Round My World
Hand Dance
Eight Women
Runes
Caught
Whirlaway

George Mason University Center for the Arts
Fairfax, VA

April 20, 2019

Carmel Morgan

The audience assembled to see Parsons Dance at George Mason University on the night before Easter Sunday was on the smaller side, not close to a full house, but the enthusiasm for the dancing was robust. Well-deserved spontaneous shouts and claps burst forth, and I overheard a few gasps of amazement, too. The dancers, particularly the indefatigable Zoey Anderson, recent winner of the 9th Annual Clive Barnes Dance Artist Award, gave a rousing performance worthy of the warm reception.

The night opened with Round My World, choreographed by Parsons in 2012 to music by Zoe Keating. The dancers wear light blue costumes by Emily DeAngelis — pants with a darker blue belt for the three men (and no shirts), dresses with knee-length flowy skirts for the three women. The demeanor of the dancers leans toward icy coldness like the pale blue of the costumes, but there are moments of surprising affection, too. Parsons strictly adheres to his roundness theme. The arms of the dancers frequently form rings, ovals above their heads or larger circles when grasping the hands of another. All of the arms opening and closing becomes tiresome. The music tends to repetitively pulse as well. I might have appreciated Round My World more if the work had been shorter, rather than being comprised of so many permutations of the same circular theme. Round My World is nonetheless detailed and pretty. It succeeds most when it strays further from its theme. When a couple with conjoined hands jointly tug and pull, their circle violently rippling, I was enrapt.   

I had not previously seen Artistic Director and Co-Founder David Parsons’s signature work Caught performed by a woman. There’s no reason why this challenging solo can’t be ably done by a female, and Anderson proved this to be true. In this must-see work, the dancer, via clever strobe lighting by Co-Founder and Resident Lighting Designer Howell Binkley (who recently won a Tony Award and Sir Laurence Olivier Award for the lighting design of Hamilton), seemingly floats in the air for extended periods of time. Caught could come across as gimmicky, but it never does, thanks to its strong choreography and mesmerizing lighting effects. Caught perfectly captures the magic and joy of dance, and Anderson exuded these qualities while also showing off her enviable musculature and technical prowess. As Anderson soared and glided like a winged creature or hovered above the stage like a mystic figure, people in the audience whispered with awe and reverence, “Wow!” and “How’d she do that?”      

With no more time than to quickly change costumes, and with no hint of diminished energy, after Caught Anderson roared back to the stage in the evening’s closing work, Whirlaway, choreographed by Parsons in 2014. She impressed with her grooving to iconic New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint’s funky rhythms. Her sly shoulder rolls and flirty smiles accentuated the coltish choreography. Yet this tribute to beloved music of a bygone era echoed too closely another work on the program, Trey McIntyre’s Eight Women, from 2019.

In Eight Women, eight dancers (but only half of them women — the title, I assume, comes from the songs of Aretha Franklin that accompany the work), reside inside the music but don’t transcend it. The costumes by Sylvie Rood resemble wide-legged jumpsuits, but the bottoms have billowy sheer layers, whose fullness makes them look like skirts. In this way, the men embody women. In general, Eight Women is a spirited, crowd pleasing work. McIntyre isn’t his sometimes silly self here. The choreography reaches for depth and meaning. In solos and groups, on their knees or upright kicking, the dancers, in haze that enveloped the first three works on the program, were engaging. However, although at times the dancing was moving, more often it seemed to merely scratch the surface of the music’s emotional content. Because the work is brand new, maybe it’ll take more time to become rooted in the dancers before it really gels.   

I’m not sure which choreographer, McIntyre or Parsons, prevailed in the battle to highlight heartfelt music through dancing. Honestly, I think the music may have won. The powerful music in both Whirlaway and Eight Women at times overwhelmed the dancers.             

Like Caught, Hand Dance is another popular and relatively brief work by Parsons featuring clever lighting design by Binkley. Undeniably entertaining, Hand Dance is light and humorous, more of a dance appetizer than a meal of a dance. Five dancers (who aren’t named in the program) stand in a line. Their hands, and only their hands, are brightly lit, the rest of the stage is shrouded in black. Hands flutter, join and break free, and fluidly form shapes between synchronous rises and falls. Also like Caught, Hand Dance relies heavily on perfect timing and avoids being a mere gimmick. The length of Hand Dance is just right, allowing the hands to explore multiple amusing configurations without overstaying their welcome. The unidentified five dancers pulled off the work without a hitch.  

After intermission came the company premiere of Runes, which was first performed in 1975 by the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Parsons once danced in this Paul Taylor piece, and I imagine he wanted to see it performed by his company because he has fond memories performing it. The subtitle of Runes is “secret writings for casting a spell,” and there’s definitely something spooky about it. Gerald Busby’s clanging musical composition includes some static in the recording. The lighting by Jennifer Tipton makes conspicuous a large round blue moon, which slowly ascends as the work unfolds. George Tacet’s costumes, tight-fitting nude outfits with dark fur along the back of the shoulders, lend the dancers an otherworldly, but still human air. The dancers, using repeated hand gestures, surround a body lying face-up, flat on the floor. Subsequently, the prostrate dancer stands and someone else takes his or her place on the ground. These odd rituals are performed with utmost seriousness. The dark, rather abstract drama is interesting at first, but I started to shift in my seat after a while. I enjoyed seeing this vintage Paul Taylor work, especially witnessing some spectacular lifts (a man crosses the stage holding two women aloft — one on a hip, another on his shoulder), but Runes is not among my favorite Taylor pieces.

Parsons Dance will be at the Joyce Theater in New York City from May 14-26, 2019.  Despite some minor reservations, I do recommend attending. The current company is quite strong, and Anderson, in particular, is a brilliant standout performer.