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Flash Review 1, 6-7: Mood Swings
At Parsons, Surprises, Pleasant and Unpleasant

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

SPECIAL! Video Clip: 1.8MB

I've said before that I like nothing better than to be surprised at the theater: That's what makes it live performance, as opposed to canned movies. I'm particularly delighted when a performer, company, or choreographer makes me change my mind about him/her for the better. Hey, you think it's fun being a crank?! Well, last night at the Joyce, I arrived at the opening of the Parsons Dance Company season prepared to pooh-pooh the contribution of Parsons collaborator photographer Howard Schatz; to sound the alarm again about Parsons's baffling anointing of dancer Robert Battle as the Jerome Robbins to his Balanchine (er, comparison for rank-relationship purposes only!), and not so sure anymore how I would feel about Parsons's own work. (With the exception of a couple of ballets, I'd previously been a fan.) Well, the surprise-o-meter hit "sizzling" last night, as I was surprised on all counts. And speaking of sizzling, let's note in this first paragraph that the luminous Elizabeth Koeppen proved the latest exponent of the theorem, "It's the dancer, stupid!"

Let's start....hmmm....Well, let's start with the simpler questions and work our way to today's $64,000 one. I've had almost as many mood swings about Howard Schatz over the last six years as this eye doctor specialist turned commercial photographer turned dance photographer has published photography books. The first time I encountered Howard's work was at San Francisco's Vision Gallery, which was exhibiting Howard's monograph "Homeless: Portraits of Americans in Hard Times" (Chronicle Books, 1994). In a word, Howard made street people look breathtaking; not by augmenting their photos, but by bringing out their inner beauty and making it inflect their outer appearances.

In 1995, a dance connection arrived, as Howard published "Waterdance," (Graphis Press), a collection of dancers photographed underwater, and I did a short item on the book for Dance Magazine, introducing Howard to that publication. (Not that he wouldn't have introduced himself eventually, the man had moxy and brought to dance photography the passion of a new convert, one thing we shared in common; this was around the time I was discovering my own passion for seeing dance. Howard interpreted it with his camera, me with my pen, but both of us with fresh eyes.) On my wall hangs a print from that book of one of my favorites, Tina LeBlanc, reddish hair and chiffon gown swirling wildly about her, toe pointed down as she floats in the water. The print is a gift from Howard, who graciously signed it.)

There came a point, or several points, where I had to revise my opinion of Howard's work and the nature of his contribution to the field. I'm not going to lay it all out for you, because, after all, this is putatively a review of David Parsons, not Howard Schatz. Suffice to say that I came to feel that Howard's point of view of the dancers had less to do with the dancers than with Howard Schatz; that they were little more than beautiful bodies to him (as opposed to artists, worthy of, say, crediting in the photo caption); that he gave most of the credit for the appeal of his photographs not to his beautiful subjects, but to his own artistry; and that he seemed to think of himself as a choreographer on a level with the actual choreographers. As I write this, I'm looking at a blow-up of the DM cover of Elizabeth Roxas (January 1997), which Howard shot to go with my profile of Liz. It's a beautiful silhouette, the dancer in wide red dress; but you can't see her much of her face. Howard has captured one of Roxas's most enthralling features, her dancing, but not another key one: her full expression. This is not a small point to miss in a photograph of an Alvin Ailey dancer; at that company, it's not just about shape, but soul.

In essence what I'm saying is that as regards dance, in my opinion Howard doesn't quite get its soul -- and I'm not so sure he's interested in getting it. He seems more interested in capturing the physiognomy than the spirit. Photography, certainly; dance photography -- I'm not so sure.

Feeling this way, then, how nicely surprising it was for me to find that the best thing about the new Parsons/Schatz collaboration which made its New York premiere last night, "Images," is the Schatz portraits of the dancers which serve as the backdrop. Composition-wise, Howard's images here have more in common with "Homeless" than his latest body-related book, "Knots." Where "Knots" features much groovy manipulation of images by the photographer, the images projected last night are stark, black-and-white, simple, with no caprice or artifice. We see close-ups of the dancers' faces, right down to their freckles, that remind me of the close-ups of the earlier book. We see the wrinkles in their feet. We see awkward positions, too. We see nudity (notably of Ruth-Ellen Kroll and Henry Jackson, in images mirroring their duet which rather than exploitatively focusing on the obvious body parts get the natural whole). Schatz delves into the intimate archeology of bodies we usually just see from afar, and we get to watch. Nice!

Now, the relation of these photos to the dance is another question. First, they tower, taking up the entire backdrop. Second, I was reminded of a recent Nacho Duato dance on American Ballet Theatre. That dance, too, incorporates images of the actual performers which mirror the live bodies, but their use is much more limited and therefore less distracting: We see the tableaus at the beginning and ending of a dance, and sometimes with the entrance of a new dancer.

