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Parsons Dance Company with the Ahn Trio - 'Rise and Fall,' 'Caught,' 'Slow Dance,' 'Swing Shift'


by Lewis Whittington


December 4-6, 2003 -- Annenberg Center, Philadelphia


By chance, I ran into David Parsons during intermission at his company's sensational Philadelphia appearance with the Ahn Trio. He mentioned he was reconsidering having the modern chamber group open the concert. The MTV/Carnegie Hall-ready Ahn sisters -- Lucia on piano, Maria on cello, and Angella on violin -- performed a sinewy piece by Michael Nyman and two dramatic tangos by Astor Piazolla in prelude to the dancing.

Parsons was just picking up static from the subscription seat audience, who make you feel sometimes that you are at a fairground rather than in a theater. Typically, they pile in late, they rustle around and rudely continue talking. So, they were bound to resist any unexpected concept changing their expectations. But, shame on those who didn't appreciate an enthralling evening of music and dance -- an obvious treat for the dancers too, being in such close proximity to onstage musicians. For dancers, live music can be vital tissue, offering the difference between dance by numbers and an in-the-moment performance.

Parsons' opening work, "Rise and Fall," scored to music by the Turtle Island String Quartet about the drudgery of everyday life, presented the company, dressed in vibrant clubby velvet and nylon cutaways, falling over each other in lines and circles. Dancers cluster, then break away in flash solos -- when a dancer collapses, they are hoisted up, nudged to carry on and on. The signature pose -- foot held up and arms making cryptic gestures around the head -- reminded me of dances of Siva, suggesting inner peace and harmony against the volatile current of daily life.

Soloist Mia McSwain, introducing the phrasing, loomed around six other dancers who ebbed and flowed while she orchestrated ever-dizzying patterns. Parsons could update this work with more movement, considering the athletic skill of his dancers, and look for more variation to drive home the theme, but it was nonetheless danced with great energy.

Next is Parsons dazzling work, "Caught," performed in almost every concert, currently rotated among four company members. The illusion does rely on a trick, a strobe light effect making it appear that a dancer is always aloft, but it still requires gravity defying strength and steely control by the performer to make it work.

Usually tweaked electronically per performance to Robert Tripp's space-boinging musical sound effects, the piece was played to live accompaniment for the first time. Angella Ahn recorded her own bowing, and having it played back, accompanied herself, really, and paced the dancer. The luminous Sumayah McRae, dressed in a white sports bra and spandex shorts, was instantly locked in this duet with Ahn. McRae is "caught" midair, advancing like a spectral being; her jetes traversing the entire stage, and her hovering position making it seem like she was being punched through another dimension. Her amplitude, control, and presence are entirely transcendent. I've seen the piece several time with men and women taking it on, and it is rare that the stomach is not pumping up and down for air by the 90th jump, but McRae's bare midriff was as still a mountain lake.

"Slow Dance" had the feel of a work in progress, but it looks so good -- why not develop it onstage. Three couples are confined to a square spotlight -- the women have their legs cleaved around their partnerís waist, their torsos bowed, creating a two-body sculpture that sets up an intimate and dramatic scenario. Kenji Bunch's music careens from mood music to a stabbing tango, as the dancers move around each other crisply, eventually getting into a thicket of arms and legs, eventually melting away, returning to the beginning phrases of a simple, but unresolved puzzle.

The Ahn Trio led into the finale with a pristine reading of Nyman's theme from the movie, "The Piano," and a beat later, the hypnotic McSwain, dressed in a dusty plum negligee with a blue lace bodice, enters and caresses the air and her body in the opening tableaux of "Swing Shift," also scored to music by Bunch.

Parsonsí new ballet was made in commemoration of the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, but that is a glancing reference. Parsons' dialectical cultural markers, from cotillion waltzes to lindy slides, suggesting time passages, and quotes from Parsonsí repertoire unfolds into a rich montage. In fact, one of the things this ambitious modern ballet shows is that Parsons does not a signature look like Taylor, Tharp, or even Balanchine. You realize seeing these samples that Parsons can take his dancers technically and artistically anywhere.


Edited by Lori Ibay


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