The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
January 20, 2016
Finding Center (NY Premiere), Union, Train, Almah (world premiere), Caught, Nascimento
-- by Jerry Hochman
Parsons Dance, co-founded in 1985 by Artistic Director David Parsons and lighting designer Howard Binkley, is a relative outlier among contemporary ‘post-modern’ dance companies. At least based on Wednesday’s opening program of a two week residency at the Joyce Theater, my first exposure to the company, there is nothing overly complicated, cerebral or expressionistic about the pieces presented, which included dances by two Parsons Dance alumnae in addition to four by Parsons himself.
That doesn’t mean that the choreography, particularly those pieces choreographed by Parsons, aren’t complex or a product of considerable intelligence – just that his dances intoxicate the spirit more than tickle the cortex; and showcase his dancers’ energy, musicality and athleticism without requiring that they become human pretzels or radiate anger or alienation. Parsons began his professional career with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and Taylor’s influence is apparent in many of Parsons’s pieces. The dances are accessible – one doesn’t have to work hard to see what Parsons is trying to do: the pieces work regardless.
The evening’s first dance, a New York premiere, is an example.
Finding Center is inspired by drawings by American artist Rita Blitt (described in the program notes as Parsons’s long-time friend and collaborator) between 1981 and 1985, many of which were collectively exhibited under the same title. The original pastel drawings are relatively small, but those used in the dance are projected sequentially onto the rear scrim as stage-spanning images. Each drawing in the series consists of an oval - some are filled-in with one color, some with multiple colors, some have blurred edges, and in some the oval looks like a watchful eye. They appear to be lit from within (a sense that Binkley’s lighting enhances), and, with one or two exceptions, convey both energy and serenity. Though different in shape and visual feel, to me they’re remindful of Mark Rothko’s ‘floating clouds’ of color. They’re simple, but one can get lost in them and find a sense of peace.
As the dance begins, three women (Sarah Braverman, Elena D’Amario, and Geena Pacareu), spring up and out from the bright visual field of the first Blitt oval (appropriately titled In The Beginning). Although they’re supported by three men (Ian Spring, Omar Roman de Jesus, and Eoghan Dillon), the women seem to float toward the audience – much as Blitt’s pastel oval appears to float weightlessly behind them. As the dance progresses, the dancers express, through Parsons’s choreography, a sense of the Blitt's art. It’s infectious to watch as the dancers – usually in groups of men, women, or both combined, but occasionally through fleeting solos and duets - seem never to stop moving through Parsons’s dynamic, non-stop, arm-swinging and quick-change-of-direction movement style.
Midway through the piece, as the accompanying music (selections by Thomas Newman) slows and a deeper-colored oval is projected, D’Amario and Spring dance an intricate, exquisite duet in which the relationship between the two is expressed in a physical more than an emotive sense. At one critical point, Spring manipulates D’Amario such that she’s gently balanced horizontal to the stage floor, held aloft as if she was floating on air – with the outline of her body roughly matching the outline of the oval in Blitt’s drawing. Super. D’Amario, who reportedly was ‘discovered’ after auditioning for Italy’s most popular talent show, is a chameleon who can be sultry one minute, a dynamo the next, and it’s impossible not to be visually drawn to her.
The piece ends circularly, like the artwork, in perfect grace and balance, with the women being lifted up from behind and carried back into another Blitt oval. There’s no point being made here other than that Blitt’s artwork inspires the spirit, and such inspiration in turn inspires movement, and such movement inspires joy. It’s not ‘deep’, but Finding Center is Parsons following his Blitt, and his bliss, and it’s marvelous.
The evening’s world premiere, Almah, choreographed by Polish-born former Parsons dancer Katarzyna Skarpetowska, is enjoyable, but not fully successful.
Skarpetowska is a highly competent though still considered ‘emerging’ choreographer known more within the industry than by the public. I previously saw her solo, Zjawa (which was created for Buglisi Dance Theater), a Graham-like piece that was a narrowly focused and intensely passionate dance. Though the series of dances performed by the three pairs of dancers here are executed well, Almah lacks a sense of direction.
