Parsons Dance
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

May 14, 2024
Juke (world premiere), Takademe, The Shape of Us (world premiere), Thick as Thieves (NYC premiere), Caught, Whirlaway

Jerry Hochman

Parsons Dance returned to the Joyce Theater last Tuesday for its annual New York season. The Company will be presenting essentially the same program over its two-week engagement, with only a minor change for its Family Matinee. I attended the Opening Night program.

I didn’t see my first Parsons Dance program until 2016, and was bowled over by the sense of joy that I saw in his choreography, in addition to essential imagination and talent that both the choreography and the company’s dancers clearly communicated. I wrote thereafter that there was nothing overly complicated, cerebral, or expressionistic about the pieces presented, but added that that comment didn’t mean that the choreography, particularly those pieces choreographed by Parsons, aren’t complex or a product of considerable intelligence – just that his dances intoxicate the spirit more than they tickle the cortex, and they showcase his dancers’ energy, musicality, and athleticism without requiring that they become human pretzels or radiate anger or alienation.

Those observations still hold true, but at a lower visual-decibel level. I’ll explain below.

This year’s program consisted of six pieces, three by Parsons (one of which, The Shape of Things, was a premiere), and three by other choreographers, one of which, Juke, was a premiere, and the other, Thick as Thieves, a NYC premiere.

Parsons Dance in Jamar Roberts’s “Juke”
Photo by Paula Lobo

The evening opened with Juke, the world premiere piece choreographed by Jamar Roberts.

I’ve seen at least two prior dances that Roberts choreographed, both for New York City Ballet. Although I had reservations, I was favorably impressed by both of them.

Juke is different, and on first exposure to it appears to be not as carefully constructed as the others I saw. I’m sure that this is not the case, but it looks that way, possibly because if its subject matter, and perhaps also because he was choreographing this piece for a different audience, where there was no need for, or expectation of, any such restraint. Whatever his reasoning may have been, judged by the opening night audience reaction, he was right.

Luke Romanzi (forward) and Parsons Dance
in Jamar Roberts’s “Juke”
Photo by Paula Lobo

Juke is choreographed to music by Miles Davis. I’ve enjoyed those examples of Davis’s music that I’ve previously heard, probably because what I’ve heard was part of Davis’s early, “cool” period. Like many artists, he evolved to maintain his popularity, in his case by adding a variety of elements to his music, experimenting with what came to be called jazz fusion, and incorporating more popular, contemporary (e.g., rock, blues, folk and psychedelia) sounds, and performing as the opening act for rock bands. As a result, he was accused by some as “selling out” to the rock and roll audience, but his move was, for him, highly successful. [The above is a highly condensed recounting of information contained in Davis’s Wikipedia entry. For more detailed and complete information, there are plenty of additional and more detailed sources to explore.]

In 1970 Davis released the album “Bitches Brew,” which added new technologies to the mix. One of the pieces on that two-record set is titled “Spanish Key.” The program for this Parsons Dance engagement indicates that the score for Roberts’s dance is “Spanish Key.” I don’t know whether the “Spanish Key” in the “Bitches Brew” album is the same “Spanish Key” that Roberts uses here. I didn’t hear the “rock and roll” influences that were reportedly there, and I certainly didn’t hear indications of flamenco music that some sources assert were included in the piece. So maybe there’s more than version – which is not unusual. Regardless, what I heard was a lot of sound that seemed to me incompatible with the Davis jazz I’d known. [My notes describe the music as jazzy with annoying sounds mixed in. But as I’ve conceded many times, I’m not a music expert, so what’s “random noise” to me may be superb examples of complementary (or contradictory) music to others.]

My uncertainty extends also to the meaning of the dance’s title. The word “juke,” to me, automatically conjures visions of diner jukeboxes. Shows how out of touch I am.

Justine Delius in Jamar Roberts’s “Juke”
Photo by Paula Lobo

According to an article in Mississippi Encyclopedia titled “Juke Joints” (written in 2017 by Jennifer Nardone): “The origins of the term juke or jook remain uncertain. Some scholars have speculated that the word derives from an African word, juga, meaning “bad” or “wicked,” while others believe juke comes from juice, often used to describe early electric guitars and music players (juice boxes). Whatever the term’s origins, juke joints remain important spaces for blues musicians and audiences.” She continued describing the evolution of juke joints from their origin as places for enslaved African-Americans to do (dance, listen to music) what they were forbidden to do in public: “As blues music gained popularity in the Jim Crow South, juke joints became safe places for African Americans to gather without white supervision. The basic principles that kept juke joints covert during segregation have become the defining elements of juke joints since that time.” And one more bit of information: “Juke joints are never built; rather, they appropriate previous spaces. The buildings adapted for juke joints have different layouts and definitions, but juke joints carry certain elements that redefine the previous space.” [For those interested: ]

I don’t think that Roberts intended his title to be indicative of “bad” or “wicked” – except insofar as it may have been a component of original “juke joints.” Nor do I think Roberts used that title just to emphasize a musical term. Logically, I think that Roberts’s intent here is to recreate the sense of a “juke joint” on stage by displaying the Parsons dancers hanging out and dancing at an ersatz juke joint. And I think he succeeded. But the movement qualities he choreographs to create that ambiance are a kitchen-sink of prescribed movement that looks artificial.

