“I loved that!” says one spectator to his date as they exit the Joyce. The lobby buzzes with happy little exclamations: “Wasn’t it wonderful?!” and “They are so fantastic!” David Parsons’s choreography and dancers make people feel good; no wonder the company averages 32 weeks a year on the domestic and international touring circuit.
What makes a group popular and successful? A two-week spread of 11 works that Parsons has choreographed over the last 20-plus years offers some clues. His dances are entertaining, good-humored, handsome. He uses music effectively and hires first-rate costume designers like Santo Loquasto and William Ivey Long. Although he rarely incorporates décor, his resident lighting designer, Howell Binkley, creates stunning transformations of the cyclorama and stage with an array of saturated colors. The odd quirks, enigmas, and dark thoughts that mark the choreography of Paul Taylor (with whose company Parsons danced for a number of years) rarely sneak in. Parsons, unlike the greatest choreographers, doesn’t shake us up or invade our souls or make us ask questions of ourselves; his mission, as articulated in print, is “to deliver positive, affirming, and life-enriching experiences. . . .”
One way he accomplishes this is to make the unifying design of each piece very clear to both the eyes and mind. Watching Program A, you might briefly ponder the ambiguous title of his 1997 Closure, but what you get is a skillfully managed array of vigorous drills arranged in a variety of spatial patterns—chains, circles, horizontal lines, diagonals—with Tony Powell’s strong, propulsive score and Binkley’s fiery lighting spurring on the eight black-clad dancers (costumes by Ivey Long). The piece was choreographed for Utah’s Repertory Dance Theater in honor of the state’s centennial, and its simple, optimistic drive fits the occasion. Repetition burns the movements into our memories—the swing of clasped hands and crooked elbows, say, or the turns with one arm high and the other behind the dancer’s back.
Sleep Study (1987) features ultra-drowsy folks in pajamas stumbling on and collapsing in various ways—comical in their unison thrashing, as if they were one sleeper multiplied through a series of mirrors. The 1982 Caught, Parsons’s signature solo (now performed by various company members), derives its crowd-pleasing power by the simple device of a strobe light, timed always to catch the performer aloft (I saw the excellent Miguel Quinones), his landings between leaps swallowed by blackness. When he jumps repeatedly straight up with flexed feet, he seems to be standing on air and floating toward us.
Many of the steps in Closure, Nascimento (2004), and In the End (2007) are bouncy, and I wonder if that aspect of Parsons’s style could be reinforcing the impression of positive energy. I’m not only speaking of big leaps: The performers do a lot of low skipping and springing from one foot to two or two to one. When they spiral and slam down to the floor in a Tayloresque manner, it’s only to rebound. Moments like one in Nascimento when they form a quiet, almost devotional cluster (think of the opening of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations) are rare.
I found myself most drawn to Kind of Blue (2001)—not just for the great Miles Davis music and the smoky atmosphere, but because the choreography for this coolly flirtatious quartet is a little less tightly composed. Abby Silva, Malvina Sardou, Tommy Scrivens, and Quinones do a lot of strolling and sauntering, and the dancing sits more loosely on their bodies. Silva and Scrivens have a brief, engaging movement dialogue (Scrivens is especially fluent in this, as in everything).
Parsons’s 10 dancers are all wonderful: They cloak their super-fine techniques in a kind of charming ease, their athleticism in an offhand sensuality. They look—and this is key to their success—as if they’re having a fine time together doing these steps in this place right now, and for us.