New York’s love for the avant-garde fills our performing arts with fresh faces every season. But fortunately, we also have enough memory and cultural wisdom to remain attentive to and reverent of these pioneers’ forebearers.
Case in point: David Parsons. In his 23rd year with Parsons Dance, the choreographer, performer, and producer remains credible and popular. Last month, the company wrapped up their annual New York season at the Joyce Theater, performing a retrospective of pieces spanning, in time, more than a quarter century of Parsons’ work and, in character, the stunningly original to the simply adroit.
Opening Program A was Closure, a visually dark but emotionally robust piece debuted in 1997. Black-clad couples use all the length and width of the stage to boldly entwine, then just as decidedly disengage, throughout the piece’s cryptic, moody turns. Their strength underscored by bright flashes of white light, they eventually form wide ritualistic circles and march round in unison, their arms bending to the center and out again like snakes.
In Sleep Study, seven dancers in billowy pajamas shuffle out on stage one after another, variously falling asleep, nudging their dreaming partners, and fitfully waking. They labor to stand up and slump against each other for support before toppling back down to the stage (bed), where they roll in synchronicity and succession. Their bodies appear loose and their faces evoke the charming roundness and warmth of tired puppies’, never betraying the focus required to keep the piece in the precision motion they do. Floppy and cute, universally understandable and funny, Sleep Study debuted in 1986 and doesn’t look a bit anachronistic today.
1990’s Nascimento, for which Brazilian guitarist Milton Nascimento composed the score as a gift to the company, is pure Parsons: all resounding, apprehensible movements occasionally spiked with equally lucid but surprising touches plucked from outside the norm—right-angled arms and up-flexed feet; sudden breaks from symmetry to more sprinkled, organic organization on the stage. Wearing squeaky-clean pastels and smiling like the sun, the dancers embody the guitar’s bright, layered melodies and flit across the stage in pairs, take long leaps into each others’ waiting arms, and conclude by forming a garden of music and movement which evidently grows stronger and stronger after soaking in the rays of each passing day.
Nascimento sets the stage well for Kind of Blue, a 2001 quartet set to Miles Davis’ “So What.” In denim vests and blue jeans, the couples show a different way of incorporating music with a dance: instead of radiating the song, they play within its frame, flirting, snapping, and swinging as coolly as the vibrant undertones of their movements will allow. The comparatively few number of dancers on stage and low-lit pauses between scenes highlight and complement the song’s perfect spaciousness.
Caught has been turning heads since its debut in 1982, and understandably so. A single male dancer in white trousers commands the stage, Atlas-like with straight limbs and an air of potent authority. A spotlight brings attention to his rippling abdomen, then another lights up and he moves between them; it repeats, and he steps up his pace. The real cleverness and power of the dance comes when he sautés in wide circles to the beat of a stroboscopic light—flashing off when he lands and on when he alights —which makes him appear to hover feet above the floor for an entire revolution at a time. For maximum impact, the effect is duplicated on a number of combinations. The audience applauds and gasps in spurts throughout, and at the end, the dancer bows in the original spotlight before bolting off stage à la Houdini.
The closing piece, In the End, is less than three years old and set to a Dave Matthews Band medley. The dancers look like friends dressed for a casual summer picnic and work together as a true ensemble, acting out the kaleidoscopic push-pull romances and self-involved monologues often born from the close interaction of a group of young friends. Well-pronounced and unflagging after nearly twenty minutes of exceptionally athletic solos, duets, and en masse scenes, the dancers exit the stage as they entered: united.
David Parsons’ deserved rank in New York’s dance world is the result of his commitment to the strong and well executed over the fragile and risky. He occupies an important role here: consummate and confident touchstone for the old guard and newcomers alike.
April Greene, the Rail's dance editor, lives, writes, and bikes in Brooklyn.