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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 do best.

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