“Like where you feel your body doing something, and you feel feelings when you feel your body doing things,” she continues, with the lightest whiff of sarcasm. You’ll never see a move like that in one of her works. Parson focuses on form, rather than emotion. Motifs dovetail and recur, gaining force not through the performer being carried away by her own experience but through tight, polished craftsmanship. Parson is more of a Vermont woodworker than an expressionistic paint-flinger.
This is what distinguishes the experimental dance-theater company she runs with her husband, actor-director Paul Lazar. It’s called, simply enough, Big Dance Theater. Like the name, Big Dance Theater productions can be bold and forthright, but they are typically also nuanced in surprising ways and finely made. The Brooklyn-based troupe, founded in 1991, is gaining an international presence. There may be many experimental theater troupes around, but there aren’t many that handle movement as well as this one. That is Parson’s department.
Washington audiences can see Big Dance Theater in December, in “Man in a Case,” an adaptation of two stories by Anton Chekov. It stars Mikhail Baryshnikov.
But if a famous Russian in the work of a turn-of-the-century Russian master calls to mind frock coats and crinolines, Parson makes her feelings about that kind of romanticism quite clear.
“My greatest allergy in theater is Chekov done in 19th-century costumes with 19th-century sets,” she says. “I literally can’t watch it.”
So, are we clear? No exaggerated emoting, no period reconstructions. The understated, brutally honest aesthetic that Parson’s pronouncements imply is carried out in her appearance. A slender woman with curly black hair touched with silver and round dark eyes, Parson is wearing a snug gray hoodie zipped up to her neck and not a jot of makeup. Why should she? Her skin glows in a way no 54-year-old has any business glowing. The longer you speak with her, the more its unblemished surface seems proof of an inner purity of purpose.
“A lot of people are allergic to the word ‘craft,’ but I am not,” she says.
Imelda Marcos’s dancing shoes
Parson’s work is also behind the jangling, jumping pop party that is the off-Broadway hit “Here Lies Love.” Conceived by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who wrote the lyrics and teamed up on the music with British big-beat hitmaker Fatboy Slim, it’s a view of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines seen through the starstruck eyes of its first lady, Imelda. Among her many indulgences was a love of disco. A mirrorball hung in the palace in Manila, and under it she gyrated with the likes of Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger. At least, she does in the show’s view, which Parson’s choreography underscores with an insistent visceral punch.
The mostly Filipino cast dances on platforms that can be separated, moved around and repositioned by ushers during the show. In keeping with the music’s bounciness and the techno feel of the whole design — with video screens showing historical footage ringing the space, and a DJ in the balcony mixing the music — the choreography can be jagged, hard-hitting, unabashedly seductive and edged with steel. Sometimes it’s all these at once. It draws a physical response from the audience too, which watches the show standing up, moving with the changing platform configurations and the driving beat of the music. (“Here Lies Love” is at the Public Theater through July 28.)
Byrne has worked with Parson before; she choreographed his current tour. Asked in an e-mail what drew him to her work, Byrne notes Parson’s mix of pedestrian movement — “stuff anyone can do” — with moves that only trained dancers can pull off.
“I love this combination,” Byrne continues. Parson’s work “is nothing like what you usually see in a musical.”
With the use of gestures that aren’t quite natural but are never awkward, and with gradually building themes and rhythms, Parson’s choreography is also not what you usually see in straight theater. A warning to balletomanes: Though “Man in a Case,” at the Lansburgh Dec. 5-22, is by all accounts tightly choreographed, Baryshnikov dances very little. (“There’s a little tension with the audience around that,” Parson acknowledges.) He’s an actor, foremost.
It was the adventurous Baryshnikov, a longtime advocate of experimental performance, who approached Parson and Lazar with his idea of adapting Chekov short stories for the stage, rather than producing one of the writer’s well-known plays.
Parson and Lazar have “a kind of fresh approach, looking for a new language, and I’m interested in new theater,” he says. The two short stories, the title work and one other, “open the possibility of interpretation in movement.”
The stories “were something we could manipulate,” Parson says. “We could be a bit more disrespectful with the stories.”
On the subject of working with Baryshnikov, first she makes clear that “Man in a Case” is a Big Dance Theater work, using their designers and performers. It’s a company piece with the ballet star “in the middle of it.”
“And it’s nice to have new blood,” she says with a smile, as if she were praising a promising young intern.
‘The orchid in the garden’
Parson has no use for embellishments or decorative fluff. Nor is she interested in received wisdom, or in tiptoeing around any sensitivities, political, cultural, esthetic or otherwise.
Except for one.
“Dance is always the sacred object,” she says. “It’s the thing we start with. It’s the most important thing in the room, the most valued. Whether it’s 90 percent of the piece or, like in ‘Man in a Case,’ it’s 15 percent of the piece, it’s on the throne. You know what I mean?”
Perhaps her cool appraisal of dance as an art object, along with her heated devotion to it, stem from the fact that she discovered it relatively late, when she could analyze it as well as fall in love with it. She got herself to ballet lessons as soon as she had a driver’s license, at 16, studying at Gus Giordano Dance School in Evanston, Ill. She towered above the little children in her beginner’s class, but she stuck with ballet until she gave birth to her son at 35.
“I was never a great ballet dancer,” Parson says. “I just liked the training.”
