Your Accountant Might Secretly Be a Ballerina

Thanks to the rise of the citizen-artist, "regular Joe" Philadelphians get a shot at the spotlight.

This month, should you catch your mechanic, accountant or dog walker spinning, leaping or in pirouette, you’re not dreaming. They’re probably just practicing their moves for Le Grand Continental, one of two upcoming Live Arts Festival productions starring ordinary residents instead of professionally trained dancers.

“Public practice,” as it’s known academically in dance and other arts, isn’t a new concept, but it is gaining ground, observes Live Arts pr­oducing director Nick Stuccio. “It’s the idea of the citizen-artist, of shrinking the chasm between the ob­servatory-trained artist and the regular-Joe guy on the street,” he explains. “The citizen is now the work.”

In previous generations, dance was a lofty endeavor, rarely experienced by the majority of the population. But today, with viral dancing flash mobs on YouTube and several successful reality TV shows featuring contemporary dance, this once-elite art has become the stuff of commoners, and for the better.

For Le Grand Continental, a creation of Montreal-based choreographer Sylvain Émard, 200 Philadelphians as young as 10 and as old as 75 have been training with Émard and several professional Philadelphia dancers to learn the 30-minute work, which was inspired by the line dances he remembers “performing” as a child at weddings. “There’s a need coming from the audience and from the artists themselves, a need to reconnect,” Émard says. “And there’s a need from normal people to try to appropriate the expression of art, to integrate it into their lives.”

Nowhere is art being integrated more into the lives of normal Philadelphians, and vice versa, than in Headlong Dance Theater’s This Town Is a Mystery. For its Live Arts production, the company has created dances for four Philadelphia families to perform in their homes, in front of paying audiences. Headlong is known for audience participation and immersion, but in Mystery, these concepts are taken to an extreme. As Stuccio puts it, “The artists are finally and completely absent from view. Who knows where this will lead?

This article originally appeared in the August issue of Philadelphia magazine.