It is a clichéd New York art world complaint: no one is doing anything interesting anymore. Everything is insular or redundant. And while such dismissals are unproductive, the tenor of the criticism is sometimes accurate. Annie-B Parson kicks these grumblings forcibly and ingeniously aside. As co-founder of the Obie and Bessie Award-winning Big Dance Theater, Parson has helped create over 20 nationally and internationally touring works drawing from sources as wildly divergent as Watergate tapes and New Wave films, Greek tragedies and instructional videos. Parson is also the choreographic mastermind behind The Public’s repeatedly extended Here Lies Love, and frequently choreographs for David Byrne and St. Vincent, among others. This year, she remounts her work “A Snow Falls in Winter” at the Joyce Theater as a part of Martha Graham Dance Company’s 89th season: Shape&Design. Joining an impressive roster of guest choreographers, Parson offers a refreshingly inventive iteration of an Ionesco play—at once humorous and dark, dynamic and arresting. Annie-B Parson met with the Rail’s dance editor Stephanie Del Rosso to discuss process, emotionality, and that nebulous thing called brilliance.
Stephanie Del Rosso (Rail): How do you go about choosing source material for new works? How do you know what will resonate and what will not?
Annie-B Parson: Americana has always been really interesting to me, and being a tourist in other countries: wearing your American hat in Japan or Russia and saying, what is this stuff? What happens when my group interacts with that material? I like that tension. And I’ve always been interested in inspirational speeches. I find them extremely theatrical. Some of that has to do with their rejection of acting itself. I’ve been sitting in the theater for so many years that I think I’m allergic to a particular kind of acting. To me, something like insurance salesmen doing inspirational speeches is so much more alive than the kind of acting that I see in straight, typical theater—when the actor tells you to feel things.
There is always a pile of things in my mind. We sometimes do simulacrums. Rather than acting, we’re doing a lot of copying—which is this sense of rejecting originality on some level. A rejection of the Stanislavski idea of asking: how do I, personally, relate to the material? I have a deeply personal relationship to my material, but it’s not that relationship. That being: I was sad too, how can I bring my sadness to this work? For some reason I just don’t find that interesting. There are a few actors who do that straight, emotional acting brilliantly. And one of the performances that I always thought was ridiculously brilliant was Debra Winger in “Terms of Endearment” (1983). So I thought, can any of my performers do what Debra Winger was doing? What if we try? So we did. A straight actor would be cringing at our process, which is literally copying every gesture, every “um,” every “er,” everything we can find in the material, in a non-hierarchical sense. This became Alan Smithee Directed This Play (at BAM).
Rail: Can you talk more about this deeply personal relationship you have to your material? How do you create space for emotionality while also avoiding the dreaded straightforward, derivative sentiment?
Parson: There are those formative moments in your 20s when you just see a ton of stuff and figure out your own artistic voice, and you’re fascinated by one thing and reject another. When I was that age, I was interested in the children of the Donald Judd-ians, who were doing a lot of text and movement. But I was still interested in virtuosity, and I was trying to figure out what virtuosity meant to me. I loved the super formal work of Lucinda Childs. I can remember seeing all the Lucinda Childs pieces at the old Kitchen on Broome Street. I must have been 19. It was one of her repetitive pieces, where you sat in a circle or a square, watching her. And I just went into the stratosphere. It was all form, but your “art” heart felt very moved. The emotion was around the artistry. I was really attracted to that. If you believe in your body and not your mind, if you believe that there is a greater consciousness in the world that we are all receiving on some level, then form has a spiritual aspect. I’m not sure about the content. But I’m fairly sure that the form is mathematical and very crystal-like.
I think all artists want to create space for their audience—especially most choreographers. The particular space that they create really varies. The space that is created for the audience’s imagination in Revelations, for instance, is a different space than what is created when you watch Balanchine’s Agon.
I can’t actually define what those are and why I am attracted to one and not the other, but I can feel it in my body.
Rail: Along these same lines, you have said that dance is a means through which our authentic, essential selves are rendered. But when is it not? When does dance fail in that effort?
Parson: I’m really interested in abstract movement, and so movement that signifies something, that doesn’t have any space in it, is very hard for me as an audience member. Movement doesn’t show the humanness of this person or of the world when it’s rendered so symbolic—either literal or dance symbols that we recognize. Cunningham said, “You give yourself away at every moment.” This is where my ideas around performance began, but they don’t end here. Very good choreographers put us in this visceral space and we see these human beings dancing. To me there’s nothing as beautiful, and thrilling, and revealing, and deep as the dancing body—it’s just the choreography that sometimes gets in the way. It’s the same with acting. I’d rather read my Chekhov than watch my Chekhov because I don’t like the acting getting in my way.
