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Flash Review 2, 11-13: Life-Affirming
The Quite Bearable Lightness of Being Parsons

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2000 Susan Yung

Poor David Parsons; he's damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. He and Robert Battle make likeable -- even loveable -- dances (seen Saturday at the New Victory Theater) for the Parsons Dance Company that can please the most jaded dance viewer but are simultaneously accused of choreographing for the lowest common denominator. The company signs on through November 26 as part of The New Victory's "Step Lively" program, geared toward a young audience, which can at once be viewed as a move to entertain and educate young people about dance, but also as a sly marketing tactic to reach a whole new demographic, and hopefully retain them as they age. Not unlike tobacco or soft drink marketing, from the most cynical purview.

Then again, what's wrong with being addicted to something so pleasurable and life-affirming as this company's performances? And why do I perpetually ask myself this after seeing the company perform? Is it simply because the works presented don't threaten to topple existing dance paradigms, either conceptually or technique-wise? Why the tendency to castigate entertainment and laud the sometimes unbearably tedious, but iconoclastic work of others? Surely there is enough room in the heart's caverns to embrace both, possibly even a physical necessity. Even with so much justified yak flying about the impoverishment of culture in this country due to popular (and thus government mandated) indifference -- even hostility -- toward arts funding, politically and economically we are in a very comfortable place, even with no president-elect. So we yearn for challenges in other milieus, such as culture, leaving popular forms a bit by the intellectual wayside. No war from which we need distraction.

The program at the New Victory was indeed filled with choreographic pleasantries to live music performed by a chamber group from New Haven, the Elm City Ensemble. An enjoyable 75 minutes, the evening was peppered with remarks by associate artistic director Jaime Martinez, who aimed to provide some context for the very young audience. Four pieces by Battle showed that he has definitively earned co-billing with Parsons as company choreographer. Battle used slapstick humor to riff on a goofy sixties mating ritual between Martinez and Elizabeth Koeppen ("Two"), and satirized the canon of modern dance history in "Strange Humors," in which a male duo (Henry Jackson and George Smallwood) mow down Horton, Dunham, even Taylor, reducing the iconic contraction to hysterical convulsions. I fear most of the dance jokes flew over the little heads in the audience, or I hope they did.

"Bitter Jig," an excerpt from "Mood Indigo," seemed just that, a part of a larger whole. Martinez and Katarzyna Skarpetowska bared their fangs and claws in a frenetic confrontation revealing the complexities of a relationship, to a strident score by company composer John Mackey. The most satisfying work on the program was Battle's "Rush Hour," an ensemble piece to Mackey's percussion-heavy music. The dancers flung themselves in half, lurching forward and back; slit the air with windmilling arms, landing in a back attitude position; and evoked the passage of time with arms imitating the hands of a clock, or by eating up quarter-turns with fourth position echappes.

Parsons's world premiere, "Beach," was performed in bathing suits by a quartet; two women lay onstage, basking in the hot lights and turning themselves occasionally. While the implication of frivolity was made, the stage was too small to let this piece breathe. Did limited space force Parsons to make fussy, baroque movements in order to make up for grandeur or lushness?

The other three works by Parsons dated from the '80s. "Three Courtesies," to Bach, used the seeming arbitrariness of manners to upend social behavior. This, the most Taylor-esque of the evening's program, showed technical boldness with a funny bone. "Caught" (1982), the company's "signature" work in which the dancer seems to fly and walk on air, was performed by Koeppen. It dazzled the audience even though its illusion secret was revealed by Martinez in preceding remarks. Finally, "The Envelope," from 1986, showed how Parsons can successfully fuse a simple dramatic premise -- in this case, a rebellious envelope that refuses to be discarded - in combination with terrific lighting (all by Howell Binkley); wonderful all-black, unisex, hooded costumes by Judy Wirkula; and athletic movement with an eye for the photo op. Still, this program exposed the weakness of Parsons's recent choreographic efforts in contrast to his work from the '80s, and also in comparison to Battle's laudable efforts. No doubt Parsons is a busy man, but is his own artistic creativity suffering at the hands of his company's enormous popularity and world-wide exposure? Are audiences in unprecedented quantity worth such a sacrifice? At least Robert Battle is receiving a wonderful opportunity to flourish. Let's ask him.

Parsons Dance Company continues at the New Victory through November 26. For more information, please visit the New Victory web site.

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