In "Images," it seemed at times like every live phrase had it's gigantic mirror in the large background. Tho, not always mirror; the photography sometimes offered, as counterpoint, a micro-view of a phrase we were seeing in front of us (for example, a close up of the foot, in the position it's currently in). During the most sensuous duet, between Katarzyna Skarpetowska and Jason McDole, I even got the feeling that Skarpetowska was trying extra hard to make sure she arrived at a position at the same time the related image was being flashed behind her.

In other words, the images competed with the live dance as often as they complemented it. (And the photography usually won out, which is not a comment on the dancers, but the dance.) And sometimes, they even took the punch out of a live moment, as when we saw a desperately self-huddling Koeppen on film before we saw her give us this powerful, tortured moment live. A shame, really, as the positively-glowing Koeppen was the stand-out here -- as she would be most often during the night, the dancer making the dance look better than it actually was.

I suspect it was Koeppen that helped me find one reason to like Battle -- his 1993 "Jewel Lost." (For my general assessment of this choreographer, see Flash Diary, 4-25: An Insider Fan's Notes and Flash Review 1, 5-16: Juilliard in Trouble.) This was a solo very much in the introspective, contraction-driven Grahamian mode, right down to the fine gown, designed by Battle as well. This eloquent dancer made the dance eloquent, never moreso than it its final moments, when she scooped up something from the ground -- water, a baby? -- then stepped forward and opened her arms, presenting the object to herself/us and then, after the lights faded, letting go a final sigh of...being unburdened.

Koeppen will be dancing Parsons's signature 1982 piece "Caught" on June 8 and June 10, but Jaime Martinez, performing this virtuoso solo last night, did not give us any reason to regret we weren't seeing Koeppen. If you haven't seen this solo, on its surface it boils down to using strobe lights to make the dancer seem, among other things, to be flying. (This is achieved by his/her landing in darkness, then alighting when the stage is illuminated.) As a dance built on a trick, it requires a gripping dancer to make it more than a gimmick. Parsons himself, dancing this piece, achieved this through his drollness, particularly in the moments where, after a seemingly flying tour of the space, a spot comes up on the dancer simply standing with his hands clasped behind his back. Parsons was oh-so-nonchalant (Who, me? Just an average guy standing here.), a delicious contrast to the tour-de-force we knew he just performed. (To fully achieve the effect of flying, the dancer has to quickly rebound to alight at the precise moment the strobe is flashing.)

The ballet star Vladimir Malakhov, in a version of the dance specifically re-tailored for his particular gifts, infused "Caught" with his faun-like mystery and grace and magical flights of fancy. I haven't seen Koeppen so I can't comment, but Martinez brings both fire and depth to this gem. The timing of the strobe-flashing seemed a little off last night, diminishing the effect, but things seemed to gel by the time we got to the flying portion, and Martinez, fleet here, was also dignified and humble at the conclusion.

We won't see Parsons do this dance this time around at the Joyce and, I'm told, though he's neither retired nor injured, we won't see him at all during the Joyce season, a first as far as a I know and so something of an unfortunate milestone. I'm told that the company founder/director is trying to pull back from dancing so that he can concentrate more on choreography, but as long as he hasn't completely retired, greedy Parsons-the-dancer maws like me can't help but ask, can't the boy turn out for the hometown crowd? For even one performance?

However, Parsons's absence as performer did provide one less veil in analyzing the ability of the dance, the choreography, to charm on its own merits. And I've got to say that while previously I've been a defender of Parsons's dance for the masses credo, if dance for the masses means the predictable mediocrity I saw last night, I take it back! Popular Parsons peers like Pilobolus and Momix are able to appeal to the masses without giving them emasculated dance. They still go over the top on occasion with comedy, and they still take uneasy risks with their serious pieces. (Momix with "Passion," which rarely gets booked in this country simply for being set to the Peter Gabriel score of "The Last Temptation of Christ," and Pilobolus, most recently, with "A Selection," its no-easy-answers Holocaust collaboration with Maurice Sendak and Arthur Yorinks.) But "Images" and the other Parsons ensemble pieces on the evening, the 1987 "Sleep Study" and the 1994 "Mood Swing," offered little that was risky, provocative (in an idea or even a pure movement sense), or moving. It was all predictable. I have seen more on-the-edge choreography farther downtown, and I have seen better choreography (as I'm not saying something has to be over-the-edge to be considered high art) uptown at the New York State Ballet in the Balanchine and Robbins canon.

In other words, I was not engaged, in either the eye, the brain, or the heart. And what's dance if it doesn't engage you? Movement, maybe; dance, I'm not so sure.

I am sure that the live musical accompaniment -- one thing I like about Parsons is his commitment to live music -- was stupendous, particularly Cristina Valdes's playing of the Erik Satie which, along with Alberto Ginastera, made up much of the score for "Images."

To form your own opinion of Howard Schatz's work, I suggest starting with his web site, which is generously provisioned with photographs from Howard's books. Just go to For more on the Parsons season, which continues through June 18 (another program kicks in next week), go to

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