Rail: Speaking of Chekhov, there’s definitely a Chekhovian sensibility to a lot of your pieces, in the gestures and the specificity. But what I love about your work is how you seem to wed the quotidian and the granular with the epic. Are you interested in this combination? How has your aesthetic evolved?
Parson: It’s more like I’m interested in good writing. There are people who are not Chekhov people, right? It’s a very particular kind of theater artist. But if you are a Chekhov person, you tend to be a non-narrative person. I relate a lot to the regret, and the pain, too—his subject matter, not just his form. It’s more about the harder vibrancy and the things that jump, that pop off the page.
I did a lot of Brecht when I was in my 20s choreographing for theater companies. Today I’ve been asked to direct Brecht and I don’t want to. His ideas around the fourth wall have been co-opted by television and straight theater so often that they don’t mean anything to me anymore. But what I learned from Brecht, which was gigantic for me, was that you can dance at any point. It’s almost like vaudeville: when the play’s boring, dance. And it’s not from an emotional place. It comes from a formal perspective. So once I did that for a while, it gave me a certain freedom around text and dance. It unlocked something for me. And then I started doing that with playwrights like Gogol and Chekhov. I would find the spaces in those plays to put in dance.
Rail: You said in an interview that you are “bored by any piece that doesn’t involve dancing”—
Parson: I am. But that’s not completely true. The other night we saw A Delicate Balance. It’s a brilliant play and nobody’s dancing. But the audience is terrible. The audience thinks they’re watching television. They’re laughing like it’s a sitcom. They think it’s ironic and it’s not at all. But they’re used to irony.
Rail: Have you ever had issues with audiences or even producing bodies that have insisted on finding some kind of linear narrative in your work?
Parson: Yeah. For the most part we’re sheltered by the downtown theater ghetto, and those audiences are looking for that. But when Big Dance toured Man in a Case with Mikhail [Baryshnikov] and we went to regional theaters, we definitely had the experience where they’re looking for one thing and we’re doing something else. And what happens sometimes is the performers start to push the piece in that direction because they can feel the audience wanting it. They start doing it unconsciously, and it bends the piece out of shape.
Rail: People have described Big Dance Theater as “category-defying.” Since you aren’t firmly lodged in any one genre, are you ever concerned about slipping through the cracks?
Parson: I like to imagine a planet in which we don’t do that, in which there aren’t those categories. I like going back to the ancient Greeks: in their theater they danced, they sang, they did all those things, and it was not musical theater. It was theater with a capital T. Theater meant that every performative possibility was open to you. So when I’m creating something I’m not thinking, should I do this? Should I say this? It’s more a kind of: what’s going to communicate this the best? I’m not saying I’m an expert in any of the forms, but I’m comfortable enough in them that they’re all alive.
Rail: Walk me through your typical devising process with Big Dance.
Parson: Paul and I sometimes start with movement, but we usually start with some piece of literature that we find really fascinating. We just started a piece based on a diary from the 17th century in London. I thought it was very funny. It’s very repetitive and there’s a lot of dancing and singing in it. And also, there’s a lot about the diarist’s relationship to his wife—which is really intense and passionate and stormy. I’m interested in the diary form because it’s totally non-narrative; it’s more circular. There’s really no climax. It’s just basically the same stuff happening over and over and over. So I was interested in that, the repetition of life.
Paul and I come up with a lot of “assignments.” I had this idea that we would use two wigs: one for the diarist and one for the performer playing the doppelganger of the diarist. So I just put on this Belgian hard rock music that I really like, and had them dance wearing these wigs. And I thought: that’s so beautiful and cool and weird. Then we just started playing with all the text about dancing, every time he talks about dancing—as entry points.
Rail: How was this process adapted for the remounting of “A Snow Falls in Winter” with the Martha Graham Dance Company?
Parson: Well, it was fantastically fun because they are great dancers and great people. Janet Eilber, the director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, is an adventurous spirit and the company has this fascinating approach to a legend who is not with us anymore. Although, I think Martha is definitely pissed off about the way I’m rehearsing her dancers. I can feel her rolling around asking, “What is she doing in my studio!?” [Laughs.]
