More Parsons (With Update at the Bottom)

(all photos courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu).

I was only recently introduced to Parsons Dance a few months ago, through the Maria de Buenos Aires tango operita that Philip had invited me to. So, their Joyce season, currently underway, gave me the perfect opportunity really to see what choreographer David Parsons is all about, since, in celebration of his company’s 20-year anniversary, it presented basically a compilation of his greatest hits.

Overall, I liked them well enough to want to see them again, but not enough to fall head over heels in love the way I did with, say, Alvin Ailey. There are two programs, consisting of six dances apiece, with only “Caught,” which seems to be Mr. Parsons’s masterpiece, repeating in both. So, I’ll start with that one. This is a short piece which I described in my earlier post. On first viewing, as I said, I could understand why the audience went completely beserk with mad applause over it, but I found it a bit gimmicky. On second viewing, those feelings solidified. On my second night, I also realized that, when the sole dancer, again the wonderful Miguel Quinones, began doing the grand jetes around the stage’s perimeter and the strobe lights started flickering, it was only at the beginning of the leaps that he was actual jumping; soon he was pulled up by a cord emanating from the ceiling and merely carried around stage like a masculine Tinkerbell while the lights flashed. So, it’s not that he appears to be flying because he’s such a great jumper and perfectly coordinates his leaps with the lighting engineer; rather, he appears to be flying because the whole set-up is a trick. I guess I can still see why people think it’s cool, but I think it’s kind of cheating. Also, I’d originally thought, wow, Quinones (or whoever dances the role) must really have focus in order to be able to do those huge leaps with those insanely distracting lights. But now that I know he’s not really doing the work I thought he was, it’s less amazing.

Anyway, moving on. I liked Program A much better than Program B. Going in order, my first favorite was “Sleep Study.” This is a cutely humorous piece in which the dancers, dressed in pajamas, feign being on the verge of falling asleep, but tired as they are, only one man can actually do so. The others roll over each other and sit atop each other in playfully amusing ways. At one point a woman sits on top of a lying man, her back and his head to the audience, and as he bops up and down to the music, they create a funny, shape-shifting Pilobolus-like sleepless creature. It was highly relatable — who hasn’t had a night where they just couldn’t get to sleep no matter how tired they were? — and many of the moves and shapes created by the dancers were simultaneously simple and original.

I also liked “Nascimento,” which is not so shocking for me since it’s choreographed to music by Brazilian composer Milton Nascimento. Actually, Parsons used this composer in two works, this one and “Nascimento Novo,” a later-choreographed piece on Program B, and the first, “Nascimento,” — a sunny, happy celebration of Samba and other Brazilian rhythms that was nevertheless rooted in balletic partnering and movement — was my favorite. For one thing, the costumes in the first (by Santo Loquasto, who is fast becoming my favorite costume designer) composed of cheery reds and oranges and yellows well complemented the lighthearted theme, and the flowing sundresses for the women accentuated the quick, lively turns and lifts. In the second, “Nascimento Novo,” whose music I found to be lovely but choreography less original and more bland, the costumes (whose designer isn’t named in the program) were boring white tops and gray bottoms that didn’t move well (pictured below).

I also liked “Kind of Blue,” a bluesy ensemble piece set to Miles Davis’s “So What,” and “In the End,” a carefree ensemble work set to music from the Dave Matthews Band, whose choreography was a combination of jazz and contemporary ballet. Finally, I liked “Bachiana” from Program B, a sprightly, energetic, baroque dance set to Bach’s “Orchestral Suites” that reminded me of Mark Morris or Paul Taylor. The choreography was fast and creative, and the dancers really shined performing the intricate-patterned, fast-paced footwork. “Union,” pictured up top, was the antithesis, a long, balletic, adagio dance for the whole group consisting of some beautiful lifts, but I felt this one lacked structure and didn’t seem to go anywhere special. “Brothers,” pictured in the middle, was, as the name implies, a short dance for two men, examining the nature — at times competitive and argumentative, at times loving — of brotherhood. It had its moments and some of the choreography was original, but it just didn’t really blow me away. “Shining Star,” an upbeat disco-y piece set to Earth, Wind & Fire closed Program B. I think my problem with this dance, perhaps unfairly, stemmed from the fact that in recent seasons I’ve seen something very similar from Alvin Ailey that I felt was far more sophisticated. It’s obviously unfair to compare a production by a monied, behemoth company with resources galore to something by a much smaller one, but it wasn’t really the sets and costumes and greater number of dancers that set things so apart; it was more, I felt, that Ailey’s choreography was more varied. By the end of my second night at Parsons, I felt that if I saw the lift where a woman stands on a man’s bent leg and reaches out away from him, I was really going to lose it.

