Annie-B Parson

Annie-B Parson, The Road Awaits Us, 2019. Performance view, NYU Skirball, New York. Big Dance Theater. Photo: Johan Persson.

Choreographer and director Annie-B Parson is a force of nature who’s having quite the season. She created the elegant, joyous numbers that propel the great David Byrne and his vibrant cohort of musicians and singers through his rock-show-cum-Broadway-musical, American Utopia, on at the Hudson Theater through February 16. Her company Big Dance Theater, which she cofounded with actor/director Paul Lazar and performer Molly Hickok almost thirty years ago, will present a trio of recent works under the title The Road Awaits Us at NYU’s Skirball Center on November 8 and 9. And last month, Parson debuted a different kind of production, one that’s very new to her: Drawing The Surface Of Dance: A Biography In Charts (Wesleyan University Press), a book that makes public for the first time her otherwise private visual art practice. In conversation, she gracefully moves between innumerable subjects—collaboration, grammar, belief, empathy, movement—just more proof of her dancing mind.

FAITH IN FORM HAS A SPIRITUAL DIMENSION. And in turn, formal concerns are all over religious texts—seven of this, three of these—everything is numbers. And repetition! Inversion too. For example: In the Bible there are extraordinary literary forms that have been discovered—reversals, retrogrades—that bring deeper meaning to texts that might otherwise seem listless unless you understand the particular form beneath them. And choreography is a formal, aesthetic arrangement of bodies in space, and those arrangements, those forms, themselves have meaning.

I’m always experimenting with ways to generate movement. Sometimes I just dance, just move and coalesce phrases of movement, and then I teach it to the performers. Sometimes. But usually, I work more from form. An example: I once began making a piece with the simplest form I could think of—performers walking from point A to point B. Then I asked them to reverse it, so walk backwards from B to A. And then I asked them to walk from B to C adding a fall, and so on. Once the form has been arranged, I lay an entire play on top of the moving bodies. I notice that I lean toward making work that may at first appear familiar, but the execution has a strangeness underneath it. I guess I want the audience to see more, to perceive more, to look at the world at a tilt, with more dimension. And form is my way in.

Often, I find myself working with nonactors and nondancers—like the musicians in American Utopia, or a string quartet, or actors! Standing on stage with intentionality is as demanding as playing any instrument. Sometimes I will start by teaching movement that everyone can do, almost like a folk dance. I love folk dance because it’s very deep and very old, and it is typically meant for anyone in the “town” to be able to do. I like to make new work from those gestures and forms; I like its patina. Grammar is also an engine of my choreography—using elements like a verb, or a preposition. Because if you enact a verb­­—like lift—and then you use it with a preposition—like with—you’ve got movement. Add the preposition near or beyond—and you have movement in space.

Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts is largely a compendium of charts I drew over many years—both charts of the pieces I have made, and charts of dance scores. The book ends with a compositional card game you can cut out and play in order to make new material. Most of the charts I create after a piece is over, as sort of a final and solitary re-thinking of the work on paper. When dance critic Claudia LaRocco was at the Brooklyn Rail, she invited choreographers to “draw a dance.” So I went in my basement and I drew all my props. I realized I liked drawing, but I needed a form to organize them. So, I started drawing Cladograms. I charted the storage bins of my props: all the furry things, and all the things that lit up, all the things that are miked or make sound, all the things that fold, and unfold. I started to see relationships between the objects.

“The Other Here,” from Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts, by Annie-B Parson.

I made a list recently of everything that I think Euripides feels. When you’re making work from somebody else’s writing, you really get to feel as if you know them, even if they have been dead for 2,500 years! It’s hubris, and I could be wrong of course, but I think Euripides experienced a very tragic loss when he was a young man—maybe a dear friend or a spouse. Because for me, nobody has ever touched his writing on loss; he knew it from the inside. And also, reading him, I feel like I get a sense of his intense perspective on the value of friendship. I think his friends were more important to him than his lovers. This was also on my list.

I’m a terrible and unforgiving magpie. I’m always mashing things together to create a performance. I love putting things side by side and observing resonances. I suppose this habit is stemming from Cunningham’s nonhierarchical aesthetic of dancemaking that’s very much in the drinking water of my generation of dancemakers. However, in retrospect, I seem to have extended this into theater making! Compositionally, there are so many relationships between things to be mined. I guess it’s a kind of belief—that all materials are interrelated, even as they refract or resist or appear polarized—one that’s very real if you can develop a kind of craft around it.

The Skirball show is comprised of three short-form pieces. The first, Cage Shuffle: Redux, is a series of one-minute lectures by John Cage that Paul Lazar delivers and dances to using a chance score. The second, ballet dance, is based on the traditions, the positions and the “stuff,” the materiality of ballet. My favorite is Balanchine’s Agon (1957). I have observed it throughout my adult life, have frequently paid visits to it, like you would a great painting. My dance responds to it, to how I perceive its composition, but also to how I “feel” when I watch it; it also is about what Agon rejects: narrative arc, romanticism, a hierarchy of movement. Balanchine was just as much a part of that period of early post-modernism as Merce Cunningham was. In my piece, ballet becomes data, which is what I believe happens to movement when it’s not performed anymore. Because if you’re not seeing it live—just in films or videos or images—the dance is no longer a physical, kinetic experience. It’s just data, which is what I’m proposing we’re all becoming.

The third is The Road Awaits Us, which was first commissioned by Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London in 2016 for a company of elders. At that time, like a lot of people, I was still reeling from the 2016 election. I kept thinking, “My god, this man is just absurd! ” And so I thought I’d do a work of absurdism, hoping perhaps that nonsense would help the world make a little more sense. I ended up working from a very skeletal version of Eugene Ionesco’s The Birthday Party, but ending it with the last scene in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, because it’s so sublime, so elegiac and funny and sad. It was a choice that made sense to me in 2016, and for this older cast. The truth is, I’m totally narratively challenged! I have no idea what’s going on in any movie. Even a well-constructed plot will confuse me; I think it happens because I get really involved in the language, the imagery and the movement, and then I lose the narrative points entirely. So when I work with a play, I usually let go of the plot and just use the tonality, and the language—the “weather” of it. But pedaling toward Chekov after this absurdist party—it struck me as somehow a darkly beautiful version of hope.