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Many are formed, few are chosen. I'm talking, of course, of modern dance companies. As endpapers to his still invaluable Complete Guide to Modern Dance (published in 1976), Don McDonagh provides a family tree of American modern dance, a genealogy he starts, reasonably enough, with Denishawn and those he dubs Independents, such as Isadora Duncan and Maud Allan. The extraordinary thing is that most of the major players in 1976--the sort commanding automatic national or even international attention--remain largely unchanged a quarter of a century later.

Of course, in the past two or three decades many, many modern dance troupes have been started, but not many have made much impact on the popular theatrical imagination, or established themselves beyond the somewhat circumscribed areas of cult or locality. Obviously Mark Morris bounces irresistibly to mind as one totally established newcomer, while Twyla Tharp, Pilobolus, and Lucinda Childs are among those seriously extending their standing.

But precious few have achieved what the Parsons Dance Company has done. During its twelve years of existence it has become a major player in the dance world. Seeing the company during its recent two-week season at the Joyce Theater, I wondered what the key might be to its very justified popular success, apart, of course, from its exceptionally athletic dancing, which nowadays might be taken as a norm. Looking at both programs, I felt that what has always marked Parsons and his troupe has been their exceptional theatricality, sexy exuberance, and consequent accessibility. Odd, isn't it--theatricality in particular, whether in dancers or choreographers, seems to be a pure and rare gift.

It is a gift that Parsons has in abundance, one he has managed to pass on to his company, and also one breezily apparent on the opening program, in which for the first part of the evening the dancers had the live accompaniment of Phil Woods's Little Big Band. Woods and his eight-piece jazz combo provide the music for both the company's jazz improvisations and for Parsons's 1998 work, Fill the Woods with Light, a punningly named piece to music composed by Woods that had its New York premiere.

The work is indeed an exercise in light, dark, and dancing--the dancers use all manner of transportable lights, from flashlights to headlamps, and, at one point, one of them (the excellent Jaime Martinez) appears as a dancing disco ball. As pure dancing, it was more image than invention, more shadow than substance, but it was exciting and provocative. It worked.

The same could be said of almost everything on the program--from Parsons's 1982 signature piece, Caught, in which a dancer (Martinez on the first night, but at a later performance I caught, as it were, Elizabeth Koeppen, the company's invaluable rehearsal director) is frozen in midair by a sequence of strobe flashes, to his exhilarating ballet for a flag-waving, cadet-garbed ensemble, Anthem (1 998). It was also good to see again his study in molded dynamics, Union, dressed and in some instances undressed by Donna Karan, and to welcome back as guest artist Daniel Ezralow, who joined Parsons in the famous and touchingly amusing Stravinsky duet they co-choreographed seventeen years ago, Brothers.

Even today most modern dance directors provide all the choreography for their own company--but Parsons pushes his dancers to make dances. It is significant that nowadays virtually every one of his programs has an improvisation section--usually danced to live jazz, although in his second program the music was interestingly provided by a classical music group, the John Mackey Ensemble. This time the music for that crawlingly sculptural 1993 Union was John Corigliano's Soliloquy, whereas in the first week it had been Wayne Shorter's jazz-tinctured Nefertiti. The choreography was the same; only the music was different.

The main interest in this second-week program was that it was partly given over to new works, all of them pungent, promising miniatures by company dancer Robert Battle, who revealed much of Parsons's own theater sense, but with a quirky imagination of his own. Battle has studied choreography at the Juilliard School, and, as a member of the Parsons company since 1994, he started to set works on the troupe last year.

Battle's works ranged from a weird duet to Vivaldi for Martinez and himself, Two, created originally in 1995, to the world premiere of Rush Hour, an ironic but imaginative ensemble piece to original music by Mackey. Other collaborations with Mackey, all from 1997, were a duet for Jason McDole and Henry Jackson, almost self-explanatory, titled Strange Humors; an inventive Variation for Mia McSwain; and a brusque, brisk solo for Koeppen, Damn; while a mysterious piece for Martinez, Takademe, had equally mysterious music by Sheila Chandra.

There is a talent here, which Parsons is wise to encourage. The program was completed with two pieces by Parsons himself, his familiar, amusing, but very slight Sleep Study (1987), and his exciting Closure, to commissioned music by Tony Powell, first staged three years ago. Earlier I suggested theatricality as the possible secret of Parsons's ongoing success--to this I might add that his programs are also simply enjoyable. That's something that could well make for continued popularity; certain other company leaders and choreographers might take note.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Aug 1, 1999

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