On Thursday night I made my way down seven flights of cement steps in my building, plus God alone knows how many ditto steps leading from the Park blocks down to the Newmark Theatre, to see Parsons Dance, White Bird’s tenth show of the current season.
I’m glad I did. The energy and exuberance of these dancers, their commitment to what they are dancing and what they are dancing about (love, death, the battle of the genders, music, dancing itself), lifted my spirits and made me for the first time since Election Day 2016, at least briefly, unashamed to be an American.
Because, while there are two foreign-born dancers in the company – Henry Steele of Australia and Joan Rodriguez of Cuba (whom we last saw here as a member of the Malpaso Dance Company) – this is the quintessential American dance company, and the founder, David Parsons, is biographically and aesthetically the quintessential American choreographer.
He’s been at it a while, as a dancer (with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and New York City Ballet, where he was a guest artist) and a choreographer for his own company (founded in 1984) and many many others, of both the ballet and modern persuasions, plus musicals, film, and the Millennium festival in Times Square. Portland State University’s Contemporary Dance Season presented him first in Portland, and I saw him perform Caught, a virtuosic solo for dancer and strobe light: Paraphrasing my review in Willamette Week at the time, he looked like a cross between an angel and an Iowa farm boy. He never was an Iowa farm boy. But he does come from the Heartland, and he retains the frank, casual warmth that at least used to be associated with American character, and moreover, that provides something of a through line in his choreographic style.
Caught is as much Parsons’ signature work as Revelations is Alvin Ailey’s, although unlike Revelations it is performed by many companies, and I’ve therefore seen it quite a bit. On Thursday night it was danced with a sophisticated edge by Zoey Anderson, clearly the star of this company, and recognized for her prodigious talent as the recipient of this year’s Clive Barnes Dance Artist Award. She danced in all six works on the program, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. In Caught she showed me something I’d not noticed before: hands moving jerkily like Petrouchka’s in Michel Fokine’s eponymous 1911 ballet, suggesting a possible comment by Parsons about the relationship between the dancer and the choreographer.
Caught came after the intermission, midway through a program that began with Parsons’ Wolfgang, set to Mozart (excerpts from a piano concerto and a symphony, not named in the program). Lively and amusing, it’s a dandy curtain-raiser for three couples that I’d characterize as a barefoot ballet, spoofing various conventions, such as courtly partnering; and if it occasionally descends into cuteness, never mind. Anderson, Deidre Rogan and Kate Garcia, partnered by Justus Whitfield, Shawn Lesniak and Henry Steele, have a marvelous time executing fast, very fast, pirouettes sans pointe shoes, which is not as easy as it sounds; and the audience adored a spoof of fouettés—those whip-turns balletomanes so love to count.
Whitfield and Anderson were not given an opportunity to catch their breath: Next came the duet from Parsons’ Finding Center – made ten years after Wolfgang, and about, it seemed to me, partnering as conflict, as struggle – in which Whitfield manipulated Anderson’s limbs and torso to forgettable music by Thomas Newman. I would like to see the work from which it was extracted—duets taken out of context don’t always work the way the choreographer intended.
Trey McIntyre’s Ma Maison, the piece I had particularly wanted to see, closed the first half. It was made on The Trey McIntyre Project, the dancing part of which is now dispersed, and I first saw what I think is one of McIntyre’s best works in Boise, Idaho in late summer, before its official premiere in New Orleans on Nov. 21, 2008. Ma Maison is McIntyre’s tribute to New Orleans culture, which he fell in love with when he was associated with Houston Ballet as a dancer and choreographer and able to visit the city frequently. With Ma Maison he pays homage to the city’s jazz funerals: The dancers are masked and costumed (handsomely, by Jeanne Button) to look like skeletons – Mardi Gras figures, if you will.
You can’t have a jazz funeral without a jazz band, and Ma Maison was made in collaboration with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which performed onstage with the dancers in Boise and New Orleans; I don’t know about elsewhere. I wondered how, or even if, the piece would work danced to recorded music, without the riffing back and forth I witnessed in Boise. I also felt that this work was so dancer-specific that I was curious to see how it would transfer to rather differently trained dancers. The dancers in Parsons’ company all have some ballet training; the TMP dancers were all classically trained and McIntyre considers himself a classical choreographer.
While the Parsons dancers did their fine best, without live music and the exchange of energy between dancers and musicians, Ma Maison looked a bit too polished, too glossy, and just a little canned. That being said, the former White Bird board member sitting next to me told me when the lights went up for intermission that he thought this was the best work of the current season, and in the lobby a knowledgeable subscriber said the same thing. And about individual dancers, I need not have worried. At all. As the leader of this merry band of skeletons, Whitfield was different from John Michael Schert, whose classically trained body is taller and less muscular, but that doesn’t mean his delivery of the running, strutting, cake-walking, pas-de-chat-jumping vocabulary wasn’t as interesting and powerful. Anderson danced her solo with gasp-inducing speed, and Rogan, in the role originated by Chanel da Silva (who staged the ballet on this company), put her own stamp on da Silva’s quirky, humorous charm.
We know McIntyre’s work well in Portland. He was for several years resident choreographer at Oregon Ballet Theatre, which includes many of his pieces in the company’s repertory: His excellent Robust American Love is being revived for OBT’s last show of the season, June 7-15, also at the Newmark.
For me, the most interesting Parsons work on this program is Microburst, perhaps because it is musically most interesting. It’s set to a score commissioned from a magnificent tabla player and composer named Avirodh Sharma, and danced by Anderson, Rogan, Whitfield and Lesniak. In it, Parsons explores the melding of some elements of classical Indian dance, African body-slapping, American jazz dance, and tap-dancing minus the tap shoes. A section in which the two women sit on the floor of the stage vocalizing along with the music (recorded here, too) and the two men dance to that beat was both fascinating and effective: If Parsons, whose company is a diverse one, is suggesting with this piece that American art, every discipline of American art, is based at least in part on cultural appropriation, good for him.
Whirlaway, the closer, with music by Alan Toussaint, is a hoedown, a dance party, infused with all kinds of American social dance – and if I heard the lyrics correctly, these dancers, who dance as if they mean every step they execute and gesture they make, are dancing “’cause we can.” As is Microburst, it’s too long, and Parsons’ vocabulary starts looking repetitive. But Whirlaway sent the audience into the rainy night feeling amused, cheerful, entertained, and in my case at least, thinking.
Parsons Dance has one more performance in Portland, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 6, in the Newmark Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.