Some people get serious about anniversaries. Not David Parker. For his 10th, he does resurrect his first major piece, the 1990 duet We’re Not Married but celebrates a decade of making dancegoers laugh by presenting a vaudeville of overlapping skits, Backward and in Heels, and a clever opener by Bruce Lansky and Kay Cummings (a colleague of mine at NYU), Haydn’s Surprising Symphony. The program drives home the message that a lot of us spend a lot of time falling on our faces in one way or another and the rest of the time struggling to arrive at, or maintain, equilibrium.
What’s a conductor to do when he walks beaming and bowing onto the stage and sees that a musician is missing? In the opener, Parker scans his orchestra (photographed faces and T-shirt “tuxes” attached to folding chairs) and notices that no one’s sitting at the real drum set. His embarrassed plea of “Is there a dummer in the house?” yield only a guy (Jeffrey Kazin) who’s had one lesson. Seated among the drums, Kazin mouths in horror, “I don’t read music!” He also crashes to the floor at the first loud eruption of Haydn’s “surprise” chord (taped, of course). Parker jives around a bit when things seem to be going well, but both conductor and Sunday drummer are in this over their heads. So the situation is implausible, but Parker and Jeffrey Kazin can make you believe in every small, hilarious moment.
In Parker’s 2004 Show Business, Emily Tschiffely is another gallant failed performer. When Ethel Merman starts belting out Irving Berlin’s hit from
Annie Get Your Gun, Tschiffely is maintaining (just) a balance on half pointe, but her efforts to entertain and keep the show running are constantly undermined by gravity and desperation. The thread straggling down from the hem of her bundle-of-organdy dress is a giveaway. She sniffs her armpits in a brief moment of defeatism when the lyrics speak of days when audiences don’t come. Could she smell bad? But every mangled pirouette and huge jump that plunges to the floor affirms her determination to charm us. And she does.
The equilibrium that’s maintained with difficulty in We’re Not Married is that between a man (Kazin) and a woman (Amber Sloan). This terrific piece presents a wavering relationship as an ongoing soft-shoe dialogue that speeds up, slows down to store up new ideas, asks questions, and presents arguments. Parker’s choreography shows all the shadings of togetherness through rhythm and pace—adding claps and slaps to the foot language—and Kazin and Sloan relay every nuance of their engagement, from competitive anger to weary tenderness.
Backward recycles pop music and themes Parker has used before and offers cleverly ironic takes on them, as well as hinting, perhaps too obliquely, at a tale of a prince who seeks a princess but may find the shoe better fits another prince. Nic Petry tries a high-heeled slipper on Kate Digby. Doesn’t fit. He slips it on his own foot and exits. She becomes quite upset. Jeffrey Kazin has the other (?) shoe but, for a while, another partner. Like Doris Day, Sloan and Kazin “fall in love too easily,” each wearing one high heel to stress the underlying difficulty, but, shoes off, conga (to Josephine Baker on tape) with more vigor than compatibility and limbo under each other’s outstretched arms. Tschiffely does tricks with a costume (by Melanie Rozema and Parker) trailing long streamers of material. While Julie Andrews trills out joy from The Sound of Music, Tschiffely swirls around, trying flagellation, binding an arm to find a vein, stuffing the excess fabric under her dress to form a fetus. To “Hava Nagila” performed by a bell choir, the cast (including Cristina Aguirre) creates a tangled choreography of unhappy, appalled, and I-may-throw-up facial expressions—even while managing something resembling fouetté turns (this Jewish wedding is not off to a flying start).
This piece is also about performers—about their courage and about failing (and falling). Locked into a clump while Gounod’s Ave Maria rolls out like syrup and then morphs into “Moon River,” the six performers gradually get bored and tired waiting (for what?), check their watches, wonder if it’s raining, and begin to topple into a morass of bodies. But their drive is to survive in the life they’ve chosen, which Petry does in a splendid solo, set in part to the almost too tragic recording-studio out-takes of a weeping Judy Garland trying to sing “Over the Rainbow.” Coins are scattered. Heads or tails? Go on with the show? Pack it in? In the end, stepping on the money as they go, the troupe hits the floor with rhythms.