Talking to David Brick about Headlong Dance Theater’s “Avalanche” at Danspace Project

Photo by David Brick

Photo by David Brick

Philadelphia’s Headlong Dance Theater presents Avalanche this weekend at Danspace Project, running Thursday June 6 through Saturday June 8. I had the chance to speak with Headlong co-founder David Brick via phone a couple weeks ago about the “stretched out” process of making Avalanche, what he’s learned about performance creation in the 20 years since Headlong’s birth, and his thoughts on “actual life” and “luminous ordinariness.”

David is careful to accurately get across his philosophy on working with performers of diverse backgrounds, explaining that he is interested in mining the training of his collaborators for strategies and tools for research: “It’s about resources rather than endpoints of style. It’s not about combining a little bit of this thing and a little bit of that thing, but about digging down and answering deeper questions than style. The question is not concerned about discipline, it’s ‘how do we put arms around everyone in the room?‘”

The work emerged from an extended residency at Bates and Colby Colleges during 2011 and 2012, during which a group of faculty members in dance and theater departments (all performers save for one technical director) was assembled, and, “this thing about training began to emerge, about the things that draw people to the form(s) – competitive, exciting, glitzy things, often. But if you stay in the field long enough to become a professor or keep performing into middle age, you inevitably find other things that really matter, and how do you bridge that? It becomes, ‘I want to teach you about the subtlety of space, these are rad important things! But you want to be able to be hot and kick your leg really high.’”

On the process of developing Avalanche, David talks about creating a situation of sharing in rehearsal and giving the work ample time and space to reveal itself. “We try to spend a long time getting to know each other in a research process before we find the world of the piece,” he says; “we let things be a mess. The thing that we’ve learned over the years is to stretch the amount of time before you try to make it good.” Much time was spent early on in open-ended experimentation, with faculty members and directors taking turns leading exercises. They arranged and rearranged objects in space, taking care to “experience themselves as part of a landscape,” and shared answers to the question of what instructions one might leave to a house-sitter of one’s body:

“When taking a bath you will be tempted to bring the laptop into the bathroom to watch 30 Rock on Netflix. Don’t. Get in the bath and feel the circulation come back to the legs. Drink the tea that you made. Splash around. Loosen up the IT bands, especially the left one.”

David describes this “body-sitter” exercise as especially generative, calling it “heartbreaking and funny – you realize how much elaborate stuff is going on with people’s relationships to their body; someone’s struggles with insomnia, someone else balancing the different drugs that they’re taking, everyone’s different daily rituals. You see how the thoughts and feelings of a young dancer contrast with the sensations of the body in middle age. It changes from, ‘what is everyone going to think of me?’ to ‘make sure to take a moment for yourself.’”

Eventually, it became clear that the work should have a life outside of the academic setting of its genesis: “At one point, we just said, ‘we should do this, out in the world!’ The pressure of that is particular.” David describes this middle stage as “finding the world of the piece and knowing what belongs,” and working with such a spread of ages (20s to 60s), trainings, and research interests presented questions that were folded into the process: “We had a lot of really great speed bumps. We were such strangers to each other, it sometimes was like, ‘I don’t know what that is that you’re asking me to do.’” Even while negotiating diverse experiences and interests in the studio, the content that emerged was something shared: “We all try to have artistic lives that are our “real” lives. We are not stepping out of our actual lives during our work.”

“Performance is a hugely self conscious effort,” David says. “How do you be vulnerable; how do you be real? If you try to be good before you know where the heat is you’ll never get to the good part.” In discussing Avalanche, he returns often to this idea of being comfortable with letting a work live for awhile in an unformed state: “You can only make something good if you let questions bubble up in the unknown place; you make it real and then you make it good.” Like several artists I’ve spoken to recently, he laments the unavoidable task of having to sum up his work for publicity, expressing the challenge of positioning Avalanche for potential audiences: “It’s not a story about being young and getting old or starting in a superficial place and going to a deeper place, it’s more wavy and delicate and layered, but those energies are in there. It’s not about, ‘who were the actors? Which ones were the really good dancers?’ There’s one person who isn’t a performer at all, and in no way am I thinking of him as a gimmick. It’s about the presence of human bodies – everyone in the room is really skilled and the important skill is awareness.”

Musing on performance-making in general, David remembers his experiences in Japan as a 2012 creative artist fellow of the Japan-US Friendship Commission (culminating in Island, performed in Tokyo at the International House of Japan), and his research of Japanese architecture. He draws parallels between the “vessels for contemplation” that he visited and his performance practice: “Is there a way time-based art can create a contemplative experience?” Perhaps this question gets closest to what David and his collaborators are after – gently drawing attention to “things that aren’t trying to be special.”

“I love virtuosic dance bodies and virtuosic theatrical bodies, but I also think about how that training and those skills can be marshaled toward more subtle things about our presence and our relationship to being seen. Nothing special is happening but everything glows.”

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