The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
March 21, 2023
Swing Shift, Balance of Power, Mr. Withers (premiere), The Ride Through (premiere), Caught, Nascimento
The first time I saw Parsons Dance was in 2016, and the conclusory statement in the subsequent review was “Thirty years is a long time for a modern dance company to have survived. But based on this opening night program, Parsons Dance is not only continuing to survive, it’s flourishing.” As the company approaches its fortieth anniversary, Parsons Dance is still flourishing, still presenting dance that is inherently enjoyable, and still selling tickets – on the day I saw them, the start of its second week of a two-week engagement at the Joyce, the house was filled.
This success isn’t just a matter of David Parsons’s choreography. Roughly half the company’s dancers are new since I last saw Parsons Dance in 2021, but this hasn’t made any difference. The company appears as strong now as it did when I first saw them. From the most senior to the most recent, they’re a coherent and talented group.
Five of the six dances on the program (three of which I’d previously seen) were extraordinarily well-crafted and ceaselessly entertaining. The other, the only one not choreographed by Parsons, was disappointing. I’ll first consider the new pieces and the one new to me in the order presented, then, more briefly, the balance of the program consisting of dances I’ve previously reviewed.
I can’t think of a better evening opener than Parsons’s Swing Shift. Created in 2003, it was reportedly restaged for this performance in honor of the dance’s 20th Anniversary. However it may have looked before, it’s marvelous now.
Created to original music by American composer Kenji Bunch and played live by Daniel Hass (cello), Lora Tchekoratova (piano), and GeorgeValtchev (violin), it’s tempting to describe Swing Shift as containing examples of “swings” and “shifts,” because it does. But that’s a reduction to the absurd. Though featuring nothing particularly new choreographically (which is not a criticism), the movement panorama in Swing Shift contains a myriad of variations on that “swing/ shift” theme – and a lot more. It’s all in how Parsons puts the dance together.
With isolated exceptions, Parsons’s particular dance intelligence isn’t in presenting an idea or sending a message; it’s in the power of the movement he choreographs plus the moving image sequences, each a model of form as well as structure, that his choreography leaves behind for photographers to capture and audiences to remember. It adds up to a communicated feeling based solely on the movement, with nothing more to intrude on that bare, unadorned, but multi-faceted impression.
The piece begins with the company’s senior dancer, Zoey Anderson, center stage and at first with her back to the audience, moving in staccato from pose to pose, primarily bending her arms and torso in distinctive ways. This seems to have nothing in particular to do with anything (except it’s a closing image as well). Rather, the dance picks up steam as the other seven dancers, singly or in pairs, join Anderson, dance in tandem for a bit and then not, and all exit. Subsequently, pairs of dancers become the focal points, at times briefly overlapping, essentially dancing variations on a theme. At many points in time the choreography brings to mind Paul Taylor at his most joyous and mercurial, which is not at all surprising considering that Parsons danced with that company. Eventually, the pattern of duet illuminations resumes, but this time the duets (and an occasional solo) last longer and are choreographically deeper than the previous set. When it ends, the audience has experienced a glowing visual feast that can’t help but stimulate a level of kinetic adrenalin sufficient to last the evening.
Adding to Swing Shift’s vibrancy and sense of balance amid often frenetic movement are the costumes, created by Christine Darch, which divide the couples into two color combinations of what is essentially the same garment – a goldish color, and a rust/burgundy. The colors aren’t segregated (though at times they are); sometimes the dancers in a pair wear different colors – and one dancer wore a combination of the two. The simplicity of the colors and (deceptively) the choreography is, at times, mesmerizing. In addition to Anderson, the dancers, each of whom delivered performances that went beyond being simply praiseworthy, were Megan Garcia, Rachel Harris, Tea Perez, Christian Paris Blue, Croix Diienno, and Nick Fearon.
Parsons’s world premiere piece this season is Mr. Withers. It’s another of Parsons’s memorable dances.
To five songs by Bill Withers (“Use Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” “Grandma’s Hands,” and “Lean on Me”), Parsons creates a memorable, and at times magical, atmosphere within which to display each of the songs (as well as some spoken word by Withers, who died three years ago, that, where used, serves to segue from one song to the next). The choreography for the songs are not connected to each other by anything more than Withers’s vocalization, but each, plus Parsons’s distinctive choreography for each, enriches the respective song in unexpected ways. The end result is a multi-faceted gem.
In a lot of ways, Mr. Withers resembles Parsons’s 2021 premiere The Road, which was choreographed to a compilation of songs by Yusef / Cat Stevens, particularly in its understated nobility and effort to enhance rather than overwhelm the songs. But Parsons’s choreography here takes Mr. Withers beyond that, and beyond the song’s lyrics, into an abstract stratosphere of illumination and distilled meaning.
Following the introductory “Use Me,” the weakest of the segments (which is preceded by Withers’s recorded description of his upbringing, including growing up in a mining camp in Slab Fork, W.Va., and serving as a Navy mechanic), “Ain’t no Sunshine,” a duet for Harris and Diienno, is exquisitely intelligent with a minimum of imagery that nevertheless leaves one gasping at its simplicity and its imagery. At first, Diienno circles Harris, distant but constantly drawn to her like a planet in its sun’s grip. Suddenly, places are changed, and at the dance’s end, Harris drifts atop Diienno’s body as he attempts to crawl away, like some pleasurable but unbearable weight. Even more gripping is Parsons’s choreography to “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” a paean to the heroism, and frustration, of those who serve on active duty in the military. It’s not so much an anti-war song (though, quietly, it is) as a celebration of ordinary people who should never have been put in that position. And I won’t soon forget the images Parsons and his company created of the dancer/soldiers getting shot. Twice.
