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Dance Like Imelda Marcos

Date: Apr 26, 2013


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Choreographer Annie-B Parson, who founded Big Dance Theater in New York City, creates with a post-modern style all her own, and while she was influenced by dance giants like Merce Cunningham, she was also inspired by another giant from the world of pop music. "I've always been a huge fan of David Byrne's gigantic, imaginative powers and omnivorous appetite," she says. "When I was at Connecticut College and first heard his music, I was enamored by his particular aesthetic of detachment, a blend of nobility and paranoia that thrilled me. When I went to his concerts, his music totally rocked. Everything was factual and functional with a sense of being what it was, not an illusion. And, the way he danced, with a fantastic, detached quality in terms of how his limbs related to his torso with a separate grace. In my young mind, this was it."

As fate would have it, admiration led to collaboration. Parson eventually choreographed two of Byrne's world tours, and now, she's choreographing Here Lies Love a musical based on Filipina First Lady Imelda Marco's life that is playing at the Public Theater.

The show features Byrne's lyrics, with music from Byrne and Fatboy Slim and additional music by Tom Gandey and J Pardo. Directed by Alex Timbers, it's set in a club-like space with flashing lights, enormous TV screens, and a DJ amping up the vibe. The audience moves around shifting platforms, dancing and enjoying the performers from all sides as they tell the story of a young Filipina girl who is eventually transformed into a beloved/reviled Evita of her land. While the Marcos' story of political power gone awry is depressing, Here Lies Love is undeniably fun.

The production is Parson's first stab at musical theatre, an opportunity that offered unlikely freedom. "I treated it as a found object, a concert that everyone else will be the judge of," she says. "Yes, the platforms, high heels, and myriad costume changes were all obstacles, but we tried to incorporate everything in a positive way: You get to see the performers from every side, the body from every angle. In my mind that's a benefit to the work."

Parson blended her own choreographic approach with the demands of musical theatre. "Usually, in my own company or other concert work, I create from a formalist perspective, meaning I work with line, space, shape, and the time of dance itself," she explains. "Dance is the sacred object. When I've created for David's concerts, I ask, 'What does the music crave?' But in Here Lies Love, the music and story are the top contenders for the throne, so I knew the dance had to serve those two. Therein lies the struggle---and the interest---for me in this project."

To tackle this challenge, Parson started with research on Marcos, both as a political figure and woman. She was fascinated by her charisma and cruelty, and after watching a variety of clips, she found that the shoe-loving first lady socialized with the day's celebrity politicians at parties, dancing at every affair. Parson was thrilled by Marcos' trademark moves, including gentle, robotic taps on her elaborate, bedazzled butterfly sleeves; wrist wiggles from raised arms; and a bizarre hip sway. The choreographer riffed on these ideas, letting them pop up in the show, so that the audience sees snippets of these movements both on the TV screens showing historical footage and from the dancers onstage: The meta result is both mesmerizing and unsettling.

Time in the studio with her two associate choreographers, Chris Giarmo and Elizabeth Dement, also proved essential. "This show is body-based, which is the point that is similar to all my work," says Parson. "I work less from the head and more from 'how do I want to dance to this music?' That's merged with my sense of how David dances: He's always in my head when I work on his pieces."

Together, Parson and her associates crafted diverse phrases evoked by the music, resulting in choreography that includes everything from boy-band step touches and hard-hitting club moves to gestural sections with lotus-flower hands and swaying luau hip circles. The mishmash creates a striking visual effect, a Parson trademark. "I'm a big stew of thoughts and ideas," she says. "There are obviously the imperatives of what part of the story we're telling, but other than that, it's a mixed-up pot of what comes out of the body when the music comes on. There are spices of Filipino movement, some ingredients that look similar to my other concert work, pieces that remind me of how David moves, and items that just popped up."

Parson's comfort in blending styles comes from a magpie sensibility. "Movement can be put together without transition, from different body parts to different cultures," she says. "My way of working like this comes from Merce Cunningham, who offered that sequencing and hierarchy of movement aren't important. I can do one move, then another, then roll the dice and switch it up."


Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York City
Photo by Joan Marcus