“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” said the American journalist H.L. Mencken. But for the fact that he died some sixty years ago, Mencken might have been thinking of David Parsons, director and choreographer of Parsons Dance, whose 23rd annual Joyce season opened last Tuesday.
Parsons made his name as a principal dancer with Paul Taylor’s troupe, and then with several other outfits; he choreographed for ballet and opera companies, and founded his own successful ensemble, with lighting designer Howell Binkley, in 1985. This distinguished pedigree would, you’d think, result in dances of substance, but the season’s opening night consisted of a trio of forgettable premieres, Parsons’s 1982 signature work Caught, and Trey McIntyre’s rowdy 2005 piece Ma Maison. In the first group fell Microburst, an odd quartet for dancers wreathed in black fringe. To a compelling original score played live by tabla virtuoso Avirodh Sharma, dancers Geena Pacareu, Eoghan Dillon, Zoey Anderson, and Justus Whitfield unleashed a veritable storm of percussive movement, reminiscent of, but never as sophisticated as, the kathak rhythms that Sharma was reeling out. Fragments of jazz dance, Broadway routines, some dramatic exchanges evoking domestic violence — all rather tacky, considering the long and brilliant tradition of the musical accompaniment.
Next up was Stranger to the Rain, a brief duet to a song by the evening’s guest of honor, composer Stephen Schwartz, who wrote Pippin and Wicked. Schwartz played the piano in the pit while singer Shoshana Bean, onstage, sang the song; Whitfield partnered Anderson in a spiral series of lifts, one of which had him hoisting her with one hand between her legs, as if she were a six-pack of beer. A native of Las Vegas, Whitfield is a somewhat new, strong addition to the ensemble. Then Abby Silva Gavezzoli, a fifteen-year veteran of the troupe and Parsons’s “muse,” performed her farewell solo, made collaboratively with him, to Debussy’s Clair de Lune played by Peter Dugan. In a long, beautiful striped Missoni cardigan, she noodled around and then, turning her back to us, walked off into Binkley’s sunset.
The most substantial work on the program, set to recorded music by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, was the New Orleans–flavored Ma Maison, originally made by McIntyre for his own troupe. The dancers, wearing skull masks, white gloves, white jazz shoes, and Jeanne Button’s riotously colored costumes, brought to mind black minstrels and, of course, the famous funereal “second line” marchers. Whitfield anchored the action here.
To be sure, the opening night Gala Program was truncated; to get Parsons’s funders and supporters off to dinner by dark, the show itself lasted barely an hour, interrupted with speeches and appreciations by Parsons himself, Schwartz, and Robert Battle, a former company member who’s now the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and didn’t bother to identify himself before heaping encomiums on his old boss. These little talks covered the costume changes, allowing the program to proceed without intermissions.
Go to the remaining shows and you’ll also see Parsons’s 2005 Wolfgang, a sextet to Mozart originally made for the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, and his 2014 Whirlaway, commissioned by the New Orleans Ballet Association and danced to four pieces by Allen Toussaint. Taken together, this may result in a more substantial experience than the one we had on Tuesday. Last Monday, Parsons received a Capezio Dance Award (presented this year for the first time in Las Vegas, with honors going also to Wendy Whelan, Debbie Allen, Michelle Dorrance, and Steve “Mr. Wiggles” Clemente). That event was hosted by Nigel Lythgoe of So You Think You Can Dance. As ever, it’s important to remember where Parsons is coming from: He wants you to have fun.