One man stands on the stage, in the spotlight, alone and perhaps a little on edge. His dance begins slowly, with single bold movements and a few quirky gestures.
Suddenly, he takes flight. The audience, thrilled, alternately gasps and cheers as he walks, floats and dances on air. He doesn’t land until the dance ends. Choreographed by David Parsons in 1982, “Caught” was a modern dance sensation so buoyantly accessible that men who don’t like dance much recommended the piece to other men who like dance even less.
From 1978 to 1987, David Parsons was a lead dancer with the legendary Paul Taylor Dance Company. Taylor, an 83-year-old dance icon, celebrates masculinity and athleticism while telling stories about love and sex, violence and war. Parsons said he learned from Taylor that hugely physical dance “can also be profound.”
On his 54th birthday last week, Parsons reminisced on the phone about the early years of his own dance company and the making of “Caught,” which will be performed Saturday at George Mason University along with the social commentary “Envelope;” a taut, sexy quartet danced to Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue;” and “Nascimento Novo,” a tribute to Brazilian composer Milton Nascimento.
“ ‘Caught’ was made because I was a photographer and stunt model,” Parsons said, recalling his life and work in 1980s New York. In his stunt model work, a photographer would capture Parsons leaping in midair. The choreographer was intrigued and set about discovering how he could create the same illusion of being up in the air and sustain it through an entire piece.
Parsons, an erstwhile trampolinist and gymnast, conceived of using strobe lights to keep himself aloft. He collaborated with Howell Binkley, who is best known for his Tony-award-winning lighting design in “Jersey Boys,” to create “Caught.” Binkley is a co-founder of the New York-based Parsons Dance and has created lighting designs for 60 of the company’s works.
Parsons without “Caught” is like Sinatra without “New York, New York.” The dance piece was filmed 25 years ago and can be found on You Tube, but the digital camera does not create the feeling of flight as strongly as the naked eye. “I am proud to say that ‘Caught’ is a piece you must see live,” Parsons said. “I’m very proud of the piece and people get upset if we don’t do it.”
The now middle-aged Parsons, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., looked like a young Patrick Swayze when he danced “Caught,” which includes 100 jumps, or nearly one jump every three seconds in the five-minute, 14-second piece. These days a younger dancer, sometimes a woman, dances the work. (Parsons did not know at press time which company member would dance in Virginia.)
Modern dance and crowd-pleasing do not often go hand in hand. Parsons, who just came back from a tour of Italy and China, is one of the most beautiful dancers of the late 20th century and one of the most universally accessible choreographers.
Parsons has had his share of critics throughout his career, and they use words like “standard” and “simple” to describe some of his repertory. As Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman wrote in 1997, “His is not a subtle art.”
Yet Parsons’s mission is to entertain and for three decades he has, at times magically. “I love it when I get a crowd to gasp,” he said. “That’s who I am.”
CORRECTION: The photo of Parsons Dance’s 2006 production was incorrectly credited to Wei Liao. The correct photographer is Bill Hebert.
FitzGerald is a freelance writer.
8 p.m. Saturday at George Mason University Concert Hall in Fairfax. Tickets $23 to $46. Call 888-945-2468 or go to cfa.gmu.edu . Parsons also performs Nov. 12 and 13 at the American Theatre in Hampton, Va. Tickets $27 to $31.50. Call 757-722-2787 or go to hamptonarts.net/american-theatre