"I like this because I don't perform a lot, but this is my chance to perform," said Sulaimon Aryadarei, a 12 year-old from South Philadelphia. "I'm comfortable because it's in my own home."

Aryadarei, his young brother and sister, and his parents will be performing in their tiny rowhouse during the 16th annual Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Eight shows on eight nights, each time with an audience of only 10 people.

That's all that will fit in the dropped-ceiling living room, even with the furniture scooted out.

"We are creating pieces that are by and about their worlds, their lives, their families, and their bodies," said Andrew Simonet, the co-founder of Headlong Dance Theater, who is choreographing the Aryadareis. "It takes place in their homes, and so the audience actually comes to their home to watch the performance, and after the performance everyone has a potluck dinner together."

Yes -- audience members are expected to bring a dish.

"If you don't like potlucks, don't come to see this piece," said Amy Smith, also of Headlong.

Mysterious connections

The Aryadareis are one of four families who volunteered to be part of Headlong's newest experimental work, "This Town is a Mystery." They are from different backgrounds and different neighborhoods across Philadelphia. None of them has previous experience in theatrical dance.

The families have had weekly rehearsal sessions for months, allowing Headlong to develop original choreography tailored to the physical and emotional dynamics inside the home.

Buying tickets to this particular offering is a mystery, itself. Headlong and Live Arts have arranged a blind purchasing system. People can buy tickets online to a performance labeled simply A, B, C, or D. Only later will you know which family's home you will be going to.

Both the audience and the performers are put on the spot. The family members have agreed to welcome strangers into their home, and the audience must locate and cross the threshold of a home they have never been to. Afterwards, everyone shares the potluck.

"Convenience is such a god we worship in America. Even in the arts and culture world," said Simonet. "How do we make is easy for people to understand it? How do we make it short? How do we make it cheap?

"I feel like people have a need now for something that is really hard, because when nothing is asked of you, it limits your interaction with it," he said.

Finding clues in stories

The heart of "Mystery" is storytelling. Each family is made up of stories. The patriarch of the Aryadarei family, Zahed, grew up in Iran. In the performance, he sits in the middle of the living room and remembers a time when he was 8 years old, attending an unusually strict and cruel grade school.

"We had a principal, and this principal had a whip that was made out of wires," he says. He goes on to tell about an incident when his father discovered the principal had beaten him with that whip. The next day the senior Aryadarei -- a thickly built ironworker -- stormed into the school and beat up the principal. Aryadarei remembers that the other schoolchildren cheered.

"Something about my father that day, how he reacted, made me so proud," said Aryadarei. "It made me feel that my father is always going to be there. It affected me a lot. I always want to be the same way with my children. To always be there. No matter what. Just be there for them."

After telling the story, Zahed performs a pas de deux with his 10-year-old daughter, Sydney, to a slow Gillian Welch song, "Dear Someone."

"I've been thinking about the balance between someone telling you a story, with things that are abstract, movement without speaking, patterns that repeat." said Amy Smith of Headlong. "The most important thing we bring is shaping the pieces with formal structure, so that they are artworks and not storytelling sessions."

Smith and Simonet (and the third co-founder, David Brick, in absentia) are taking a gamble with the Aryadareis and the other families. Although Headlong Dance Theater is an experimental company with a strong reputation, "This Town is a Mystery" could easily fall on its face. These families are not professionals, and they may or may not have the discipline, drive, or stamina to create a quality performance for eight straight nights.

Bridging gaps with dance

The goal of this series is to use dance to bridge socioeconomic gaps in Philadelphia, to literally bring people together in as intimate a way as possible. But some families were too risky.

"There are people we went to and we didn't choose because of how unstable the situation was, and people genuinely living in poverty," said Simonet. "The ability to do a 50-hour rehearsal process and put on a show seemed like too much to put on them. But even in the household we are working in, things are really dynamic. People lose jobs, people go to the hospital, things are really dynamic and changing."

Simonet said he had to lower his expectations of what could be accomplished in a two-hour rehearsal session with the Aryadareis. With three children (12, 10, and 6) they were the most difficult to focus as a group.

When they finally come together, their father is proud.

"Before the rehearsal, it all can be chaotic. But once the act comes, all of a sudden, all our minds are tuned to what we have to do," said Zahed Aryadarei. "That impressed me about my children. Knowing that when something is serious, they have to put their act together. That's what I'm finding out."


Video by Lindsay Lazarski