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Pop Art

Date: Jan 14, 2009


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Choreographer David Parsons doesn’t have a problem with the word “populist”—and that not’s just because, as he explains, his father happens to be noted historian Stanley B. Parsons, who wrote a seminal book about American politics called The Populist Context.

“I’m like the only guy doing this who doesn’t mind saying, ‘I want people to have a good time and enjoy themselves,’ ” says Parsons of his choreographic leadership at the helm of Parsons Dance, the 10-member dance rep company he founded in 1985 and with whom he has toured the world, from the Spoleto Festival to the Paris Opera, from Brazil to Japan. “The creative field of dance is so snobby. People try to define you. I have some terribly sophisticated pieces that I know the usual presenters will like, but I’ve done that. I’ve done pieces to Mozart and Bach. I’m always trying to come up with something that looks new. That’s one of the problems with choreography—it can start to look the same.”

Parsons’ newest piece shows his questing spirit in full effect: Remember Me, showing at the Joyce Theatre through Jan. 18, is a narrative dance/music piece created in collaboration with East Village Opera Company, a band that recasts opera arias into rock arrangements.

“I don’t know what it is,” Parsons admits freely of the theatrical hybrid that is Remember Me. “We went over the top with emotion, and movement-wise we came up a real nice language to tell the story. You don’t see that very often in contemporary dance.” Getting caught up in describing the piece, which integrates singers, dancers and design elements in its staging, Parsons continues: “It’ll give you a nice little buzz. These are 15 of the most famous arias ever written, and kids have heard many of them in commercials, but they haven’t really heard them as songs. Young people are lovin’ it. This stuff is the real thing.”

Parsons’ mission since he left Paul Taylor Dance to form his own company has been to reach new audiences—audiences not typically touched by dance performances. One way to do that: to commission popular artists to create music for the company, including jam-rock powerhouse Dave Matthews for the piece In the End and Brazilian icon Milton Nascimento for the pieces Nascimento and Nascimento Novo. Another way: to collaborate with musicians in performance, as Parsons did on tours with the Ahn Trio, saxophonist Phil Woods and Turtle Island String Quartet.

Parsons describes another contrast that sets his work apart from today’s dominant dance aesthetic.

“We’re not just doing cool moves,” Parsons says. “That’s what most contemporary dance does: You get some cool music, have dancers in cool costumes doing the coolest movement they can do. It really all comes from William Forsythe, whom I love personally, but all the new choreographers use his style.

“I can’t do that,” Parsons says with a mixture of regret and pride. “I have to make dance about things. So ‘Sleep Study’ is about sleeping, ‘The Envelope’ is about the secrets an envelope. ‘Caught’ is about what everyone has dreamt of, flying. There are very few dances that I just get up and dance. There’s something about me that always wants to connect what I do to real people. That’s why I’ll never be a serious artist.”

Parsons is selling himself short, of course. His next project will be designed for children, and what more demanding audience could there be?

“For the people who are still in this business—Paul Taylor, Mark Morris—it’s really about keeping yourself and the people around you excited,” Parsons says. If those “people around you” include his audiences, then Parsons has succeeded.

Remember Me with the East Village Opera Company runs through Jan. 18 at the Joyce Theatre. Click here for more information.

photos this page and home page by: Yi Chun Wu