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    Britney's Inferno

    Modern dance killed the video star

    Headlong Dance Theater takes Britney Spears to Hell in "Britney's Inferno."


    "Imagine that I'm not just sitting next to you. Imagine that I'm sitting right on you." A voice in the dark opens Headlong Dance Theater's "Britney's Inferno" (at Dance Theater Workshop last weekend). With this odd invitation, so begins the insinuation of this man's will into our lives. He is both devil and producer, Britney's — or a vacant blonde simulacra of Britney — producer and controller. But to us, he's "partner."

    Company: Headlong Dance Theater.
    Choreography by: Headlong Dance Theater with contributions from the performers.
    Dancers: Christy Lee, Nichole Canuso, Kate Watson-Wallace, Lee Etzold, Amy Smith, David Brick and Andrew Simonet with chorus (local dancers from NYC schools) Shawn Williams, Brittany Maldonado, Erica New house, Wende Gelb, Alex Garcia, Stephanie Richma, Iola Hall.
    Production design by: Maragret McCarty.
    Art direction by: Maragret McCarty.
    Sound design by: Rick Henderson.
    Set design by: Matt Saunders.
    Costumes by: Maragret McCarty.
    Props and wigs: Jennifer Goettner.
    Dramaturgy: Deborah Stein.
    "Britney's Inferno" plays with the idea of importing the illustrious Ms. Spears into those famous circles of Dante. A chronological demonstration of the ascent and decline of a star, set inside a minimalist stadium-tour environment, the show structures itself around three rules, for which we are absolved of all responsibility before we even know what they are. The most important of these rules, the third, goes like this: the things we make famous are the things we want to destroy.

    In this production, Britney (played by Christy Lee) never truly assumes a sense of control. Even in front of the camera (cleverly inserted into a microphone head and frequently aimed at her navel) she leaks a sense of mind-control, glassy eyed and accepting. All reins are held by our partner, sipping pepsi in a control booth built on top of a flash industrial zig-zag runway.

    Our partner he may be but the audience doesn't actually play the part of the audience in this production. The rest of the company aided by a chorus of local high schoolers takes on this function, spouting adorations and later dismissals. In this sense, the most dynamic part of this whole relationship — the adoring masses — is very much under control and denied the force they wield in the real world.

    Your body's saying 'look at me' and your face is saying 'what are you looking at?'  

    During the evening we are witness to various scenes of idol construction, including a hilarious dance lesson wherein our Britney is coached to perfection by dance instructor Kate Watson-Wallace. Zingers abound. Poor B rarely gets it right on the first try, but is set straight by such wisdom as "I'm seeing business," [demonstrates move with hard, efficient edges] "and what I want to see is pleasure" [an oozing repeat]. Her timing is dead on, her words knowing. "Your body's saying 'look at me' and your face is saying 'what are you looking at?'"

    The fans are led with innocent magnetism by Nichole Canuso, delivering their approvals and disses with a pack mentality. "Lame. I'm bored. This sucks," they say, underscoring their words with gestures culled from hip hoppers via whitey boy-bands.

    Andrew Simonet (that's our partner) talks to us throughout, on headset of course. He's a genial guide, not so much a Virgil as a high-powered real estate agent: soothing, masterfully controlling the situation while giving the image of openness and collaboration.

    The narrative being familiar enough (c.f. E!, Inside Edition, etc.), I couldn't help but feel that "Britney's Inferno," in prioritizing the chronology and the mechanics of stardom, missed the brimstony depths of the subject matter. The Inferno it wasn't, though the opening sequence was beautifully reminiscent of the engravings that accompany Dante's text, the look of the chorus sullied and opressed enough to seem like the sad crowds in the lesser circles of hell. Later in the show Britney points the camera at her navel (a live-feed to three large screens strung over the space) and begins to draw circles around it. We see in a minute that she's drawing plastic surgery incision markings on her body, but for one sweet second it looks like she's drawing the circles of Hell, her belly button where Nimrod should be.

    Sound designer Rick Henderson cuts up and reorders the songs by Britney et al. At one point we hear a sustained repetition of a whiny Backstreet Boys hit in a simple construction: I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it.... I was reminded of a snotty Rolling Stone columnist in an interview for one of VH1's top-100 lists. "I want it that way," he said, had a sense on par with Gertrude Stein. A statement with which I had to disagree. In fact there's not much substance there at all, and even attempts to break this material down into telling parts only creates a set of truisms apparent from the outset.

    Herein lies the disappointment of Britney's Inferno. Like pop itself, it rings out as obvious. Headlong's admirable emphasis on inclusion and accessibility makes for an unscary piece of modern dance. But it only delivers the surface, substituting charm and wit for Time-Warner production value.

    Inferno doesn't scorch poor B too badly. It ends in unison to the sentiment, "I'll never break your heart." I say: Go ahead and break it. She can pay for a new one.

    SEPTEMBER 24, 2003

    Reader comments on Britney's Inferno:

  • [no subject]   from jon, Jul 5, 2005
  • i love you   from amy smith, Dec 13, 2006
  • damn u people that r doing this to britney   from sara, Dec 15, 2006
  • OKAY......   from ANJEL MARTINEZ, Mar 25, 2007
  • !!!!!   from Boob, Apr 6, 2007

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