Go Deeper

Loving Headlong Dance Theater’s “More” Just A Little More

Posted August 12th, 2010

In 2007 when NY choreographer Tere O’Connor provoked Headlong Dance Theater co-directors David Brick, Andrew Simonet and Amy Smith to put their 17 years of collaboration on hold and work independently from one another on a new piece, he probably could’ve never predicted that three years later the project—which was called More and premiered at the 2009 Live Arts Festival— would still be in motion. That’s because local filmmaker Byron Karabatsos filmed every minute of More‘s creation for his documentary No One Else Could Love You More, which will have a special screening at this year’s Live Arts Festival.

Byron, who first saw Headlong’s work in their 2005 piece Hotel Pool has an intimate connection to the company outside of the documentary—his wife, Christina Zani, dances with them. He was shooting video for a workshop of theirs with Tere when the choreographer made the suggestion that David, Andrew, and Amy “un-braid and then re-braid” their process. They would radically move away from collaboration and instead pursue their own separate strains of choreographic research for a few months, eventually bringing ideas from the resulting three pieces together to form More Byron, who teaches screenwriting and film production at Temple and UArts, was intrigued by the idea and approached Headlong about making a documentary on the experiment.

“In many ways they’re like a family . . . I wanted to look at how organizations/institutions/structure can lift you up to accomplish your goals, but at the same time constrain you and limit what’s possible,” says Byron. “My interest in this comes from my love of family melodrama, I guess.”

After the jump: revising process, injury, and film anxiety.

The artists say that it was strange but liberating to put their structure on hiatus for the piece.

“When you’re discussing things with other people a little grain or kernel of an idea doesn’t sound significant when you say it aloud. But if you just follow an impulse, eventually it would lead to something I could explain,” says Andrew.

“Sometimes David would mischievously poke his head into the studio and we’d all scream,” says Amy of keeping her work secret. “It was sort of fun, like parents wrapping Christmas presents for their children.”

“It made the whole thing much more vulnerable and personal and great,” Andrew adds. It also made him wary of accepting Byron’s offer.

“I was against it,” says Andrew. “I was definitely like, ‘Guys I think this is a terrible idea. Especially at a moment when we’re going to be vulnerable to each other and our processes and our own artistic concerns, we’re gonna have this 24-hour cameraman?'” he remembers asking. “That’s a disaster.”

But after what the three agree was an intense discussion, Amy, David and Byron convinced Andrew to invite said 24-hour cameraman into the studio. “They felt pretty strongly about it,” says Andrew, “and that’s what you do in a collaboration.”

David says that their fundamental trust in Byron was vital. “We only wanted to be able to say yes if we could let him do whatever he wanted.”

And he wanted to do everything. Each choreographer had 40 to 50 hours of rehearsal, from September when they started rehearsing to April 4th when they presented their work to one another. Then they began the re-braiding process with a weeklong retreat at Silo, an artist residency space on a farm in the Lehigh Valley. There were also creative meetings, budget meetings, meetings with Live Arts, and even “secret rehearsals,” where the choreographers and dancers (and of course Byron) got together after dinner and wine for creative time without the pressure of a formal rehearsal. Byron filmed all of it.

“If I was just there for some rehearsals, I would’ve missed the epiphanal moments, the moments where they figure out what the dance means to them,” he says. Though fewer artistically epiphanal moments happened during administrative meetings, Byron says he considered those to be equally important to a portrayal of the process. “They had kind of a budget crisis during this project. It was a recession and a lot of places cut down on their funding—I couldn’t miss those meetings.”

“He’s just an incredibly hard worker,” says David of Byron. “At the end of the process we’d be calling rehearsals or creative meetings at the last minute with no warning and he’d be like, ‘I’m gonna be there.'”

Accordingly, Byron ended up with about 250 total hours of footage. Though he usually uses static cameras to set up frames in his work, the necessity of tracking the dancers and the inability to predict what would happen in the studio forced him to throw the storyboard out the window and shoot the entire film himself using a handheld camera. “The form follows the content,” he says.

Having Byron in the studio turned out to be less invasive than predicted. In fact, says Andrew, “he was very successful in that he made himself a very calm, simple presence.” He says that he had to actually adjust to not having a camera around after Byron finished filming. The artists very rarely asked for something to be “off the record,” and David says the only real instances where he had to ask Byron to turn off the camera was when they spending time with one another outside of rehearsal. “Byron would try and get the camera out and I’d be like, ‘Dude, just hang out!'”

Only once did Byron have to make a difficult choice whether or not to film. One day in rehearsal his wife Christina suddenly fell to the ground. As the other dancers gathered around her, Byron was unsure what to do but kept the camera rolling. Unbeknownst to him, Christina had badly injured her Achilles tendon.

“If I would’ve interrupted, it would’ve made things more complicated or difficult. I had spent a whole 250 hours observing, and the other dancers were people who know their bodies and know what to do. I felt it was important to be on the outside of things,” Byron reflects. He says that in documentary there can be a lot of anxiety, but that he disagrees with filmmakers who stand there filming something and narrate over it, “I feel awful filming this.”

“Don’t film something if you don’t feel good about it,” he says. So he filmed for another 10 minutes until Christina started to cry, “then I put my hand on her and had to shut off the camera because I started to cry.” But he excused himself, got himself together, and then came back and started filming again. The only rehearsal Byron ever missed was the next day, when Christina had surgery. In typical Headlong fashion, Christina’s injury was integrated into the piece, with her performing from a wheelchair and in an orthopedic boot.

That episode translates to a scene in the film that Brian says is “upsetting, surreal, but also sweet,” and it parallels a scene of healing in More that the Broad Street Review called “the emotional focal point of the piece.”

This sense of self-consciousness and integration of the process in the piece—even when that includes injury—is central to Headlong’s work. They’ve long thrown open their doors for First Friday sessions of works-in-progress, but the three agree that this is the first time an outside force has tried to really capture their artistic process.

“I’ve seen lots of dance films that focus on ballets and how much the ballet dancers sweat and how hard it is,” says David. “That’s not what’s really going on in a dance studio, at least not the kind of dance we make.”

Byron agrees, but addresses the challenges of communication that on film. “If a dancer looked like they were having a hard time with something, I would film them not because I wanted to show ‘Oh, this is hard for them,’ but because I see them thinking and that’s interesting to me.” That doesn’t mean that the choreographers are exactly excited to see those hard moments on the big screen.

Amy looks forward to seeing footage of the dancers, “who are all just genius in this piece”, but admits that it’s hard not to be self-critical when you see yourself on TV. Andrew agrees,

“My first thought is if it’s really interesting and fascinating from your point of view, it’s because it’s gonna be excruciating for me.” He and David both said they’d rather watch it by themselves, preferably with mixed drinks.

David says, though, that the possibility of capturing the “body-to-body communication” that happens between dancers in rehearsal on film ” feels more significant than ‘Do I look fat?’ or ‘Do I sound stupid?’ or ‘Are people gonna look at me and think ‘That’s a dumb idea’?”

“There’s this transmission of information that ricochets around the room. It’s this kind of questioning and exploring and it’s intimate and it’s physical—it’s amazing. If Byron can represent that then the film has the potential to be a real gift to the world.”

No One Else Could Love You More will be shown on September 13th at IHouse’s Ibrahim Theater, 3701 Chestnut Street, University City. 8:00 pm, $8.

–Ellen Freeman