David Parsons’s dance company has performed on all but one of the world’s continents, and that omission is not his fault or the fault of Columbia Artists, which manages this immensely popular troupe. Antarctica probably doesn’t book much modern dance. Parsons Dance has found a recipe for thrilling audiences: Mix a variegated array of pleasing music; lush, springy, athletic movement; traces of mischievous wit; and go-for-broke dancers. Stir into legible, well-crafted structures. Spice sparingly.
During Parsons’s first years as an independent choreographer, after he left the Paul Taylor Dance Company, he tended to build each work around a single idea. The exhilarating, iconic solo Caught—which has been performed by ballet stars Angel Corella and Vladimir Malakov, as well as by both male and female Parsonettes—is about a dancer cannily pinned by strobe light flashes so that he or dancer seems to be walking on air. The Envelope shows a bunch of black-hooded munchkins trying to get rid of an envelope by handing it around in amusing ways. Some of Parsons’s later works, mining moods and music, have been longer and less clear-cut. However, he could still turn out a piece like the 2002 Too Many Cooks, which merged the celebrity-chef vogue with erotic mayhem in the kitchen. On his current programs at the Joyce, Hand Dance offers a change of pace via variations on one narrowly focused image. Strategically aimed beams of light reveal only the hands of five dancers. As in the work of the late Alwin Nikolais, a simple effect creates magical pictures. The 10 hands signal, swim like gleaming fish, form joint shapes, play tricks, and imitate the unseen fingers of the pianist and violinist of the accompanying Ahn Trio.
Two of Parsons’s most recent works, Wolfgang and DMB, play in more subtly varied ways with the atmosphere induced by their respective composers: Mozart and Dave Mathews. The three-movement Wolfgang is a sunny rushing of dancers into circles, lines, scuptural plastiques, and lyrical pairings. But whether David Martinez is spinning Mia McSwain into the air, or Brian McGinnis is having a tête-à-tête with Abby Silva, or Katarzyna Skarpetowska and Jeremy Smith are merging, the others are usually passing through, affirming that theirs is a buoyant communal life. In DMB, a smoky stage (lighting by Michael Mazzola and Parsons),jeans and T-shirts on the eight dancers, and the Dave Mathews Band’s soft, sexy singing create a jazzier athleticism. Again people rush about, but they pause for zingy solos, and they’re on the floor almost as often as they’re in the air. If Wolfgang is a pretty opener, DMB is a closer.
Some of the attractive maneuvers that Parsons dreams up look decidedly Tayloresque (or Taylor cranked up); others are more original. Occasionally a strange effect, repeated, acquires an interesting, almost eerie life of its own. In Wolfgang, there’s a whole business about men sauntering while women crawl, women sauntering while men crawl, and then the same pattern repeated in a circle. Several times in DMB one person stalks toward the others, who bump along backward in a sitting position looking mildly threatened.
Also on view this season are Swing Shift and Slow Dance (both with music by Keiji Bunch and dramatic lighting by Howell Binkley). The first begins with the splendid Elizabeth Koeppen making sudden, pliant moves in a spotlight (this is associate artistic director Koeppen’s last season dancing with the company she has graced for 16 years). Initially, the guiding idea is of people replacing one another in the flow of movement; by the end, the stage is awash in prolonged high-energy revelry. Slow Dance, one of Parsons’s strongest works, is seldom slow, but its opening and closing images are of compression. Three couples jammed into a square of light, bend and straighten up in unison, but also lean out in various ways, jerking within their partners’ grasps. One unpleasant, much repeated lift has the women on their backs over the men’s shoulders, their bent, spraddled legs in the air. By the end, after busy, turbulent dancing almost at odds with the rhapsodic music, the energy has crested into violence.
Parsons tries almost too hard not to bore us and to make us love what we see. Certainly, his formula seems to work, but I often wish he’d slow down and delve more deeply into the movement ideas that seem to flow so effortlessly from him.