Blurring Boundaries

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

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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