Parsons Dance in Jamar Roberts’s.”Juke”
Photo by Paula Lobo

Roberts includes in this stage space (or juke joint) a steady barrage of urban-inspired moves (and maybe rock and roll also). What I observed was what appeared to be a hodgepodge of non-stop motion, albeit carefully constructed, spread liberally among the eight-dancer cast mainly (but not entirely) as solos or small groups, primarily gathered (to the best of my recollection) audience-left, with no direction beyond executing the spikey, angular, jerky, stretch-popping, jumpy, erratic-looking movement, and more that are indescribable, strictly to the musical beat, as rapidly as possible, at all times smiling and acting like they were having a great time. There was no moment when some dancer’s body or parts thereof was not in express-train motion. [I saw nothing directly indicative of what I’ve previously seen as “street dance” or “break-dance,” much of which I’ve evaluated positively.] For most of the audience this combination provided an exhilarating opening program piece. That I didn’t agree may have simply been my problem.

The remainder of the program is much more in tune with the quality and type of dances that I’ve seen in prior Parsons Dance programs. Takademe is a 1996 solo choreographed by Robert Battle, recently the Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and prior to that a member of Parsons Dance from 1994-2001. Performed here by the consistently outstanding Company veteran Zoe Anderson, Takademe is an all too brief delight.

I’ve found no clear definition of its title. Reportedly, the piece is a deconstruction of Indian Kathak dance rhythms. That may be true, but is saw it, based on its score, as a movement commentary on arcade language.

The piece is choreographed to “Speaking in Tongues II” by Sheila Chandra (from the album ”Weaving My Ancestors Voices”), a fascinating solo that seemingly recreates some sort of aboriginal language, but in reality is a collection of sounds and sighs that have their own unique voice, roughly mimicking Indian sounds that the Indian/English singer recreates in rapid-fire, mostly monotonic (though there is limited pitch variety), monosyllabic strung-together sound bites occupying mini-seconds, interspersed with breathy sighs, each of which may last all of an entire second. It’s amazing to listen to, and, as Battle has translated it into movement, and as Anderson delivers it, looked equally amazing. And that title – the only meaning that makes any sense to me, in the context of the word-song, might be that it’s an agglomeration of sounds that are a transliteration of: “talk to me.”

Zoey Anderson,
here in David Parsons’s “Caught”
Photo by Travis Magee

Battle’s work has been performed many times since 1996 (including, I found, by Jamar Roberts). During this engagement Anderson will alternate in the role with Tea Perez or Luke Romanzi.

The Shape of Us, the Parsons premiere piece, is very much in keeping with earlier Parsons dances I’ve seen, but not on as high a level. It’s not an unpleasant piece to watch, but it’s not one of Parsons’s best either.

The Shape of Us is choreographed to a variety of pieces (or excerpts therefrom) by Son Lux, an American experimental post-rock band that is perhaps best known for having composed the music for the film Everything Everywhere All at Once. The music used here is comprised of a variety of pieces curated by Parsons and credited to Ryan W. Lott, who leads Son Lux (in some cases the credit includes his Son Lux collaborators, Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang). By my unofficial count there are five pieces, which I suspect were selected for the sounds they communicate, including, I think lyrics to one of the songs, “Easy,” reflecting loneliness, at times sung in what sounded like muted slow-motion by Lorde.

Zoey Anderson, here
in Trey McIntyre’s
“Eight Woman”
Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

The dance begins with one dancer (Anderson) walking across the stage audience left to right, slowly. After she exits, another dancer, male, follows. Soon a pair of dancers (spatially separated) appear, and they cross the stage in an opposite direction. Gradually, the tempo increases so that the walking becomes faster, then changes to easy running, then full-out sprints, as in a race … life’s race. It’s a fairly stereotypical visual metaphor for urban loneliness, though here, from what I could discern, not involving alienation, or any other recognizable emotion. This segment ends, suddenly, to the sound of quiet sighs, with two of the dancers individually hitting the stage floor and sliding to a stop, apparently succumbing to the tedium and isolation of feeling alone.

Slowly, that pair soon are joined by the six other dancers, breaking thereafter into four pairs, and cautiously, they begin to break the bubble of their urban anonymity. There are periods of silence (it’s not a dance involving constant motion), and an expanding movement vocabulary thereafter until, eventually, the group of dancers – still cautiously, comes together.

