After years of making more conceptual work and implementing teaching projects, the triumvirate that makes up Headlong Dance Theater — Amy Smith, David Brick, and Andrew Simonet — came together again over the weekend at the Performance Garage to dance. Their new work, directed by Swarthmore College professor K. Elizabeth Stevens, is called Desire. For what, it doesn't say. But all it made me want to do was cry.
It was all about onions, you see. There were four huge laundry hampers full of big, juicy golden onions that pretty soon got dumped, rolling all over the stage for these actor/dancers to mash pell-mell with their bare feet — and bodies, too, once the juices started oozing and they slipped on them.
There was a microphone to one side of the stage where Smith recounted anecdotes about their early, idealistic days together. Brick and Simonet also took turns at the mic, and it was as though three siblings were telling versions of their cildhood.
They lived communally, two of them as vegans envying Brick his coffees' real half-and-half over their soy version. They shared clothes — three pairs of shorts among them — as they sprinkled onion seeds down the rows Brick had sown. Once they graduated from Wesleyan, they migrated to Philly. Here, they sowed seeds for new kinds of dance.
What endears the Headlongers to everyone is how they take small bits of life and turn them into something meaningful, familiar, sometimes a little sinister. Masters at juxtaposing melancholy texts with nostalgic music and goofy dancing, they jut out their legs and wiggle their arms in opposite directions in simpleminded steps. They drop behind one another, gently aping the other until the one who's being aped peels away.
In one part, a song relays that it's a "custom to dance after funerals. We like to waltz," and the three take turns waltzing among the crushed onions, managing to sidestep each one. They know how to lead an audience to focus on several aspects of their theater-making all at once.
The set and lighting were by Thom Weaver — three boxes sided with fabric that represent tents. Each of the dancers emerges from his or her individual spaces or retreats to them. Simonet comes out on all fours in an animal head, and later so does Brick as a unicorn. We all know they're mythical, so is he telling us not to believe what we've heard and seen?
Each of them (literally or figuratively) peeled away an onion at various times throughout the show — a kind of search to find the center of meaning, the kernel of truth in who we are. Of course, an onion has no center, so it makes a good metaphor for life and all the things we do as we journey through it.
And that could make you smile through your tears.