by Steve Ahern
Tobie Hoffman has been turning her West Mt. Airy home into a dance rehearsal since May, in preparation for Headlong Dance Theater’s presentation of “This Town is a Mystery.” It is August now, and Hoffman is still rehearsing. Her one-person show has changed since May and will, Hoffman expects, continue to develop and change until September, when the production is scheduled to premiere at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe.
Well into a mid-week evening, Hoffman rehearses before the benevolent scrutiny of the Headlong Theater’s cofounder and creator of “This Town is a Mystery,” Andrew Simonet, along with co-artistic director Amy Smith. Their eyes follow Hoffman’s every gesture, writhe, turn and hop. They voice their pleasure for the progress Hoffman has made as together they seek the movements that best express the story she tells.
In one segment, Hoffman embodies Pumpkin, her calico cat, freezing in pose for an uncomfortably long time at a window, staring with unflappable focus, as animals are wont to do, at her leafy street. Hoffman then springs up stairs and back down, to a banister she curls around before announcing, “This is how my cat lives when I’m not at home.” Toward the end of the rehearsal, Hoffman steps to the piano, where melody informs her narrative of how an early exit from a lousy dance production led to marriage and Mt. Airy.
At the end of the rehearsal, Hoffman, knees aloft, splays herself on her living room floor, the future stage for her production, relieved, at least for now, that the wearying rigor of the rehearsal and the focus it requires will pause until Sunday.
It took the 59-year-old former dancer just 30 seconds to decide to participate in “This Town is a Mystery.” After several months and an interview, Headlong Theater selected four families from four sections of Philadelphia from among over 40 applications. They chose Hoffman to represent Northwest Philly and Mt. Airy.
A long-time admirer of the Headlong Theater’s work, Hoffman was elated when she learned she had been selected for the project. And though not initially daunted by the prospect of presenting a dance production to a 10-person paid audience in her own home, she gradually discovered the challenge it poses. Beyond the time commitment necessary to sculpt a professional production, Hoffman has had to wrangle with her approach to dance and to storytelling to successfully merge with Headlong Theater’s more abstract and nonlinear approach.
“If I were producing this show, it would be much more linear,” Hoffman says from her porch overlooking the West Mt. Airy street where she has lived for the last 10 years. “They (the directors) are much more about the energy, the timing and rhythm of it and less about the story, except tangentially I guess.”
Hoffman has been dancing since she was 5, a love recognized and fostered by her parents, who encouraged the creative arts in Hoffman’s two elder brothers as well, one of whom has performed in Indonesian shadow puppet plays and another who writes children’s books. Hoffman pursued her passion for dance in college, earning her B.A. from Fairhaven College in Washington state, also spending two years studying dance at Ohio State University. For the next 10 years, Hoffman worked as a professional dancer in Seattle, Cincinnati and Washington in dance theaters and at festivals, performing contact improvisation, which uses various forms of motion including rolling, suspension, weight sharing and counterbalancing on objects including the floor, chairs, the wall or other people.
Hoffman describes her own style of performing as effusive, dramatic and colored with quirkiness and humor. “Maybe that’s why I like what they (Headlong Theater) do,” Hoffman said, referring to Headlong Theater’s use of eclectic dance movements and non-dance forms including sign language and sports.
Hoffman’s professional dance career ended over 25 years ago. Since moving to Philadelphia nearly 20 years ago, after the man who would be her husband (they are no longer married) introduced her to Mt. Airy, Hoffman earned a masters degree in education from Temple University. She currently works as an associate director of the ESL (English for Students of Other Languages) program at Drexel University, where she advises faculty members on working with international students.
But Hoffman’s passion for dance and the performing arts has not abated. She participates in a singer/songwriter group, where she and other members perform their songs for one another. For the past two years she has danced at Group Motion Dance Company, which along with Headlong Theater’s project has helped rekindle in a structured way her passion for dance.
Hoffman’s love for the Mt. Airy community is perhaps as strong as her passion for the performing arts. A native of Silver Spring, Maryland, Hoffman says Mt. Airy reminds her of childhood experiences at Jewish summer camps, where dancing, singing and discussions framed by Jewish values, among them compassion and social justice, were encouraged.
Hoffman also loves Mt. Airy’s proximity to nature, its community-oriented residents, numerous community events and organizations, block parties, drumming circles and Neighborhood Watch groups, all of which coincide with Hoffman’s identity as a progressive, creative Jewish woman.
Hoffman’s row home will serve as the setting for the dance production, and the story she tells will explore the architectural elements of her home: its staircase, doorways, curves and corners. Hoffman hopes her performance will prompt people to think about their lives and society in different ways, and discover the things they share. “I hope to unleash the story and storyteller that is in each person who comes to see it.”
Performances for “This Home is a Mystery” will take place from September 7-22. Two shows will be featured each evening. Tickets are $28-$35 and are available online at livearts-fringe.org, 215-413-1318 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets guarantee that you will see one of the at-home dance performances but not necessarily which one. Audience members are asked to bring food to share during the 80-minute post-show dinner. Children are welcome. All participating households have pets.