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Letter from New York, 5-24: Bang the Drum Repeatedly
Parker Picks a Peaked Palette

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2007 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- I was encouraged to see David Parker and the Bang Group's "Hour Upon the Stage," as I did May 11 at Dance Theater Workshop, by an especially poignant e-mail Parker sent to friends and colleagues asking them to see his new show. These letters are common; I read them all and comment on many. What caught my eye and piqued my interest was Parker's statement, "I've made a really different kind of work for the Bang Group with a new darker tone."

Once charmed and amused by Parker's work in the early years of his company, I have slowly become immune to what has developed into his standard fare. I have ceased to be inspired by his body percussion vocabulary. It's not because the movement became predictable, it's because the presence of the body percussion has become inevitable. Perhaps for him it has become such a strident signature of his work that it is now a given.

Thanks to Parker's e-mail note, I attended this show with expectations of a completely new Bang Group presentation. I was disappointed to discover much of the same vocabulary had remained as it ever was, even though the style of the work has changed.

Despite my disappointment with the obligatory body percussion, I was rewarded with moments of beauty and brilliance and pleasant surprises. There were also confusing non-sequiturs. In each case the section began in a promising and unique manner but quickly succumbed to an often witty but now formulaic demonstration of slaps, taps, stomps, clomps, and claps. A few examples of the above, in no special order:

The opening of "Hour Upon the Stage" was striking and dramatic. The dancers entered from stage left and one by one dropped into singular pools of light, appearing to splash away comfortably within their private confines. This pool motif continued through a variety of duets and more solos that became punctuated by the sounds of coughs and shshshes (like the sound of running water) in addition to the body percussion of slaps, taps, stomps, clomps, and claps that have signified the Bang Group since its birth.

A surprising moment occurred just when I was yearning for some non-percussive sounds. Out of nowhere, Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" (the singer is not credited in the recording) filled the theater to accompany a woman jumping like she had springs in her shoes. The rest of the company joined her onstage, posing with their left arms extended like flamenco dancers and their feet planted in complement. But too soon, music relief ended with a men's duet, performed in a center pool of light. As the pair clung together their moment dissolved into body percussion, now accompanied by their own whistling.

In a moment of beauty, a man ran backwards in a circle while bathed in luscious blue light, opening a new section, which promised a new movement theme. He was joined by another man who moved across the stage changing from pose to pose with a balletic flair. But as they both began stumbling toward the each other their body percussion began, as two men standing and falling upstage in a sympathetic rhythm accompanied them.

In a fine non-sequitur, a male duet devolved into a slow tap routine accompanied by the pair's whistling of "Suwannee River," by Stephen Foster. The juxtaposition -- a controversial song from Dixie scoring a soft-shoe routine done in a wild-leg-swinging style -- was provocative, but this stuff came and went without comment.

In another expression of beauty, a solo woman in red meandered through pools of light, dancing something different and unique within each circle. She exuded confidence and control while expressing the freedom that joyful moment can telegraph. But she was shortly joined by a second woman, and a second duet of women, all of whom struck up the body percussion routine.

In a continuation of the non-sequitur, the scene shifted into the tune from the traditional song "Oh, Shenandoah!," which accompanied two romantic pas de deux. The dancers glowed as they were bathed in warm apricot light sidelight. But again, this touching relief was soon broken by the return of body percussion at stage center. This time, a surprise followed with a chorus line of kicks, slaps, and stomps that for once seemed organically derived from the movement pattern. In this case, the dancers crossed the stage diagonally from upstage right to down left, making a strong dramatic statement echoing Busby Berkley and completed with extensive floor work that culminated with the entire company prone like broken mechanical toys.

The piece returned to a more humorous motif when the chords of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River," from the "Breakfast at Tiffany's" soundtrack, filled the air as lighting designer Kathy Kaufman painted the stage with waves on a magical blue background, creating an environment that complimented the river concept. She completed the atmospheric look with a moving circle of light, resembling a setting moon, on the back wall of the stripped down DTW stage, which was devoid of all fabric and masking.

The final section began with strong solos by Marta Miller and Jeffrey Kazin, soon joined by the entire company, alternately rolling on the floor, standing, and falling. In a touch of tenderness and melancholy, the show closed with Kazin exiting into the house and up the audience stairway while his colleagues pined and waved good-bye.

At first glance Parker appears to be seeking out new avenues. He has created some short and wonderful moments in "Hour Upon the Stage." But by relying on a familiar structure and by filling the space between these moments with his signature body percussion he has, unfortunately, chosen the road well traveled.

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