a big gap.” That gap, it turned out, was one Philly performers and audiences were hungry to see filled.

After moving to Old City from a South Philly studio with no heat, Headlong had started a free weekly class in hopes of drawing in more of those kindred spirits. “We attracted a group of people who took class with us every week,” recalls David Brick, who, at the time, was still also dancing with Richard Bull Dance Theater in New York. “We wanted to use the class as a way to explore our ideas.” Headlong also began performing at Old City’s First Fridays, a monthly, open-studio event (also still going). “We saw that there was this big street festival going on, so we put a sandwich board out and people would pour into the studio,” David explains. “We would do two or three performances a night. And the late show,” which would regularly devolve into an all-night dance party, “was always the most fun.”

To find more time to focus on dancemaking and research between the co-directors’ various day jobs, Headlong had also started their free, month-long Dance Camp in 1995. “People would sleep all over the studio, and we all took turns teaching classes and leading workshops to everyone else,” David remembers. “We cooked meals together and pooled our money for food, and would work our day jobs for about one or two days a week during that time.” As the company evolved, so did Dance Camp—into Dance Theater Camp, which it is still called today, and which has taken various organizational structures over the years, from a grant-funded residency at Earthdance in the Berkshires to a series of short classes with sign-up sheets.

While Headlong and Pig Iron have thrived as not-for-profit collectives in Philadelphia, thanks in large part to the city’s relative lack of commercial pressures, the basis of their work, their training, is all imported—for the most part from Europe. Of Pig Iron’s three co-directors, two received training at the Jacques Lecoq International Theater School in Paris, as have several company members. Amy and Andrew of Headlong studied at the School for New Dance Development in Arnherm, Holland. In a 2008 essay in Dance Insider, just before Headlong Performance Institute came to fruition after years of talking and planning within the community, Amy looked back on her training at NDD:

Andrew and I jokingly and lovingly called our cohorts there ‘the dirt eaters.’ These artists were not concerned with pirouettes and jumps. They wanted supple spines. They wanted to yell about injustice in their native tongues and call it a dance. They wanted to eat dirt on stage and roll around in it.

Amy fondly titled her essay “Dancing With The Dirt Eaters,” but within it, decried the lack of such irreverent, holistic training in the United States. She also lamented the loss of American teachers to such foreign institutions, wondering if “these boundary-blurring artists have often been denied the respect they deserve by pedagogical dance institutions in the United States.” Questioning the separation of dance and theater within university departments in particular, she closed with a challenge:

Come on, university dance programs. […] You know who you are. We need to be figuring out how to train the next generation of dancers and choreographers right here in the United States. Yes, they need to know how to jump and turn. But they also need to know how to eat dirt.

Headlong’s Institute grew from this challenge and out of the development of its 13-year Strategic Plan. It opened its doors to its first group of sixteen students in 2008. And as far as the program’s evolution to date, HPI students don’t just eat dirt, but also learn to grow their own stuff in it. In addition to training and creating work, students investigate and plan how to make lives as artists, drawing inspiration and insight from Headlong’s self-described role as “artist-citizens” in the Philadelphia community over the past seventeen years.

“Each generation of artists, especially in America, kind of reinvent how they survive,” explains Headlong Co-Director Andrew Simonet, who also created Artists U, a professional development and mentoring program for working artists in Philadelphia. While HPI gives a kind of up-close “tour” of the worlds of its faculty artists, “it’s also an invitation to change it.” Andrew sees HPI’s message as: “Here’s what the house looks like now—so now, you guys can tear it down and make it look different, or put a little addition on the side.” Three years in, the challenge for the artists who built the program, Andrew says, is tied to that of its students, and young artists in our culture in general: “It’s not like becoming a lawyer. You can try to borrow the thinking or the approach, but not the actual steps. There’s a thing about how to pass on a way of thinking without passing on a set of actions to be imitated.”

While many of HPI’s students take their skills learned in Philadelphia back to various home institutions at the semester’s close, Pig Iron’s two-year structure—at times cloistered for development, at times open to the public—will ask its students to truly plant roots here. And for good reason: The school’s stated mission is “to develop the next generations of theatre artists who will change the face of world theatre,” while altering the “character and tone” of the American theatrical landscape. That takes time. Co-Director Dan Rothenberg, who points out that none of Pig Iron’s members are Philly natives, says that “the hope is that people will find like-minded collaborators” in the program, “and make something of their own. I don’t think we expect it all to look like Pig Iron work, but that people will start a process of working and asking questions together.” While he admits that students will come to and leave the program with a variety of goals, Dan would be “pretty excited if ensembles came out of it.”

While HPI welcomes a new round of seventeen artists to Philly this fall, Pig Iron has already run an intensive summer session in preparation for the school’s opening, and the company’s co-directors are busy recruiting students for the program’s pilot phase. Both programs will continue to invite artists from around the country and from within Philadelphia’s community to connect with its students, and both programs are also in the process of securing the ability to host international students.

You might be harder-pressed to find a tumbleweed where artists roam in Philly today, or in the city as a whole: According to recent census data, the city’s population is steadily increasing, and the famed, NYC-based real estate blog Brownstoner has even launched a Philly version, a sign of the (gentrifying) times. And hey, even bona fide urban gardening is on the rise. But while Philly as a city may be cleaning up, the performance scene, it seems, is about to get a lot dirtier.

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