Annie-B Parson co-founded Big Dance Theater in 1991. She has choreographed and co-created over 20 works for the company, ranging from pure dance pieces, to adaptations of found text, plays, and literature, to original works combining wildly disparate materials. Her work with Big Dance has been commissioned by Les Subsistances in Lyon, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The National Theater of Paris/Chaillot, The Japan Society, The Walker Art Center, and many others.
Outside of Big Dance, Ms. Parson has created choreography for operas, pop stars, television, movies, theater, ballet and symphonies. Most recently, Parson choreographed one thousand singers for a work by David Lang at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, and will conduct a choreographic workshop with Ballet Rambert in London later this fall. Other work includes David Byrne’s musical Here Lies Love at both the Public Theater and The National Theater in London; David Byrne’s 2012 world tour with St. Vincent and a marching band; and for Byrne’s 2008 Brian Eno world tour.
Her awards include the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award (2014), an Olivier Award nomination in choreography (2015), Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award (2014), USA Artists Grant in theater (2012), Guggenheim Fellowship in Choreography (2007), two BESSIE awards (2010, 2002), and three NYFA Choreography Fellowships (2013, 2006 and 2000).
Big Dance Theater’s most recent piece, “This Page Left Intentionally Blank,” is a performance-based docent/audio tour; it had its premiere in April at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. The piece deconstructs the role of the docent and museum audio tour via an encounter with theater and dance, subverting and reconsidering how the docent typically leads viewers to observe art in the museum context.
Annie-B generously answered some questions from OE by email.
Why do you think so much theater eschews dance? Is it related to the idea of what words are and do? The understanding of what an actor is vs. what a dancer is? Something else?
The separation of dance and theater- this is a life long irritant for me! In my personal and very subjective time line, the distrust in Western theater of dance all began post-18th c. Since then, we audience(s) have been increasingly subjected to mind-numbing, un-ironic, unambiguous “reality” on stage. The Ancients, 2000 years ago, those plays were all danced and sung; in Shakespeare’s day- the actors danced; in classical Japanese theater the acting students begin with years of dance training. Our contemporary body-less, dance-less theater– it feels fear based, (but I tend to think everything is fear based so don’t trust me on that!) But is it related to our Victorian fear of the body, fear of corporeality, of sex? Does the divorce stem from our bias of mind over body, rather than mind/body? But yes, the separation must have also to do with the modernists’ hierarchical crowning of the primacy of “the word”; the modernists held the word as honorable, while poor dance was considered tawdry, the work of whores and … women! The things that dance owns: ambiguity, layer, mystery, abstraction, the non-narrative— these are the work of the devil! They hide, they suggest, they imply, they don’t have a morality or any answers. So, in my tiny corner, I have tried to resurrect dance in theater. Dance is the sacred object for me; it is to be held close and protected from harm, and restored to its rightful place in the pantheon of materiality.
I am interested in your characterization of our current body-less, dance-less theater as fear-based. Can you elaborate on that, and on the ways in which dance, in your view, is positioned in regard to this?
Dance is corporeal and occurs in space, addressing matters of space from the perspective of the body. When we move our body it is immediately warm, sweaty, personal—even the cool, detached Merce Cunningham’s dance is personal. Or as Cunningham said: “We give ourselves away at every moment.” Who are we? Look at how we move in space: what body parts we chose to isolate, combine and engage, and with what temporal and muscular quality do we engage them. No acting necessary! We give ourselves away at every moment when we dance. In dance there is no pretend—unless we choose to layer pretend on top of the truth of the body. Perhaps this fecundity of exposure is alarming. And, Dance is sympathetic, meaning the audience’s body experiences a leap when they watch one, experiences a jump when they watch one, experiences a hip thrust when they watch one. Do we want this? No cover! No protection from the rain! And the abstraction—ambiguity is scary as well because it knocks on the door to the dark box that we try to shut inside of us. And, our response to abstraction is complicated and audiences typically like their theater served up with a moral ending like Arthur Miller or a flashy leap like Alvin Ailey – this is the American aversion to complicated thinking. We consumers like when politicians tell it like it is—starting with the love of the 42nd Bush and continuing with Trump, this same mind set exists in dance audiences.
In seeing “Short Form” at The Kitchen last year, I was struck at how the works–I am thinking of “Goats” in particular– did not offer humor in a way that ever called attention to itself. Can you comment on your approach to humor in your work? What if anything do you look for in a text, regarding humor?
