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Parsons Dance

'Swing Shift,' 'Hand Dance,' 'Kind of Blue,' 'Ebben,' 'Caught' and 'In the End'

by Carmel Morgan

February 28, 2009 -- George Mason University, Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia

David Parsons, a former leading dancer with The Paul Taylor Dance Company, founded and serves as Artistic Director of Parsons Dance.  The company exhibited exuberant freshness and ingenuity in its performance on February 28, 2009, at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts.  The spirited choreography by Parsons, however, sometimes sank into sameness.  “Kind of Blue” and “In the End,” in particular, seemed repetitive.

Both “Kind of Blue” and “In the End” used music as a focal point.  In “Kind of Blue,” dancers grooved to “So What” from Miles Davis’s best-selling jazz album.  They bopped to the pop music of the Dave Matthews Band in “In the End.”  In neither case did the dancers truly let loose and enjoy the distinctive music.  Instead, they seemed captive to the constraints of the choreography, which had all of Parson’s energetic style and none of the soul of the music. The costumes in both works were also nearly identical – the dancers wore denim and t-shirts in each, as if they were on their way to a 4th of July picnic.   

Although costumed differently, the movement in “Swing Shift,” performed to the original music of Kenji Bunch, also seemed similar to that of “Kind of Blue” and “In the End” –  lots of arms extended into the air, swinging up in signs of surrender, plus numerous rhythmic hops and jumps that turned into quick spins and lifts.  The lighting design for “Swing Shift” and “In the End,” by Tony Award-winning lighting designer and co-founder of Parsons Dance Howell Binkley, also seemed exasperatingly similar.  The vivid colors on the cyc, which kept changing in each piece – blue to purple to orange – distracted from the dancing.  In all of the aforementioned works, the women wore their hair down, but despite the relaxed hairstyles, the dancing felt studied and serious.    

There were plenty of bright moments scattered throughout the program, however, even among the more similar pieces.  For example, in “Swing Shift,” the dancing of couples seized one’s attention.  Men slung women around their waists and folded them upside-down so that they hung like pendulums.  Most mesmerizing were the assisted leaps in which the women, light and sharp, bounded up from the balls of their springy feet, their legs slicing the air like scissors as the men steadied their ascents.  In addition, Abby Silva’s solo work was interesting to watch.  In abrupt, mechanical movements, Silva’s isolation delivered an emotional impact.   

The most enjoyable works on the program were the signature pieces “Hand Dance” and “Caught.”  These innovative works thrilled the audience.  In “Hand Dance,” only the hands of the dancers could be seen.  Their bodies were enveloped in pitch black.  The dancers’ hands walked like feet.  The hands became swimming fish, or waves, or the wheels of a train.  The unison of the dancers dazzled, resulting in tremendous visual fun. 

“Caught,” choreographed by Parsons in 1982 and performed by Miguel Quinones, is one of modern dance’s masterpieces.  It would have been terribly disappointing if “Caught” weren’t on the program.  Yes, the work, danced between flashes of strobe lights, is somewhat gimmicky, but there’s no denying the skill and athleticism it takes to execute it and the genius of Parsons in creating it.  Quinones performed “Caught” with flair.  He traveled from pool of light to pool of light without touching the ground, or so it appeared.  The way he flew in circles, covering the entire stage while remaining airborne, was lovely and dizzily disturbing, as was his balancing in the air, his toes frozen far above the stage’s surface.  “How did he do that?” people whispered with glee.           

The newest work, “Ebben,” a duet choreographed by Parsons in 2009 and performed to music arranged by the East Village Opera Company, failed to engage.  Kevin Ferguson was shirtless, and Abby Silva wore a very short shirt/dress.  The duet generated heat, but it was sexy in the way a television soap opera is – overly dramatic.  In this case, Silva writhed on the floor, longing for Ferguson’s physical attention. 

Throughout the performance, folks craned their necks to get a good look at Billy Smith, a Fredericksburg, Virginia native and recent George Mason University dance graduate who made it to the big time.  The audience cheered more loudly for Smith than for anyone else when company members took their final bows.  Smith grinned broadly.  It was definitely a triumphant homecoming for the handsome former academic and talent scholarship recipient.

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