5:47 pm Jan. 13, 2012
Part of my interest in attending the Parsons Dance company’s current presentation at the Joyce lay in the remarkably negative reviews that it has received from other dance critics, a few of whom I quite respect. I have seen a lot of bad contemporary dance, mind you: could Parsons really be so shallow, gimmicky and downright awful as some have claimed? At least based on what I saw Monday night, the answer is no.
The company presented a lively and sometimes inspired mix of new and old work, most choreographed by company founder David Parsons himself. Pieces from the company’s engaging repertory were supplemented by two 2012 World Premieres, Round My World and A Stray’s Lullaby. It helps that the Parsons dancers are all physically superb-looking: the men especially would all appear equally at home on a fashion runway as on a dance floor. More importantly, the performers were all obviously happy to be on stage: they may mug a bit too much from time to time but they positively radiate enthusiasm. Their energy transferred to the audience, and resulted in several standing ovations.
It would be worth the price of admission solely to see the effervescent Eric Bourne perform Parsons’ 1982 solo classic Caught, the fourth of five pieces presented. Set to Robert Fripp’s electronic composition “Let the Power Fall,” the piece is deceptively simple. As Bourne runs, leaps and otherwise covers the entire stage with breathtaking speed, the lights quickly strobe on and off, creating the impression that he is flying through the air, caught for split seconds in various positions. The resulting snapshots recalled the photos of Eadweard Muybridge, in which human movements are broken down into their many component stages. The strobe was a bit of a gimmick, but so what? The result was spectacular.
The show opened with Round My World. Backed by the music of cellist and composer Zoe Keating, it cleverly plays with the concept of circularity. Six dancers, (Bourne, Sarah Braverman, Melissa Ulom, Steven Vaughn, Ian Spring and Elena d’Amato) paired off, turned backwards holding hands, spun on themselves individually, and then joined at the end for a short round dance. Elements of Mark Morris seemed to pop up here and there in the lifts and almost waltz-like movement; every conceivable variation of the circle is cleverly played with.
An excerpt from the 1994 piece Step into my Dream (music by Dr. Billy Taylor) proved so short that it may as well have been left out. Bourne and Sarah Braverman donned rather plain all-white shorts and workout togs, which begs the question of why Missoni—known for its mastery of color and complex designs—was called upon to provide the costuming for the piece. Indeed, costuming in general played almost no role in the performance: the men usually wore very little, and otherwise the dancers wore mainly uniform-colored unitards or simple, unremarkable outfits.
Former Parsons Dance corps member Katarzyna Skarpetowska and composer Kenji Bunch collaborated on the uneven A Stray’s Lullaby, which portrays four down-and-out characters, performed by Christine Ilisje, Alena d’Amaro, Jason McDonald and Christopher Bloom. As in several of the pieces in the program, the beginning of Lullaby was a bit rough—the first sketch lacked precision (we had no idea who we are watching at first or why). At first, Bunch’s music recalled the more strident of Cage’s street music but it settled down along with the choreography into an engaging narrative. Jason McDonald as both a murderer and his victim was particularly affecting.
The program closed with the ensemble piece Swing Shift (2002), also with music by Kenji Bunch, which reprised many of the best elements of what had come before—it was light and airy but still challenging for the dancers. The audience seemed mesmerized by the quick turns and elegant pairings as well as by Bunch’s upbeat rhythms—just what the doctor ordered on a cold New York night.
Parsons may not offer a distinct movement vocabulary like Martha Graham or deep, intellectually complex compositions like Nacho Duato or Bill T. Jones. In short its pleasures are mostly simple ones: graceful movement, engaging music and flawless, enthusiastic execution. What the company offers is solidly crowd-pleasing and fun, and it’s hard to find fault with that.
Parsons Dance at the Joyce is on through January 22. On Saturday January 14, the company will be presenting a Program B or “Family Matinee."
More by this author:
- David Dorfman's tribute to Sly and the Family Stone has plenty of nostalgia, not much substance
- Filming about dance: At Lincoln Center, a linchpin of the annual dance calendar unspools