From this point the piece further evolves, with increasing speed and further development of movement variety, coupled with what I saw as increasing confidence that there’s an antidote to being alone –in a way reversing the pace of the opening individual cross-stage movement. Indeed, now the sense, once having made a connection, of being fearful of losing it. But that’s overcome too, and toward the piece’s conclusion the dancers form a circle, then a circle within a circle, traveling in opposite directions, displaying that sense of joy that is communicated in most of the Parsons ensemble dances I’ve seen. In the end, the group of dancers, predictably, come together as one mass; a gathering of a small society, a shape, comprised of individuals.

There’s nothing really new or inventive here, but it feels good to watch evolve without the need to populate every second, and to see movement that says something, even if what it’s saying has been said in a variety of ways before. Nevertheless, and without any supporting information, I suspect that Parsons may be saving more novel and expansive dances of joy for the Company’s 40th Anniversary next year.

Following intermission, the Company presented a dance that’s certainly different, at least visually.

Thick As Thieves was created last year by Penny Saunders during a Company residency at Lake Placid, in New York State. Based on the program note, Saunders has extensive dance experience (starting her dance career at New Jersey’s American Repertory Ballet), as well as extensive choreographic experience (she is currently Resident Choreographer at the Grand Rapids Ballet, and an artist-in-residency at the USC Kaufman School of Dance).

Parsons Dance
here in Trey McIntyre’s “Ma Maison”
Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

Saunders is quoted in the Parsons Dance web site describing Thick as Thieves as “mischievous, mysterious, and fun.” It may not be much more than that, but that’s what she’s tried to create, and successfully did.

Thick As Thieves features relatively ordinary choreography, no clear story, and capes – oversized black capes that are worn primarily around the shoulders and bodies of the eight dancers. The black capes and their use, removal, and reattachment are the glue that hold the dance together, abetted by the lighting by Christopher S. Chambers that bathes the stage in varying degrees of darkness. The dance is choreographed to a commissioned score by Michael Wall, and was played live by Wall on piano and trumpet, and Lily Gelfand on cello. The composition is low-key and complementary, but the theme from The Pink Panther might have worked too.

For a dance in which nothing in particular happens, Thick As Thieves does indeed carry an air of mischief and mystery, though no attempt is made to identify the subject of the mystery. Although the choreography isn’t particularly exceptional (and doesn’t pretend to be), the point is to create a sense of the group being “thick as thieves” about something nefarious, whatever that may be, which Saunders succeeds in doing.

Members of Whim W’him in “play by play”
choreographed by Penny Saunders
Photo by Bamberg Fine Art

At the piece’s outset, all eight dancers appear from out of the darkness and move downstage in a horizontal line, moving (or stepping in place) in tandem with the musical beat, at one point removing their capes, throwing them into the air, then putting them on again. At irregular moments during the course of the dance, the ensemble gather together in lines or in lined formations, again dancing in tandem, except something always happens with one or more of those capes. There are individual and smaller group interactions as well that add a sense of sotto voce – without an apparent purpose – with one or more capes involved.

Somehow, all this holds together, even though it ends up going nowhere. I found it surprisingly enjoyable, even if not particularly significant. And there was one occurrence during the dance that was surprising. At one point, I notice one cape sprawled on the floor mid-stage audience-right. I didn’t see how it got there, but it looked like an orphan – perhaps fallen off one of the dancers. It looked “in the way.” Normally, another dancer would pick it up or kick it away to avoid an accident, but that didn’t happen: the dancers seemed to be oblivious to it. Then with a change in the tempo, other dancers entered the stage into a formation, and one of them didn’t have a cape. Seconds later, a female dancer (I couldn’t identify who) walked a step or two, picked it up, and raced across the stage to the cape-less male dancer and placed it around his shoulders before returning to her spot. I have no idea whether this was accidental and one quick-thinking dancer’s best way to deal with it, or it was in the choreography – perhaps included after it happened accidentally during a rehearsal, and looked intriguing enough to incorporate permanently thereafter in the piece … as Balanchine did with Serenade.

The program continued with two frequently-paired Parsons classics: Caught, created in 1982, and Whirlaway, in 2014. I won’t dwell long on either of them, since both are familiar. With respect to Caught, which never ceases to amaze, this was the first time I’d seen it performed by Megan Garcia (who alternates in the role this season with Anderson and Josephy Cyranski). Although the choreographed movement is the same, Garcia adds a balletic sense of airiness to her portrayal, with particularly expansive leaps and her ponytail flying. And Whirlaway, to the music of Allen Toussaint, has the Company’s nine dancers flying through the air and whirling away, energizing the audience in the process. It’s one of Parsons’s finest pieces, and it’s a perfect closer.

While this might not have been one of the best of the Parsons Dance programs I’ve seen, there were dances for every audience member to enjoy, and dancers with boundless energy and talent to watch awestruck. I look forward to the Company’s 40th Anniversary when it returns next year.