And this too was exceeded by the choreography to “Grandma’s Hands.” It’s a beautiful remembrance of a beloved grandmother whose hands helped mold the her family. Some may consider it too literal and too simple, but I relished in the visual progression that takes one from adoration of the grandmother (the young “family” is gathered around the grandmother figure) – a sufficiently universal image that morphs, gradually but inexorably, into her “funeral” as the grandma figure, at first still encircled by family, is lifted up and carried off, presumably to her grave but also, in its imagery, to her heavenly rest. And with the concluding song, “Lean on Me,” Parsons doesn’t retreat to visualizations of the title. The dance is a vibrant celebration, with imagery perhaps not quite as iconic, but clearly illustrative of mutual reliance and support.
Parsons’s choreography, and his dancers, are a perfect fit for Withers’s music. Illuminating, seeing it in unexpected ways, but not interfering or overshadowing it. Each of the piece’s nine dancers excelled – those already mentioned, plus the newest company addition, Erin Hollamon, who draws eyes and already appears to have been dancing with the company for years.
The engagement’s second premiere is a different story.
The Ride Through is choreographed by Rena Butler to five pieces composed by Bronx-born and Chicago-based Darryl J. Hoffman (“The Output,” “Reverse Gnossiennes,” “Reversed Trauma,” “Ride Through,” and “Sip the Brew”). Hoffman’s work has been choreographed before, including by Butler, but I’ve not seen them and consequently can’t generalize. But based on the amalgam here, his music is electronic-generated, primarily percussive, at times apocalyptic and at times at a lower decibel level, and the tempo varies from one piece to another.
One may perceive The Ride Through as an abstract dance to music, or, abstract or not, as a dance with some intended meaning. It seems obvious to me that the latter applies here, but either way Butler, whose choreography I also have not previously seen, has structured the overall dance so one-dimensionally and (apparently) on such a common subject that the whole is far less than the sum of its parts.
The subject is a familiar one that has several subset groupings: people in a given area attempting to escape from something, or to something; taking a leap (actually or metaphorically) into something or someplace unknown; breaking down a perceived barrier or overcoming some omnipotent force. Here, the unknown is visualized as light emanating from the audience-right wings. The nine company dancers (in total or minus a few at various times) are located audience-left, and move left to right, toward the light. All the time. They (or some of them) may stop at times, or move back a bit and maybe huddle briefly before resuming their assault, or vary the tempo (usually when the music’s tempo slows or speeds up), and one or another of the dancers may be the leader of the pack, but the forward movement is always in the same direction and always ends without taking that extra step (or being barred from doing so by some unseen force), until, predictably, at the very end, when a final push is made and some of them breach the wing barrier and jump into that lake or get to whatever it is that’s on the other side. At times I saw The Ride Through as a horizontal form of Hofesh Shechter’s CAVE, but that piece had far more movement variety within what may or may not have been an attempt to escape from a cave-like confined area.
At one point I saw the dancers gyrate as if they’d been temporarily electrified (one in particularly – I think Harris but I’m not certain – delivered a super visualization of having put her finger in a socket or touched some imaginary electrified fence), but this only temporarily interrupted the overall relentlessness. At another moment I saw one dancer push another’s head down – as if, maybe, to keep him out of some invisible line of fire or to tell him just to keep his head down and follow his blocking and keep moving forward toward the goal line – but it looked funny, for a second.
Even if there’s no particular subject here, and even though individualized movement varies from moment to moment, it all looks the same in that it all goes in one direction no matter how often one dancer may take a shorter or longer step than others, or momentarily gesticulates in a particular way, or holds together with or separates from others. Even assuming every second can create a different image if isolated, it’s not isolated. Even considered as a simple abstract work, overall it suffers from the same absence of substantive variety.
As good as the dancers were (and they did everything the choreography told them to do), it still looked like poor variations on an even poorer theme.
The remaining dances on the program were Parsons classics that were previously reviewed.
Balance of Power, created in 2020 (and which I previously saw in 2021), is already one of Parsons Dance’s signature solos. It’s a percussive dance – not only in the music created and played live by Giancarlo De Trizio, but in Diienno’s execution. Diienno essentially remains within a circular spot centerstage, ceaselessly moving his body or individual parts thereof. It seems that everything is a pump or a pop or a pose, but that’s not the case. In between the percussive and physical exclamation points is a varied set of movements that connect it all together; a muscled melody. It’s a superb little showpiece.
Caught, created in 1982, is the “uber” Parsons Dance signature solo. It’s been on view in each of the Parsons Dance programs I’ve seen, and it’s difficult to envision a Parsons Dance program without it. It features a single dancer moving from overhead spot to the next overhead spot, eventually leaping with increasing movement complexity from one strobe-light illuminated area to another, “caught” in the strobe freeze-frames. It’s an extraordinary test of strength for the dancer and vision for a viewer no matter how many times it’s seen, I envy those in the audience who were seeing it for the first time. Here, Zoey Anderson reprised her magnificent execution.
The program concluded with Nascimento, which Parsons created in 1990. The piece is a tribute to Brazilian singer, guitarist, and song writer Milton Nascimento, who created the score specifically for the company. I’ve seen it twice previously, and in each review concluded that the fun was infectious, and each of the company’s eight dancers had an opportunity to shine. This remains true. It’s also elegant and refined compared to the evening’s flashy opening piece, and smooth as silk – in other words, in every respect it’s another Parsons dance of joy. Close your eyes and you can hear a bossa nova overdubbing the sound of the waves on Ipanema Beach.