Thursday, February 3, 2011

New Art is True Art: Parsons Dance at the Joyce Theater

By Mary Sheeran
Should I start with the good news? Okay. Once again, out of a varied dance program, Monica Bill Barnes is the standout choreographer. That’s the good news after taking in two programs of Parsons Dance at the Joyce Theater.
MBB rolled out a new piece, Love, Oh Love, and the first section of that piece (to Through the Years by Stephen Hartley Dorff and Martin Panzer) is still with me to this moment, and it’s so nice when that happens. This section has couples (gay and straight) lined up on the stage wearing somewhat cheap evening clothes (poignantly so in these economic times) and dancing through life. Boy, that sounds corny, doesn’t it? Time passes, and the dancers stop to pick up “stuff” that could hurt (you see a bent knee, a bent back) and affect their dancing. But the dancers keep on with an occasional silly breakout, with each other, through the years. You’d think this would be sentimental, and maybe it is, but like other Barnes work I’ve seen, there’s bite to it; she sprinkles in quirky moves and unexpected humor throughout, which the Parsons troupe performs delightfully.
Her second section is almost as good. A man and woman launch into some glorious ballroom stepping while other dancers mark time on the side, rather like a chorus effect. Then one man approaches another, the other seems tentative, and suddenly, there is this sudden casting off business – the dancer removes his trousers, and so do all the other guys, and the women remove their skirts and dance the rest of the piece in black shorts. The piece ends poignantly, even though it does all sound silly, doesn’t it? But Barnes has a gift of being able to mix creative dance movement with wicked snappiness, obvious humor, and sentiment, while making the cohesion work. Perhaps all choreographers should start out studying philosophy. At any rate, I saw Love, Oh Love twice, and it was richer the second time around.
Aside from Barnes’ piece, the rest of the programs featured works by David Parsons. Good news, bad news. His new work, Portinari, has not stayed with me, and I wish I could say it had. In the first place, I confess to being annoyed by lengthy paragraphs in the program that pretty much answer the question, “What did I mean when I made this dance?” – I especially am annoyed when I notice the words after I’ve seen the dance.
Without words, the piece began with a dark stage, with the exception of the center, where a woman (Sarah Braverman) stood in the light, draped in an aqua colored mantle. Miguel Quinones stood before her, shaping his hands over her – not touching – he was a painter or sculptor, that much was clear. What would you think? I thought Pygmalian. They step together, her head to his heart. They embrace. They are sad. He circles her as if critical of what he’s done. He lifts her. She falls headfirst. He catches her. Then he falls, and we have a Piéta moment at the end.
Okay. What Parsons meant: “Portinari is inspired by the acclaimed Brazilian painter, muralist and political activist, Candido Portinari. Portinari created two 46-foot tall murals, titled ‘War’ and ‘Peace’ for the United Nations General Assembly Building. They were donated by the Brazilian government and first displayed at the UN in 1957. When delegates enter the building, they see ‘War. As they exit, they see ‘Peace.’ The murals took more than four years to complete. In 1962, Portinari died at the age of 58, of poisoning from the lead-based paints with which he worked.” 

Now that you mention it, I did know about Portinari and his murals, and recalling that might have helped me. But should that be the case? What is the relationship between a piece’s intent and what I see?  Well, without this program note, what we have is another piece in this world that is primarily another man eyeing a woman as object, another muse and her creator, another woman who is what men use to think with – and who survives her creator, whom she also loved. Perhaps that is enough to see without all the words. Alas, the use of the overused Barber "Adagio for Strings", lovely as it is, did not help me sort out the associations. All I could think of was the movie "Platoon" (okay, war, peace). I must say that the dancing was exquisite, all by itself. And that’s something real.
I had a better time with Parsons’ The Envelope. It’s quite witty, quite like my life, actually, with the envelope coming back and back. And back. The dancers who just can’t shake that thing are shrouded in black pants, tops, and hoods. They were certainly impersonal and indistinguishable, except for that one lady who sang (who was that?). They slunk about like Spy vs Spy, tiptoeing, forming fun shapes, and it all seemed whimsically keystone coppish. It’s a wry little piece, it doesn’t shake the world up, but it’s well done, and the effective use of Rossini’s music adds to its humor.
The dancers pranced with an outgoing childlike glee in the charming Bachiana, moving as if they needed to shape and stretch every part of their body. Hand Dance, Sleep Study and Run to You (which was also a new work), were cute and unremarkable. Hand Dance is just that – all you see is the hands dancing to barn dance music, fiddles and such. (I half expected the envelope would come back!) Sleep Study is probably better for children’s audiences. Dancers wear pajamas and lie down on the floor. One starts rolling around, then others, and one stays asleep, straight through the curtain call. He didn’t miss anything. Run to You, like Slow Dance, is strictly junior high dancing. I enjoyed the running in the first section of Run to You – the dancers were like racehorses in lovely clothes – but they didn’t go anywhere.
Then there is Caught. As in “Every program includes Caught!!!”  cry the posters outside the Joyce. The first time I saw this piece, I was intrigued, the second – oh, not so much. It’s a trick. It annoys me in the same way that when I took the Universal Studios tour, all the tour guide could talk about was special effects, when for me, special effects are all about human communication. As in acting! Call me Throwback. Anyway, as I was saying, Parsons' Caught is just a trick. Strobe lights focus on one dancer who is otherwise in darkness. When he dances, the light focuses on his leaps, and the effect is that he is caught in the air. After a few minutes, the trick wears off. When the dancer (I saw both Miguel Quinones and Steven Vaughn) stands, resting (as he does a few times here), he looks real, human, breathing deeply, and that is the real special effect. For the rest, it’s like watching photographs zipping by, the kind of thing people watched in the nineteenth century before there were movies. We weren’t watching real movement. The dancer is indeed caught, as in trapped. Nothing of his individuality is part of the dancing. Everyone around me thought this was exciting. To me, it was depressing. Well, every relationship has its ups and downs through the years.
Love, Oh Love. Choreography by Monica Bill Barnes. Music by Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, and Diana Ross (Through the Years was written by Stephen Hartley Dorff and Martin Panzer. Works choreographed by David Parsons: Portinari. Music by Samuel Barber. The Envelope (1984), Music by Gioacchino Rossini. Bachiana (1993), Music by JS Bach. Hand Dance (2003), Musical arrangement by Kenji Bunch. Sleep Study (1987), Music by Flim & the BBs. Run to You (2011), Music by Steely Dan; Caught (1982), Music by Robert Fripp.

Photo © B. Docktor

Parsons Dance in Slow Dance
Sarah Braverman & Miguel Quinones, Elena D’Amario & Eric Bourne, Melissa Ullom & Steven Vaughn

Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe.

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