Almah begins impressively, with Spring downstage center, crouched and facing upstage, as if remembering his soul mate. He quickly runs upstage and into the wings, followed seemingly by ‘memories’ of the woman (Pacareu), him, and their friends (D’Amario, de Jesus, Zoey Anderon, and Dillon) in happier days – creating an ambiance somewhat similar to that of Jerome Robbins’s In Memory Of…. . But Almah evolves into something considerably less ambitious – a sequence of pleasant but not particularly memorable swirling folk-like dances that reflect the accompanying music, but don’t go beyond that. There's nothing wrong with simply displaying a period and stylistic atmosphere, but the piece promised more.
The very interesting and evocative music created for Almah by Ljova (Lev Zhurbin), a young Russian-born, New York raised musician/composer, is melodic and rhythmic, joyful and soulful, like the sound of a Klezmer band infused with middle-eastern and Spanish (fado) influences – remindful of the 1968 popular song Those Were The Days, but with a mournful overlay. The music was performed live by Ljova himself on fadolin, and other gifted musicians on tuba, trumpet, drums, clarinet, and accordion, as well as a vocalist, which added considerable depth to the presentation.
Union, created by Parsons in 1993, is intriguingly funny in its feigned seriousness. With an overall elegiac feel (the piece has choreographed to the “II Elegy” movement of John Coriliano’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra), dancers slowly emerge from the stage left wings, make their way to stage center within a spot lit circle where they swarm for awhile and then gradually meander out of the scrum into the stage right wings.
The substance of the piece occurs within the ‘scrum’. What exactly these dancers are supposed to represent, if anything, isn’t clear. Logically, they’d be a group of mourners, or souls on their way from one stage of postmortem existence to another, but that’s not the sense I took from it. To me, collectively, they looked like that a human representation of that staple of Klingon cuisine, live gagh. But what the collective looked like doesn’t really matter; what does is the remarkable choreographic complexity that occurs within the confined space. The dancers writhe over, under, around and through each other, sometimes climbing or balancing on their colleagues bodies – yet not emotionally interacting with them in the least.
While not particularly exciting or meaningful, Union is interesting to watch – and not without a measure of dark humor when one of the two creatures remaining after the others exited unceremoniously drags the other offstage. The company’s eight dancers all executed superbly.
Caught is a Parsons Dance classic. The piece is essentially a limited concept – illustrating what happens when a solo performer is assigned bravura dancing that has no particular meaning or significance, and, using strobe lighting, is ‘frieze-framed’ repeatedly in mid-strides. What results is electrifying dance theater. As Spring repeatedly leaps through the air, circles the stage, and jumps forward and back, the strobe light catches him at the moments of highest elevation from the stage – so the audience sees images of him at intervals where he’s physically distant from where he was during the prior strobe illumination, but can’t see how he gets from one location to the next. Spring was flat-out brilliant. He alternates in the role with D’Amario.
Like Skarpetowska, Robert Battle is also a prior company dancer (he now directs the Alvin Ailey Dance Company), but you wouldn’t know it from Train, which he created in 2008. This is pulsing, intense, staccato movement, expertly crafted, but that crams as much into a performing second as possible. The dancers got through it flawlessly – no small accomplishment - but aside from watching dancers jerk and twist and turn seemingly to the limit of their endurance, the piece is a visual headache - tough to watch, and even tougher to listen to: the music (by Les Tambours du Bronx) first replicating a fast-moving locomotive, then accelerating into a merciless, pounding jackhammer. This train is no Grande Vitesse.
The evening concluded with Nascimento, Parsons’s 1990 tribute to Milton Nascimento, the Brazilian composer, guitarist and vocalist, who composed the score as a gift to the company. The piece, which premiered at the University of Arizona’s Festival in the Sun, is appropriately celebratory, with a mild Brazilian flavor, but it’s another of Parsons’s dances of joy. As in Taylor’s Esplanade, which parts of Nascimento vaguely resemble, the dancers never stop moving, the fun is infectious, and each of the company’s eight dancers (particularly de Jesus, D’Amario, and Ahmad Simmons) has an opportunity to shine.
Thirty years is a long time for a modern dance company to have survived. But based on this opening night program, Parsons Dance is not only continuing to survive, it’s flourishing.