She talks about herself with a striking lack of drama. “Like everybody else, I was a dance major,” she says. “Nothing interesting.” Until you press further, and she divulges that after college she performed for a decade with Korean butoh choreographer Sin Cha Hong — far from the usual American postgrad dance route — and toured throughout Asia.
“It was really extraordinary,” Parson says about butoh, the minimalist and quietly theatrical dance form that arose in postwar Japan. “It was incredibly slow, and took an enormous amount of strength.”
The slow part lives on her work, and the unexpected detour. Big Dance Theater routinely crashes odd elements against one another. Washington dancegoers may remember this from Big Dance’s 2006 appearance at the Clarice Smith Center, in a witty and deeply moving meditation on beauty, passion and risk called “The Other Here.” Two stories by the Japanese writer Masuji Ibuse were interspersed with transcripts from an insurance-selling seminar, along with traditional Okinawan dance, which Parson gleefully acknowledges that she “totally bastardized.”
But let’s take up her question: What exactly does she mean — why does she put dance on the throne? She pauses for the first time since we’ve been talking, chewing over her response.
“Dance is just ineffable, because it’s deeply layered by nature,” she says at last. “We make things look prosaic, but dance by its nature is poetic. So it’s the deepest, it’s the most resonant.” She turns to her husband, a soft-voiced man with kind eyes and the pleased, expectant look of someone who senses a joke coming. He has been silent for a while. “How would you answer that?” she asks him.
Well, he’s the theater guy. “Uh,” he begins.
“It’s also the most demanding,” Parson continues. “It demands a huge amount of time and care and effort. It’s the orchid in the garden. It doesn’t just grow like weeds. Every movement takes a huge amount of care.”
‘To me, it’s all one piece’
Parson’s bias for the formal qualities of dance, rather than overtly expressive, emotional qualities, is what gives her work its unique look, and its freshness. Her dances can feel at once familiar and new.
This is the effect in “Here Lies Love.” The director, Alex Timbers, wasn’t interested in using traditional Filipino movement, she says. “So everything I did, I made up,” Parson says. The title song is Imelda’s self-congratulatory anthem about how far she’s come from her country-girl days. Parson matches this with a chorus of full-skirted dancers carrying parasols, swinging them with the innocent charm of toothpaste-ad sweethearts. But while they’re swaying, they also etch a few inscrutable gestures in the air that hint at a secret language. A disco move — John Travolta-style hand-rolling — appears and disappears with ghostly evanescence, indicating the dancing queen to come.
Other dances display a similar mix of guileless bounce and mystery, or even darkness. Byrne points to a tango that Imelda (played by Ruthie Ann Miles) dances with her generals during the song “Solano Avenue,” a bitter indictment that one of Imelda’s childhood pals launches at the high-living first lady.
“It’s ominous,” Byrne writes in his e-mail, “and psychologically shows her putting her allegiance with the military and security guys over her old friend.”
Parson says she created all those dances as a tribute to Byrne. The man behind the open confusion, unease and irony in “Psycho Killer,” “Girlfriend Is Better” and “Burning Down the House” is an artist with whom she feels a special kinship.
“David’s sensibility is so rare,” Parson says. “He introduced the idea of alienation to my generation. Detachment and estrangement from the self, and seeing the world as something unfamiliar. He brought me up as an artist. I was there, I went to his concerts, I sang those songs, I felt that way. It changed the way I made dances.”
She and Byrne share a distanced, wondering view of the body, an ability to see its parts moving separately from its environment, and they both play with that disconnection. “There’s a certain paradox with David in his lyrics and the way he moves onstage when he performs,” says Lazar, “like he’s a spectator inside his own body. It’s a dual effect.” Dispassion and heat, expressed together.
Byrne is also a riveting dancer (remember, baby boomers, his jiggly moves in that half-empty Big Suit?), and that’s another source of inspiration for Parson. “Jesus Christ, give me a break. Has there ever been a performer like that?” she gushes.
She muses on the fleshly chain that links her major work over the past few years, most of which she’s been developing simultaneously. It stretches from Byrne’s body — from moves she created for his Love This Giant tour — to “Here Lies Love” and then to Baryshnikov. And it circles back; some moves she created for Baryshnikov found their way into “Here Lies Love.”
“To me, it’s all one piece, basically,” she says.
The chain continues in Big Dance Theater’s current project, called “Alan Smithee Directed This Play.” Parson and Lazar are deconstructing the text and movement of several iconic films; the result will premiere in March in Lyon, France. During a recent rehearsal, two dancers repeated a simple, boxy sequence of steps, as if they were tracing fragments of a foxtrot side by side. Two others stood in front of them, staring past each other in an attitude of airy indifference, reciting lines they were hearing through earbuds.
It’s the typical Big Dance Theater process. True to Parson’s belief, dance (and even body position) is the most important thing in the room.
“We don’t sit and read through scripts,” she says afterward. “Never. It’s not how we treat text. We work on movement, and then we bring the text in.” The performers “are never sitting there with scripts, because the posture of that is horrible.”
“A dance company wouldn’t think of us as a dance company,” she continues. “But to us, we’re a dance company. Or a dance-theater company. We just take from everything. We’re omniverous. Philandering. Greedy.” She laughs.
“Let’s just say, may the best genre win.”