Renowned dancer/choreographer David Parsons would just as soon delight a child as impress a seasoned dance enthusiast.
Truth be told, he regularly (and spectacularly) accomplishes both missions in a single show — a coup made possible by Parsons’ unerring aptitude as a people-pleaser and by the roster of fine dancers employed by the Parsons Dance Company.
One of only six choreographers chosen to work on the American Dance Festival’s’ massive Millennium Project, Parsons admits that accessible work is frowned upon within the testy confines of some artistic circles. He, however, claims to be impervious to that kind of snobbery.
“People have different views of what art should be,” he states diplomatically, adding, “I’m one artist [who] happens to think it should be about the audience.”
The Parsons Dance Company maintains a repertory of 50 of the choreographer’s original works. Multigenerational favorites include “Envelope,” a gentle spoof on classical ballet, and “Sleep Study,” a whimsical piece — featuring pajama-clad dancers — that pays homage to the spontaneous and silly body motions that can occur during deep sleep.
Humor has been a Parsons calling card since the company’s inception. Asked whether he finds this quality lacking in other modern-dance troupes, the choreographer, again, remains tactfully neutral.
“Everyone has their own way,” he sidesteps expertly. “I say, live and let live. But humor is part of my theme … because I love to make people laugh. I like to pull out every emotion I can in a night of dance.”
In a dozen years, Parsons has created and nourished a modern-dance company applauded on five continents. Recent international excursions have included a seven-week engagement at the Sydney Opera House in Australia and an extensive tour of Italy; back home, Parsons’ innovative, 10-member troupe has shaken up such lofty venues as New York’s Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By the late ’70s, Parsons had transcended his childhood affection for trampoline to become a member of the esteemed, Brooklyn-based Paul Taylor Dance Company. He received his first rave notices while filling in for an injured principal dancer during a tour of Russia. Parsons began using his elevated status to feed his vision of making modern dance speak to every demographic, in every pocket of the world.
The brave timing of Parsons’ split with the Paul Taylor Dance Company — during the culturally arid Reagan years — to create his own company is sometimes held up as proof of his unstoppable determination. His success in assembling a wildly popular new dance troupe at a time when arts-funding cuts were particularly common and severe is still considered a remarkable feat.
But Parsons says he never had enough free time to even recognize these dream deterrents.
“If I would have stopped and really looked at the realities of it, I wouldn’t have ever gotten started,” he observes. “We grew so quickly that I didn’t have time to worry about what other people were doing.”
Modern dance, he posits, is a communal obsession, an art that must be considered by spotlight, rather than candlelight.
“A painter,” he elaborates, “can work by himself all night long. But with dance, it’s different: There are different types of pressures. … You have to have time in the studio; there’s a lot of development that has to be done with [the choreography] and with the costumes. You’re consumed with getting everything done.”
“Getting everything done” includes yet another concern, which has become a Parsons trademark: the creative use of lighting to achieve startling, dramatic effects. His signature solo work, “Caught,” (Parsons and fellow company member Jaime Martinez now take turns performing this demanding piece), is a five-minute, jump-intensive work that uses strobe lights to produce the illusion that the dancer is endlessly suspended in mid-air.
Parsons insists, however, that his fondness for such props never drips toward the gimmicky. “We use lights [and other props] that are already in the theaters,” he explains, adding, “We use [them] in a positive way.”
A newer dance, “Fill the Woods with Light,” also employs light to alter the mood. In this work, dancers use small, individual lights to spotlight themselves and each other, creating a web of shifting illumination.
“The name makes you relax right away,” he says of “Fill the Woods With Light,” adding, “It’s a beautiful piece.”
As much as he has concentrated his efforts toward creating a globally appealing troupe, Parsons’ heart is still rooted in his own New York City community. Involved with inner-city arts education for more than a decade, Parsons recently launched a new scholastic dance program that’s expected to reach thousands of kids.
And though arts programs continue to play second-fiddle to technical curriculums, Parsons — true to his legacy — continues to leap over naysayers without a second glance.
“Artists don’t have the best name right now, [so] it’s important to the development of children to … keep pushing the arts,” he maintains.
The choreographer, who has personally nurtured young dancers — helping some achieve stardom — knows firsthand the benefits of early encouragement. “It takes discipline to find the freedom to practice art,” he offers knowingly. “[That discipline] breeds self-confidence, and it feeds the soul.”
The UNCA Cultural and Special Events Committee presents the Parsons Dance Company at the Diana Wortham Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 9 and Wednesday, February 10. Performances start at 8 p.m., and tickets (ranging from $14 to $18.50) are available at the theater box office, or by calling 257-4530. Discount tickets for UNCA students, faculty and staff are available at UNCA’s Highsmith Center, or by calling 251-6584.
The Parsons Dance Company performance is the first of three events scheduled during the next six weeks, as part of Diana Wortham’s Mainstage Dance Series: The Garth Fagan Dance Company, led by Tony Award-winning choreographer Garth Fagan (of Lion King fame), comes to town on March 6 and 7; and New York City’s Second Hand Dance will close the series with an all-ages, acrobatic dance show on March 25 and 26. Watch Xpress for more info on these upcoming shows.