PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1 (2001) 93-98
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Heading Into Battle: David Parsons and New Choreographers
Parsons Dance Company, Joyce Theater, May 18-30, 1999.
Since 1987, the work of David Parsons has been known for its vitality, athleticism, and humor. His choreography is considered "mainstream" modern dance: it is unusually accessible, and audiences who might not be comfortable with the themes of Bill T. Jones or the "downtown" movement sensibilities of David Dorfman can appreciate the virtuosity of his dancers and the wit of pieces like The Envelope. Parsons became a choreographer in the traditional manner. After giving ten years of his time, talent, and energy to Paul Taylor, he left to establish his own company--typically the way it works in the dance world. Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham left Martha Graham for the same reason; Graham left Denishawn; the story goes on and on. But now David Parsons is challenging tradition by allowing one of his dancers, Robert Battle, to present his own choreography during the company's 1999 New York season.
This sharing of the artistic spotlight is unusual. Very few modern-dance choreographers have put their own egos aside and allowed their dancers to get in on the action, much less at just 40 years of age. Only after Graham's death did her company perform works by other choreographers, and even so, only by those with prominent reputations. To this day, mere company members such as Pascal Rioult and Donlin Foreman have had to form separate troupes in order to present their own choreography, whereas dancemakers with proven salability--including Twyla Tharp and Robert Wilson--have actively been sought out. This type of artistic decision is purely a matter of practicality. Big names influence box office sales, and a work by a simultaneously "hot" but established choreographer can appear to breathe new life into a dance company on the verge of being considered dated. Nurturing new talent is quite another animal, and much riskier both artistically and financially. The fact that David Parsons is willing to take that risk proves that he ultimately cares about furthering the medium of dance, regardless of whether or not a household name appears on the program.
In an unfortunate time when arts budgets are tight, frequently resulting in the [End Page 93] abandonment of live music in dance performances, David Parsons has still managed to find a way. He has placed heavy importance on live music from the beginning, and for the 1999 season he commissioned works by both Phil Woods and John Mackey. Whereas Parsons choreographed his own premiere to the music of Phil Woods, he allowed Robert Battle to make full use of the John Mackey Ensemble. The music of this lively, percussive group blends well with the deft physicality of Battle's Variation, Strange Humors, Damn, and Rush Hour.
It is always a treat to hear musicians improvise. Add to this some ad hoc dance improvisation by Parsons and talented company members, and there is the modern-dance equivalent of a jam session. Each dancer in turn bows to the musicians and launches into a brief improvisation. Parsons slinks around like a cat with arms outstretched: half lion, half condor. Mia McSwain twirls her hands as if casting a spell. And Ruth-Ellen Kroll vibrates right along with one of the players, bringing her quivering hands to his head and inducing a chorus of laughter from the audience. Here viewers get to witness one of the most interesting aspects of the choreographic process, which unfortunately seems to happen less and less often: dancers and musicians interacting and feeding off of each other's styles and creativity.
Although Robert Battle's choreography does incorporate a certain amount of Parsons-type style, including supple torso movement and athletic jumps and turns, many other influences appear as well, and the overall effect is considerably different from the work of his mentor. Battle's first offering, a duet for himself and Jaime Martinez entitled Two, reached back to the seventies. With Martinez sporting an Afro...