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Flash Review 3, 10-23: They are the Champions
Parsons Dancers Bring their Verve to Works New and Old

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2001 Tom Patrick

NEW YORK -- Been a while since I've gotten to see the Parsons Dance Company perform, and once again I was delighted Sunday night by the dancers' speed and verve. The mixed bill program A contained a couple of old favorites and a few that were new to me: "Nacimento"; the U.S. premiere of "Kind Of Blue"; "The Hunt"; "Caught"; and "Annuals" -- the result was an arcing palette that spanned sweet serenity to outright fury. A full house turned out for this final show of this New York season's first-of-two weeks at the Joyce, and it was nice to see the audience peppered with Parsons company alumni.

The evening opened graciously with 'Nascimento," a freshly danced octet to music by Brazilian composer Milton Nascimento. It is an embracing piece, with real forward momentum, that welcomes us to a smiling part of Parsons' aesthetic. Designer Santo Loquasto has clad the dancers in flowing tropical whites with colorful accents, which move beautifully and evoke warmer climates. The easy athleticism of the dancers never overshadowed the lyrical swoops and authentic interplay of the cast: real eye-contact and handholds, yessiree. I love the music and definitely appreciate the art and craft of this piece (which I've previously seen as a concert closer, to equally warm effect.)

"Kind Of Blue" followed, to the slow-sizzle of Miles Davis's "So What?" from the album entitled "Kind Of Blue." I've listened to this disc a lot, and so was very intrigued to find out how it would play in stage-movement terms. Into a straight-down spotlight, a quartet emerged, squiggling a little and yielding to Mia McSwain and Ron Todorowski, who set about establishing some tasty thematic material for us. This evolved into a little good-natured dueling as Sumayah McRae and John Carroll rejoined. While much of the foreground dancing was truly downstage and in the foreground, the dance's solos and duets were not unduly pinched or squashed -- after all, jazz is not always as sweeping or epic as symphonies, but more in this case a porthole to inner wavelengths of feelings or interpersonal relationships. These soliloquies and small dialogues were often framed by the "other" -- dancers coursing back-and-forth across the stage -- regular life, business-as-usual serving as a backdrop, until bidden to express something above and beyond the ordinary. As Miles's horn peaked and cruised, weaving with his bandmates, the dancers engaged in their own conversations, protestations and declarations, slithering and popping in all the right places. Though this was the last show of their [long] week, the cast danced very fully, with perhaps too keen an edge -- the lazier moments seemed more closely matched to Davis's sinuous groove. The partnering was particularly interesting, a little more spontaneous-seeming than other moments. What I find cool about Davis's music is the ease, the not-pushing, and I found those dance-moments that mirrored that ease the most satisfying, though it presents a conundrum for the dancers.

Parsons company alum Robert Battle's 2001 premiere "The Hunt" followed, relentlessly as a chase. Four men (Henry Jackson, George Smallwood, Mr. Carroll, and Mr. Todorowski) stand solid as statues, brought to life by the elemental imperative of the hunt. Whether their quarry was beast or enemy I could not tell, but I was brought into their world quickly by the thunderous percussion score of Les Tambours du Bronx (better than a front-row seat at STOMP!) which seemed to me the amplification of the warrior's escalating heartbeat, the pulse pounding in one's ears. Clad only in long black skirts lined in crimson silk (designed by dame-of-all-trades Mia McSwain, who also contributed the design for "Kind Of Blue"'s easygoing denim-and-reds) these four men burst into frenzied and angular movement, striking sparks from each other as their momentum gathers and focuses on the hunt ahead. They test each other and themselves, pushing their strength higher in a series of skirmishes sharply in line with the pounding drums. This seemed to me -- from a dancer's point of view -- like a tough one, involving such a sustained fever-pitch of intensity in a landscape of rhythmic similarity. The guys did really well, dancing deeply and accurately, authentically.

Following intermission, "Caught" reappeared. A favorite everywhere, this brief solo is wedged into each performance at the Joyce, with casting particular to each day. On this occasion, George Smallwood was in the spotlight, er, strobelight, and he didn't let us down. As Robert Fripp's throbbing score filled the air, Smallwood traversed from spot to spot in the prelude and then cut loose in the air, arrested mid-flight in pops of light. Though the aerials were terrific, I got a feeling that his weightlessness was foretold in those opening spots, where a bit more groundedness and gravity might fare better. I've seen Caught many times with five or so different soloists by now (I will of course never forget seeing the original dude, The David -- a miracle of texture, in everything) and every time I see this brilliantly simple lighting concept I shake my head and think: I wish I'd thought of that!

Concluding the evening's program was the NYC premiere of the 2001 vintage "Annuals," to a commissioned score from the Parsons company's musical director John Mackey. As a soulful cello intones, the solemn figure of Mr. Smallwood presides with a birthday cake, as Elizabeth Koeppen blossomed in the spell of it like a moth to flame. Her silky dancing escalates and halts, her dance punctuated by burying her mouth in the cake, wonderful. From there, a gambol ensues, for a sprightly quartet in party hats, in a lovely little dance of counterpoint and canon. Ms. Koeppen and Mr. Smallwood rejoin for a terrific duet passage, passionately and poignantly rendered. She flows like water! Subsequent group dancing matched the escalation of Mackey's score, before a floating trumpet brought things to a mellow and droll conclusion. A little mystifying, perhaps, but evocative.

Start to finish, Mr. Parsons's dancers moved like champions, and did so with real commitment to the considerable art and craft of their leader. It is certainly something to work in the company of an awesome dancer, and those rigors and examples are what produce so many good dancers year after year, and a company that thrives. And to see this, we have to see them, and for that I extend big kudos too for Howell Binkley's lighting -- he is a master, and truly a collaborator in so much of this work, expanding our way of seeing and hearing, illuminating the crossroads where it happens.

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