Philadelphia’s Headlong Performance Institute crosses disciplines to create whole artists.

The first assignment students get when arriving at Headlong Performance Institute is to create a three-minute self-portrait. They can use whatever idiom they choose—dance, theater, song, visual art or a mix of genres. And that’s just the beginning. They’ll spend the next 14 weeks studying movement techniques, commedia dell’arte, clowning, contact improvisation, dramaturgy, mask work and other cross-disciplinary artforms, all while seeing dance and theater performances and learning the practical skills they’ll need to succeed as artists.

The semester-long experimental dance and theater program based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has a broad scope, but its mission is simple: to create mature artists who are comfortable using whatever discipline necessary to get their vision across. “We train the body, voice, face and mind to help students learn to use all of themselves onstage,” explains Andrew Simonet, one of the institute’s founders. “Many choreographers and directors today want you to be able to develop relationships onstage, to be able to speak, to move articulately and to generate ideas.”

For dancers, this means learning to embody a character, vocalize onstage, speak about art and collaborate with artists in other disciplines to create work that defies categorization. No matter the discipline, every student is challenged—and changed.

Swan Song, part of the final showing for the fall 2010 Headlong Performance Institute class, with creator-performers (L to R) Abby Wacker, Caitlin Hellerer and Allison Caw.

In the Beginning

The program is the brainchild of Simonet, Amy Smith and David Brick. The three Wesleyan University graduates also run Headlong Dance Theater, a company they founded in 1993 that’s known for tackling heady topics with wit and wry humor. HDT had done short-term college residencies, and, according to Smith, the institute came out of a desire to continue working with college students, but in a more intensive format.

They began brainstorming a curriculum in 2006 and reached out to four fellow Philadelphia artists: Aaron Cromie, an actor, director, puppeteer, maskmaker and commedia dell’arte performer; Quinn Bauriedel, co-artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company; Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey, a former Pig Iron member who now makes her own work; and Mark Lord, HDT’s company dramaturge and director of the theater program at Bryn Mawr College. The multidisciplinary team reflects HDT’s philosophy that artforms should overlap. “We believe in the expansion of forms of dance and theater,” Smith says. “Our culture often identifies them as two separate forms, and they’re really not. I’ve always wanted the dance field to expand to include theatrical elements, for dancers to be trained to use voices and faces, and vice versa—for actors to use their bodies.”

A Headlong salon showing during the fall 2010 Performance Institute semester

How It Works

The institute launched in fall 2008 and students earn four full course credits (generally 12 or 16 credit hours, depending on their home institution) through Bryn Mawr College. Students apply by submitting an artistic statement and a work sample, which might be a DVD of dance or theater work or even a piece of visual art, as well as letters of recommendation and a transcript. Generally, the institute receives 20 to 25 applications a year; the average class size is around 15. The program accepts both current college students and college graduates (students have ranged in age from 19 to 37)—which means dance educators looking to broaden their skills can attend the program, or they can recommend it to students. To succeed at the institute, Simonet says dancers need “courage; an interest in expanding what you can do and what you can create; comfort in what you do well and in trying new things; and an interest in making art that is about something.”

The curriculum is extremely ambitious. One day might begin with yoga or Pilates, progress to a two-hour clown or mask class and then finish with “Creative Process” class, in which students create and analyze their own work. On another day, students might do dance improvisation and then have a class in art theory. The institute’s “Life of the Artist” course covers budgeting, fundraising, resumés, taxes, day jobs, grant-writing and other practical aspects of being a working artist. Each Friday, a salon series gives students the chance to present works-in-progress for feedback. (Between weekly assignments and final projects, students spend about eight hours a week in the studio rehearsing, outside of regular class hours.) The semester culminates in a multidisciplinary, collaborative performance at Christ Church Theater in downtown Philadelphia.

Though the program follows a basic framework, faculty members are flexible about tailoring the experience to each group of students. “We ask, ‘Who are you, as an artist?’” Simonet says. “They can’t answer that by making the kind of work I make. Headlong Performance Institute supports students finding their voice.”

Creating Artists—and Community

Working outside of one’s comfort zone is challenging—but it also facilitates growth. “What I loved about the program was that I could really fail there,” says Britney Hines, a Dickinson College theater and dance alum who attended in fall 2009. “It was such a good lesson to show something [to your peers and faculty] that you’ve put a lot of time into and see that it just doesn’t work—and then to use constructive criticism to bring it to that next phase.”

Marcel Williams Foster, a dancer and actor from Colorado with a biological anthropology background who also attended in 2009, experienced a similar transformation. “I came in with a lot of professional experience, including publication in scientific journals,” he says. “My approach to choreography was to come into the studio with my thesis, thinking, ‘My idea is precious and nobody’s going to touch it.’” Foster says that the institute faculty helped him find a sense of play in his work. “I learned to go into a piece with a clear idea, but also to be committed to seeing it change and transform.”

Foster and Hines both chose to stay in Philadelphia after the program and launch new ventures of their own. They co-produced The Jane Goodall: Experience, a theater piece in which Foster, who conducted primate research in Tanzania prior to attending the institute, portrayed Jane Goodall. The show was performed at the 2010 Philly Fringe Festival. Foster, Hines and other institute alums also run Hybridge Arts Collective, which puts on a multidisciplinary salon series, Last Mondays, where up-and-coming performers can present work.

Even if a student arrives a trained dancer and chooses to stay in the dance realm, she’ll leave the program with a new arsenal of creative tools. “My dream is that we’re helping to create a generation of artists who work in an ensemble collaborative fashion,” Smith says, “using the techniques we teach to create work that we can’t even imagine.” DT

Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer in New York City.

Photos from top: by Andrew Simonet, courtesy of Headlong Performance Institute; by Lauren Dubowski, courtesy of Headlong Performance Institute

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