Dancers who stood out to me were the aforementioned Miguel Quinones (whom Parsons, rightly, used a lot), Patty Foster (who, with her endless energy, lovely lines, commitment to doing everything full-out, and charisma – and oh yeah, her small size :) reminded me of Lauren Grant from Mark Morris); Malvina Sardou; and Kevin Ferguson (the latter two of whom just stood out to me for some reason I can’t entirely put my finger on).

Despite my rather lukewarm review, this is a company worth seeing once or twice and Mr. Parsons has a very loyal following. And, from that following, here’s another perspective.

Okay, off to see David at the Guggenheim!!!

Update: After having an email exchange with a friend over “Caught” I am now not completely sure whether the dancer was suspended by a wire. The reason I thought he was was that I was sitting close to the stage and, as Quinones ran off into the wings following the end of the piece, I thought I saw a large black pocket on the back of his pants, right below his waist, perfect for housing a wire, which I figured he must have somehow dismembered before exiting. Also, sitting so close to the stage, I thought I could see, albeit at whip-lightening speed, the spaces between the flashing lights when he never came down to the floor. It could have been an optical illusion though. But why then the black thing smack on his butt? My friend swears he’s seen the piece numerous times in ceiling-less settings where there would be no way to connect a wire. Funny, because after seeing it the second time I thought it was common knowledge that he was suspended and I was a dork for not getting it the first time, but now I’m confused. Has anyone else seen this dance???

8 Comments

  1. When Clifton Brown performs Caught, he’s def not suspended by any wirings. He was absolutely amazing in the piece last year during Ailey”s City Center Season.

  2. There’s definitely not a wire used in “Caught.” The only possible explanation for the black box would be something technical in the transmission of the clicker that the dancer holds in their hand to control the strobe effect. :)

  3. thanks for the review! I like parsons so much. And caught is indeed impressive!
    when I saw it, I loved the energy of In the end. Unfortunately they didnt perform any piece with songs by Nascimento here!

  4. I’ve seen Caught several times and never noticed a wire. Maybe the patch you saw is where the dancer keeps whatever it is he uses to control the strobe light?

    Also – the Ailey company commissioned “Shining Star” from Parsons a few seasons ago so (unless you’re talking about another Ailey piece) this is the same one & I agree – it looked so much more interesting on the Ailey dancers that I really didn’t enjoy the Parsons version. I saw program 2 and the only things I really liked were Union & Caught – the rest was just OK.

  5. Oh thanks Susan — I just looked it up in my Ailey book and you’re totally right; it says “Shining Star” by David Parsons, 2004. That’s so bizarre — I wonder if they made some minor choreographic alterations or if it just looks completely different on them!

    Cathy — oh, too bad you didn’t get to see either Nascimento piece. I would have liked to hear what you thought!

  6. I’ve been back to see it again. No way is there a wire. The box you saw is the strobe lighting control/connection…he tucks it on the back of his waistband when he takes his curtain calls. It is far too small to be a flying apparatus – which would require a harness. And the dancer goes all over the stage; the stagehands manipulating a flying apparatus in the flies would be totally defeated trying to ‘follow’ him. And, finally, since Tommy Scrivens is a bit ‘bigger’ and heavier of frame than Miguel, the sound of his landings was clearly audible between leaps on Sunday afternoon.

  7. Saw a performance of “Caught” yesterday evening. No wires, which would have been impossible to rig for the one time benefit performance. I am intrigued by the strobe’s crystal clear quality and radiance (I think these same units were imported from Germany for the Broadway production Young Frankenstein) as it makes the piece possible.
    You might reassess your reaction, keeping in mind it is done without wires and is only possible because of the dancer’s precision. What appears effortless is actually masterfully planned dance trajectory and a specificity of movement and spacing.
    Layered on to of this is the theme of being “seen” and judged by others based on what we do in moments of time.

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