Dance Archives

The Unchallenging Parsons Dance Vs. Michelle Boulé’s Deliberate Difficulty


David Parsons, a modern-dance wunderkind when he joined the Paul Taylor company in 1978, made similar waves when he started showing his own choreography, in 1981. With lighting designer Howell Binkley he formed Parsons Dance in 1982, and that year developed Caught, a brief, startling work in which strobe-light technology teams with a powerful performer to create the illusion of flight. Caught, which is to this troupe what Revelations is to the Ailey company, reliably brings down the house; it was performed by Elena D’Amario on last week’s opening night.

Technology once again topped the menu as the company opened its twenty-third Joyce season, but Parsons’s new Hello World, promising flying drones along with accomplished dancers, was pulled at the last moment when its remote-control discs failed to launch. Hastily substituted was another premiere, Omar Román de Jesús’s Daniel. De Jesús, a Puerto Rican who joined the troupe in 2013, received Parsons’s GenerationNow choreography fellowship to develop this piece. Its collage score starts before the lights come up to reveal a stage awash in manufactured fog; Parsons soloists work in Christopher S. Chambers’s tactical spotlights, entering and exiting subtly, one guy tap-dancing alone at the back. Inspired by the company’s educational initiatives for young dancers on the autism spectrum, Daniel concludes with a couple of men running around the stage in a big oval. Whether the work intends to represent autism or just let those on the spectrum experience live dance without sensory distress is not entirely clear. Possibly it’s both.

The evolutionary timeline of American modern dance, from Martha Graham through Taylor, leads right to Parsons, whose 2003 Swing Shift opened the program. Beautiful men and women in Mia McSwain’s lustrous gold, champagne, and rust-colored costumes pose in pairs and groups, their gestures riding every beat of Kenji Bunch’s music. This long, rhapsodic, well-oiled composition moves its audience, even if it cannot be said to move the medium; there are half a dozen companies where the soothing couplings of Swing Shift (a misleading title, as it doesn’t swing and has nothing to do with factory workers) would look right at home.

Closing the evening — and bringing the enthusiastic crowd, ready to party at a benefit, to its feet — was the new UpEnd, a collaboration between Parsons and B-girl choreographer Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie. Writing in this newspaper in 1981, critic Sally Banes chronicled the changes in street-style breakdancing once it came to the attention of the mainstream media. UpEnd seems like the final stop on that train: Wearing sneakers, and to a loud percussion score by Marty Beller, four women enter doing standard hip-hip moves buoyed by their developed modern technique. Staccato, spherical, quadrupedal, they’re soon joined by the company’s men; the resulting fusion of styles, including a soupçon of contact improvisation, comes to look like Broadway jazz. Gone are the funkiness and the exhilarating gestures that attracted attention forty years ago. Parsons’s dancers, most of them white, take the style further mainstream.

Out in Long Island City, in the whitewashed brick shoebox that is the Chocolate Factory’s main performance space, a small banana sits on a wall, balanced on two nails. The theater, roughly the size of a studio apartment, is currently home to Michelle Boulé’s The Monomyth. Boulé, in what appear to be a casually altered tie-dye T-shirt and raggedy leggings (designed by Naomi Luppescu), enters carrying a small Bose speaker, which she places front and center on the floor. Curtis Tamm’s sound score issues from both the little canister and the room’s sound system. In addition to his original music it enfolds recordings by the Dells, Thelma Houston, Kool and the Gang, Hot Chocolate, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, and GQ. Boulé lip-syncs along with the vocals. Natalie Robin’s lighting tends to call attention to itself, not always a good idea.

Boulé begins running in place, her face wearing an ecstatic expression that, over time, modulates to one of agony. Some of The Monomyth is very funny, as when she attends to the banana, plucked from the wall, as if it were her phone, brandishes it dramatically as she stalks the stage, and finally hangs it up on the opposite wall. Later she reaches under a front-row seat and pulls out a striped jersey and a couple of golden balls. She dons the jersey and stuffs the balls into it like shoulder pads; then, using a small plastic hand pump, she inflates golden balloons and stuffs them, too, under the shirt, summoning images from the work of Rei Kawakubo, whose puffy designs are on display now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. More balloons come at her from accomplices in the house; she pushes these down the back of her pants and attempts a backward roll.

Glistening with sweat, she liberates the balls and balloons into a neat row along the back wall. She swaps her costume for another very similar one and gathers a small rattle and a handful of what look like bedraggled tail-feathers, wielding them like a wand as the voice of Joseph Campbell, whose mythological research informs her piece, plays softly. “The past must be killed,” he observes, “so there can be a future.” She sticks the feathers into her bound hair, forming a sunburst image, then genuflects, her head touching the floor.

Parts of the hour-long piece arrive at the fevered emotional pitch evident in dances by Jeanine Durning, who advised Boulé on The Monomyth. What is promoted as a solo acquires, in its last few moments, first a doppelgänger (Bryn Hlava) in a nearly identical costume and peacock-feather headdress, and then a chorus of spectators led onstage from their seats. Boulé ceremonially nods in all four directions, as if blessing the room. The banana remains, an old-fashioned landline tethered to the wall.

If David Parsons and his ilk make it too easy to figure out what their dancing is about, Boulé and hers, a generation younger, often make it hard. She could be summoning sacred spirits to assist in healing, using feathers and a rattle to cleanse the landscape, or trying to mend a broken heart. Who knows? I found it difficult to look away.

Parsons Dance

Joyce Theater

175 Eighth Avenue


Through May 28

Michelle Boulé

Chocolate Factory

5-49 49th Avenue, Long Island City


Through May 27