Here’s what I learned this morning on the Web: For $14.95 I can get a swatch from an article of clothing Britney Spears has worn, attached to a collectible photo. And I’d be contributing to her favorite charity! It’s the perils and pleasures of this kind of media-driven celebrity that Headlong Dance Theater’s Britney’s Inferno wittily and movingly zeroes in on.
Metal light towers form the portal to this appallingly sleazy hell, and its flames are Mark O’Maley’s searchlights and red glare playing over “Britney” (Christy Lee) with her wig of yellow ribbons. Led by the singer’s “friend” (Nichole Canuso), a fickle, black-clad horde of demons (Headlong plus local recruits) now worship, now revile their bubblegum-pop princess. The sinisterly smarmy emcee-manager-Satan (Andrew Simonet), who controls events, mostly from a tower, makes us accomplices in a cyclical process (“The things we make famous are the things we most want to destroy”), while the voices of other pop icons bubble up in Rick Henderson’s score.
Simonet, Amy Smith, and David Brick collaborate in creating the Philadelphia-based Headlong’s pieces, with contributions from company members (including Kate Watson-Wallace and Lee Etzold). In the past, their smart collective gaze has lit on Star Wars, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and suburban backyards. In Britney’s Inferno, they find terrifically clever ways to show adulation and its decay (“Boredom is the new anger,” Simonet tells us). Holding a mic that conceals a video camera, Lee slowly revolves in a circle of admirers, cueing the fans she points it at to scream and jump up and down; their images appear on three suspended screens. The same camera projects close-ups of her famous belly, while the chorus members pull up their shirts and inspect their own. Among other ordeals, “Britney” is wrapped in plastic, tossed into the reaching hands of a supine and hostile moshpit, and undergoes a hilarious session with a choreographer (Watson-Wallace), who uses absurd metaphors to turn the blank-faced Barbie doll into a virgin temptress and make her body say both “Look at me!” and “What are you looking at?” In the piece’s slightly inconclusive ending, pink hearts of light swirl on the floor, while glittery snow falls from above. Ms. Spears, it could happen.
¬ Choreographer Eva Silverstein and composer Guillermo E. Brown of Silver-Brown Dance are also interested in popular culture. But their new Whodundunnit, which focuses on the iconic charmer Audrey Hepburn, doesn’t pose uncomfortable questions or explore cultural phenomena. Although Silverstein’s poem in the program speaks of “A dreamscape where we are all guilty and all innocent./Where we search for clues, for laughs, for weapons of mass destruction,” what we actually see is a collage of poses, actions, costumes, accessories, and props that pop out from behind an array of white screens, as well as bursts of expansive dancing that seem only loosely connected to Hepburn or the other goings-on.
The idea is provocative. Hepburn always won the day by turning her bewildered gaze and sometimes self-righteous temper on a variety of men and situations, her every blunder making her only more endearing and her moments of strength only more lovably vulnerable. There are no men in Whodundunnit. Silverstein, Sheramy Keegan-Turcotte, Adrienne Linder, Maggie Thom, and Mei-Hua Wang are all Audrey Hepburn, even when, clad in her ’60s outfits, they wed, chase, spy on, and try to kill her. While Brown’s score skillfully sets the atmosphere and drives the action, hands holding guns appear from behind the screens, and stolen handbags are found to contain tiaras or lit cigarettes. Several times, a horrified freeze-pose forms while the wrong person is shot.
The superficial images are repeated and varied nonstop, with a 10-minute intermission while the black-and-white clothes are replaced by colored ones. Some moments are sharp and funny, but I found the frequent playing to the audience annoying. With no development, Silver-Brown overextends what might have been an amusing 25-minute piece.