There’s only a thin line between the horrible and the comic: that’s Ionesco talking. I am drawn to characters without self-awareness, or who have been sweetened by history’s love of nostalgia when revising reality. What’s underneath? What’s inside? Much of my young work was grounded in a kitsch aesthetic. Kundera: as we gaze at the romanticized lie the world has offered us, we are moved to tears by our own reflection. The lie, drawn from 19th c. romanticism, is inscribed in our world as well: The peace of driving a luxury sedan on an empty road, the curves of our body being moisturized by our own hand, the image of us sitting on a beach gazing at the ocean on vacation, the image of our own courage, of our own uniqueness, falsely played out again and again in the folk songs of our time: ads/TV/mainstream movies. This stuff is hilarious! And, sound scores have always been a large part of how I get funny in my work. In my early 20s I used to go to the performing arts library and sit and listen to the records of people from other countries covering American songs; such music at that time was quite strange –it wasn’t ubiquitous then. And, layering dance structures like repetition and retrograde onto the music, I made work with the musical landscape of this lie, and the music I used and continue to use lives on that border between false and true. I love to use music that we are at once moved by and distrustful of its manipulative power.
The text must have space, detachment and irony. I like to consider how hilarious human behavior is— how awkward, how tragic and strange we are.
One time I studied poetic structures and rewrote the film script of Terms of Endearment using them assiduously. Structure is funny. Like I took a reiterative form and re-wrote a speech from the film:
Husband (named Flap): Great good news. I know what my topic and subject is. I have it all worked and figured out.
Emma: Where have you been?
Flap: I fell asleep at the book lending library on that big sofa couch again. I don’t know what’s errant and wrong with me. Me. Flap.
Emma: I’m on to you.
Flap: I’m not doing or being or physicalizing anything.
Emma: Yes you are.
Flap: I hate it when you Emma get and feel sad and unhappy. We go through this stage and phase every time you are pregnant and carrying a child in your uterus.
Emma: No, don’t change the subject.
Flap: What’s the subject and topic? You are going to have to take and accept my word and perspective. You have no other option or choice. You always get a little paranoid and untrusting early in your first trimester and pregnancy. Okay. Just.
Tell me about the genesis of your most recent piece, “This Page Left Intentionally Blank.” Were there any particular texts (wall texts?) you used in creating it?
TPLIB started years ago in my mind – I began college as a visual art major and so spent my free time in museums. And my preferred method of viewing work was one piece per visit; I always felt overloaded by the way museums displayed work. In addition I had come to be allergic to the way that museums reductively spoon-fed information to their audience about what the work means. So I had a notion that through dance and theater one could visit a museum in a more imaginative, heightened, physically engaged state.
In This Page, we used mis-direction, dance and the pleasures of theater to induce this state. Below is some text I lifted from stage directions to an old play. The docent (who has always been the solo performer in the museum) speaks this text as she guides her tour group into the galleries:
At rear are two large glass double doorways. The one at right leads into a front parlor with a dark green velvet sofa, a generous hearth, and several ladder back chairs strewn about as if a social gathering just ended. The other doorway opens on a dark windowless back parlor, never used.
Such dissembling, along with a general sense of side-swiping, manifest in a variety of ways, continue through our tour until the group arrives at one piece of art to experience/view/meditate/dance with. As they have been denied direct access to all the work they pass by, our group becomes quite thirsty when they finally are guided through a series of “meditations,” including a real meditation, in front of a major work. The tropes of the museum are inverted and re-invented throughout the tour from a theatrical perspective. Theater is a no-no in visual art, and I’ve come to believe its because visual artists are afraid of disingenuous pretending. And so am I! I was happy working in that context.
My bible in preparing my mind for making the work was Studio and Cube by Brian O’Doherty. Some of the texts sourced within the work are by: Martin Creed (power/fear of mark-making), Chekhov (last lines from plays), Eugene O’Neil (stage directions), Wallace Stevens/Jerry Saltz (each of us crosses a bridge in perfect singularity), Ekhart Tolle (complete awareness and concentration). Plus brilliant sound design, serving as another performer, by Tei Blow.
I would love to hear more on dance as “the sacred object,” and any thoughts you may have on how or why dance is not often regarded that way in mainstream culture.
Dance is the most primal, fundamental, un-mediated of all the arts. And debatedly, the oldest. We all mourn the loss of folk dance material because it tells us the most about who we are—how we move. Dance is so interesting! When we get off the drum-machine induced trance-dance, strange, important and unconscious things happen on the dance floor.
Is there any work you are really enjoying, in any medium, right now?
So much—to name a few: I am a fan of the work of Nature Theater of Oklahoma, of Roseanne Spradlin, Tere OConnor, Lucas Hnath, Johanna Meyer, Keith Hennessey, Gob Squad, Forced Entertainment, Radio Hole, Jeanine Durning, Mike Kelley – and let us never forget the mother of us all: Gertrude Stein!
And what are the next immediate plans for BDT?
So many—I am making a new work for the Martha Graham Dance Co. with the playwright Will Eno that will be in conversation with a 1941 film of a never before resurrected work of Martha’s. And, for Big Dance Theater—we are at work on a large-scale piece for 2017 sourced from the writing of two 17th c writers: the emperor of dailyness Samuel Pepys, and the radical feminist playwright Margaret Cavendish aka Mad Madge. Later in the year Big Dance also plans to make a short film of Anne Carson’s radical feminist/philosophical re-make of Antigone with Yvonne Rainer as Creon.
– Interview by Amy Fusselman