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Flash Review 3, 9-24: Parsons and
Company Dancers Rock...
But the Kids are Not All Right in Premiere
By Rachel Leah Jablon
Copyright 2001 Rachel Leah Jablon
COLLEGE PARK, Maryland -- When I
saw that the Parsons Dance Company was performing at the beautiful, new Clarice
Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, I knew that I had
to get tickets. And then when I saw that the student rate lowered the price from
$35.00 to $5.00, I thought, how could I ever pass this opportunity up? So, I called
a friend of mine, a struggling Comparative Literature graduate student like myself,
and told her we were going out to see one of the most ground-breaking dance companies
out of New York. Rest assured that my friend, a modern-dance, David Parsons novice,
was not disappointed by any stretch of the imagination. While the premiere of
Parsons's "Annuals," created to celebrate the opening of the venue, was a disappointment,
the rest of the program lived up to my promise.
For "Annuals," Parsons chose to include
four University of Maryland dance students in his multi-movement story of life,
interspersing their presence on stage with the dance narrative. One company dancer
began the piece as another dancer brought her her birthday cake, topped by one
candle. The choreography reflected the youth and curiosity associated with such
a child, demonstrated when the birthday girl stuck her finger into the icing and
licked it off as she exited. As the cake appeared several more times throughout
the piece, the numbers of candles increased. The interactions among the dancers
changed to imply changes in the birthday girl's character; as her life filled
with new experiences, the choreography expressed sexual maturity, childbirth,
and death. In this last scene, the company dancers looked on as the University
of Maryland dance students left the stage backwards, holding a birthday cake topped
with the greatest number of candles so far. The dancers seemed to be left wondering,
"What next?" as the lights dimmed and then faded to black.
The disappointing part of "Annuals"
centered on the presence of the University of Maryland dance students. In fact,
I found them to be fairly useless to the choreography. Never really having an
opportunity to dance, they walked on and off stage, trailing one behind the other,
and passing around the birthday cake. The student dancers wove in and out of the
scenes, interrupting the flow of the movements of the company dancers. When the
student dancers were on stage, I couldn't really understand "Annuals"; maybe I
was so distracted by their meaningless journeys that I got lost in trying to figure
them out. They seemed like an ineffective Greek chorus: supportive of the main
cast but providing no supplementing commentary. For example, they participated
as celebrants at a birthday party, but the scene would have functioned much more
successfully without them there. It was as if Parsons, in a desire to respect
the university, included these dancers last minute, without connecting their roles
to the main dance narrative.
While Parsons's choreography at times
proved to be perceptive, the music, composed and conducted by John Mackey, contributed
far more to my experience. The orchestra included a string quartet, as well as
a bass drum and a sparkling brass section. The trumpets, French horns, and trombones
were placed strategically on all sides of the theater. The result was an extraordinary
stereo-surround-sound effect that often over-powered the dancing, distracting
me from the choreography. But I almost welcomed this distraction because Parsons's
incorporation of the University of Maryland dance students rendered "Annuals"
disjointed and awkward.
Parsons's musicality, however, does
come out in "Annuals," thanks, no doubt, to the collaboration between him and
Mackey. In one scene, the two violins, viola, and cello pluck their strings like
popcorn, leading Parsons to create popping jumps and movements to mimic the staccato.
As the music flowed into adagio sections, the dancers' portes de bras echoed the
hypnotic notes. And as the piece ended, and the music wound down to full, heavy
chords, the dancers congregated left of center stage, stretching their arms out
yearningly for the birthday cake that was leaving them.
The evening began with "Nascimento,"
a multi-movement, inventive, and imaginative piece set to equally inventive and
imaginative music by Milton Nascimento. "Nascimento" progressed much like a Jackson
Pollack painting, with the soothing pastels, instead of the bold colors Pollack
preferred, of the dancers' costumes splashing across the stage in seemingly haphazard,
yet knowingly deliberate, routes. The acrobatics of the dancers' stag leaps and
lifts, cabrioles and tours en l'air, and their variations swelled and ebbed as
if the music brushed them over the canvas of the stage.
The 1997 "Closure," to a commissioned
score by Tony Powell, was the most powerful piece of the evening. The clinging
Fosse-like black velvet costumes revealed the dancers' gorgeous musculature and
sensuality through the ways the fabrics clung to their bodies and emphasized the
curves and lines of their movements. The choreography, urgent and combative at
times, languid and passionate at others, stimulated the senses, especially when
the ensemble convened center stage under a spotlight whose amber changed as the
intensity of the music and movement changed.
For me, the spotlight became a light
of hope and passion that would guide me, and maybe the dancers, through the pressing
urgency of their relationships with each other. At times, I was so entranced by
the circular synchronization of the choreography, that when the dancers performed
within the parameters of that spotlight, I believed the stage to be turning without
even realizing that I was reacting, in fact, to the currents created by the dancersā
spinning and circling. They created a kinetic energy in which I could not avoid
getting caught, and they used this momentum to propel themselves through to the
climax of the piece, dipping, carrying, chasing, and playing with each other.
I experienced great difficulty in
calming myself down after "Closure" to sit through the final three pieces of the
program. But they did not disappoint -- especially veteran Elizabeth Koeppen in
the classic virtuoso solo "Caught."
Having seen this piece only once
before, and performed by one of Parsons's male dancers at that, I knew to be excited,
to sit on the edge of my seat, and to await the acute effects of the strobe. Koeppen
certainly delivered a breathtaking performance. Dressed in white, surrounded by
black, save for the sparse lights that followed and anticipated her every movement,
she more than achieved Parsons's goals: to appear as if floating on air, as if
not out of breath, as if the illusions are ordinary. After watching this performance,
still trying not to blink for fear of missing something, my friend turned to me
and asked, "Why is she 'caught?' What is catching her?" I shrugged and told her
that maybe the answers to these questions are easy: the dancer, at various moments,
is caught in the light, even if she never really divulges exactly what she's doing
in the dark. But maybe the answers are more elusive because there is a certain
irony involved with this piece. The audience will never really know what the dancer
does in the dark, unless the lights come up for the whole thing; and therefore,
the dancer can never be caught, never tamed into solving the mystery or giving
away the magic of Parsons's choreography and concept.
Overall, the program at the University
of Maryland's new Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center was David Parsons at his
best. Attending the performance of the Parsons Dance Company was a treat for this
poor graduate student, and I hope to have many more such experiences. I do wish,
however, that "Annuals," even though it premiered at the University of Maryland,
would be reworked either to integrate the student dancers more cohesively into
the piece, or to remove them altogether and let the company dancers do what they
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