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Q&A: Andrew Simonet, Headlong Dance Company

Andrew Simonet, co-founder and co-director of the Philadelphia-based Headlong Dance Company, remembers the exact location where he first saw a random stranger performing "Car Alarm," the acclaimed avant-garde folk dance set to a car alarm that Headlong members, wearing absurd German track suits, would teach to audience members.

It was in Queen Village on Bainbridge, between 4th and 5th, "where there’s that strip of garden and all those parking spots," recalls Simonet. "Someone else said they were at some house in West Philly and a car alarm went off and everyone started dancing."

Another similar recent performance is "Cell," a journey for each audience member, starting at the front of the Market St. Bridge, guided by a cell phone and interacting through movement with people who may or may not be part of the piece.
Incorporating "citizen bodies," as Simonet refers to participating audience members, with dance performances has been an ongoing theme of Headlong’s work, and with good reason.

"Dance is a form that really intimidates people.  They feel unqualified to watch and interpret a dance. But when you actually move your body, all the meaning and the impact are right there," Simonet says. "Watching dance can be great. Doing it can be transformative."

In classic Headlong fashion, the nearly 20 year-old company based at S. Broad and Federal has taken the concept of citizen dancers to the extreme with its forthcoming "This Town Is A Mystery," an unprecedented project that will transform four Philadelphia households into a theater, and its members into performers. Simonet and company are looking for interested (and interesting) households to participate and is taking applications through at least the rest of the month. The show will premiere at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in September. Interested households can apply here.

Simonet talked to Flying Kite about his hopes for the new production and some of the other ways Headlong has impacted the local arts community.

Flying Kite (FK): Where did the idea for This Town Is A Mystery come from?
Andrew Simonet (AS): Driving around Philadelphia, I have this thing – "Where is everybody? Nobody’s on the street. Who lives here?" I had this dream of a cheesy YouTube show – picture these two 17 year-old kids in an old, beat-up car driving around Philly, pulling up in front of houses and knocking on the door with a video camera. Each episode is 15 minutes, you get to know the household and ends with one of the kids saying "Man, this town is a mystery."

Every time I visit someone’s home for the first time, it’s amazing, a universe unto itself. Some of it I recognize, some might be completely different. So I wanted to structure a project around that: go to someone’s home, see their world and their show, and then eat and talk.  Don’t just clap and go home.  Stick around and connect.

FK: Who are you looking for?
AS: We’re looking for four households and we will make a performance in each. You are the performers and your home is a performing space. We are looking to span the city demographically, and we’re looking for a range of neighborhoods.  You don’t have to be a family – we kind of define "household" as people who eat meals together. AND that includes children. Then we’ll meet various households and have some kind of selection process.

Then there will also be this other track – Do It Yourself with Headlong – for people who are not chosen, or people we know, who want to put on a show. We’ll do three workshops and give you a kit. And if you make something, we’ll work with you.

FK: Is this kind of audience participation increasingly possible because of technology and because of pop culture phenomena like Dancing With the Stars?
AS: Participation – there is a lot of hand-wringing in the art world over this. Everybody has the tools to make a movie, record an album, or learn how to meringue. There is this incredible empowering movement toward that. I think anyone making something, going through a real artistic process with or without a lot of training, is going to learn a lot.  Dancing With the Stars is not so much about making art but the physical skills. We’re going to be making an original performance work. The movements, the stories, the sounds, will all come out of each household.

FK: You grew up in Yardley and went to college in Connecticut (Wesleyan) and didn’t spend a whole lot of time in Philadelphia. Why did you decide to do your work here in the early 1990s?
AS: (After college I) met a bunch of collaborators and (Headlong co-founders David Brick and Amy Smith) wanted to start a collaborative company. We had a short list of cities and wanted to be a place that was affordable. We wanted to focus on getting the chance to make stuff. Philly was not on that list of cities. Amy and I visited a friend in South Philly and he introduced us to people in the dance world and it became apparent this was the place to be. We had no idea what was going on here.

FK: And today?
AS: Philly’s not so below the radar and has a different profile now. In our world there are more opportunities and more funding. But still, I don’t think you move here for status or style points. You move here because you want a place to do your work and do it in a city where there’s a realness factor.

FK: Since 2006 you’ve been running a program here called artistsU that is expanding into Baltimore and South Carolina and helps all kinds of artists learn how to survive as artists, including planning and problem-solving. How did this initiative develop?
AS: The Ford Foundation had a 10-year initiative that’s about to wind down that provided challenge money in specific communities to improve conditions for individual artists throughout the country. It was unusual in that it didn’t just target disciplines and structures but individual artists. Philly was one of those cities and Pew and William Penn also provided funding.

With artistsU, you apply all the skills you have in the studio and use them in other aspects of life. (Artists) play dumb when it comes to budgets, things like that. But the skills are there. If you can start applying them, it changes everything. Artist are able to think long term and imagine big possibilities.

FK: Is that part of Headlong’s mission?
AS: We’ve always tried to do a lot for the arts community and we really want to live in a community of thriving, connected artists. We do this thing called Dance Theater Camp, a free artist-run festival where we get people to collaborate across disciplines. We’ve done it for 15 years. My own mission has become clear to me – to be a part of more great art made by more people and seen by more people – rather than just my own art. In some ways I think I can have more impact helping. How many dances am I going to make? I can have a lot more impact helping other artists figure their shit out.

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.

Photographs by JJ TIZIOU
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