Basically I thought, maybe I’ll make a forgery of the original A Snow Falls in Winter I made back in 2008. Because this is a family tree of modernism, and my family tree is postmodernism, and those seeds don’t cross-pollinate. But I was wrong. These people are strong artists who have their own perspective on the material and who were able—with coaching from the past dancers who generously came in to help me—to find their own version. So it wasn’t a forgery at all. It’s very much a credible iteration of the piece. And I also developed some of the choreography to fit them. Ultimately I said to my amazing rehearsal director Elizabeth DeMent: teach the movement; don’t teach them how to perform it yet. So when I first saw them do it, I felt like I was looking at—you know when you take all of your groceries out of the brown paper bag and the bag is empty?
Parson: That’s what it looked like. It was completely empty. She duly scrubbed it. It was simply movement material. So then I had two weeks to teach them how to perform it, and to help them find their way into these roles that were danced by these other very singular performers.
Rail: And then, how is this process different when you’re working with someone like St. Vincent, or David Byrne?
Parson: It’s totally different. First I lock myself in a room in my house with the music for a week and start to generate movement. That’s the worst part. Then I lock myself in a room with my choreographic associate for another couple of weeks and we generate more. Then we just go in and teach. With something like Here Lies Love, those people are not trained to make material. They’re awesome, but that’s not a skill musical theater performers learn. And there’s no time for it. So you do your first draft at home, you put it on them, and then the director says, “yes, that’s what I meant,” or, “no, that’s not what I meant.” And then you might throw it out, and go back and spend the night working, and so on and so forth.
When I’m making stuff for St. Vincent and David Byrne, I’m trying to embody the material as those human beings. I wear an electric guitar. I know now how Annie [St. Vincent] moves and I know what her body wants to do, so I’m like her when I’m dancing.
Because I grew up listening to David’s music—and it was just gigantic in the formation of my sensibility—that was natural for me. I can be him when I’m choreographing so easily that it’s kind of ridiculous. I’ve choreographed so many dances for him that when I go to a restaurant and hear his music, I’ve often choreographed it. And I don’t make things with him; I make things for him. Whereas, I don’t make anything for my dancers. No, no, no. I’ll give them an assignment, but it’s pretty much all generated by them.
Rail: How do you navigate working with one of your heroes?
Parson: Emotionally and psychologically, it’s a huge mountain. I haven’t scaled it. David is a brilliant maverick. He’s an idea machine for one thing, and he’s generous in his thinking. As cold as his work seems, and as detached as he’s famous for being, he’s very emotionally connected to the material. When you actually work with somebody brilliant—and I use that word very specifically; there are only two people I’ve ever worked with who I can call brilliant, him and Anne Carson—it’s extremely intimidating. No matter how confident you are, no matter how much experience you have, that hierarchy exists—even though they’re awesome and they act like you’re good too [laughs].
Rail: What encapsulates Anne Carson’s brilliance?
Parson: It’s really her translation that blows my mind. It’s the combination of her scholarship and her complete freedom around that scholarship. You can’t believe the stuff she says about these plays. She’s read everything, translated many of them from the original. But the way she understands them as a poet, as a woman, as a writer, and as a human being is so hilarious and free. When you meet somebody who’s that free around something that most people are so fucking uptight about, it’s the most thrilling thing. I mean, she’s very quiet, so it’s not like she’s blabbing away about them, but when you get her to, she will say stuff that will blow you away—stuff that is so funny and true and contemporary.
When we were working with her on Alkestis and Orestes, Euripides became a very contemporary person for me. You know when you read a novel and it’s almost like you’re living with those characters? Maybe it was through Anne’s complete relaxation around this material that I felt on some level, very intuitively, that I understood what Euripides was doing. This sounds like such hubris, but I’m telling you that I feel like I know why he wrote Alkestis. I can never prove it because we don’t have enough information about his personal life, but I feel like I know things about him. I just think it’s impossible for him to have written that play without experiencing certain things in his life.
Rail: This makes me think of how Pina Bausch’s work changed as she got older, as she experienced certain specific things in her life.
Parson: That’s true. In her last few pieces, I found her perspective as an older woman on the younger people in her company really sweet. A lot of people considered it boring and repetitive, thinking that at 60 she didn’t have the edge that she once had. But to me she found this other deep thing, which is this earnest relationship to beauty. It’s very moving actually. I believe you can divide choreographers between people who are creating worlds and people who are uncovering worlds. So if I’m looking at people who are creating worlds, I would definitely say that she is in the top.
Rail: In a piece you wrote for David Byrne’s website, you criticized our culture’s willingness to throw around the term “starving artist” and our romanticization of our vocations. What are artists doing that is self-destructive? What should we stop placing on pedestals?
Parson: I think the culture has hypnotized artists into thinking that if their work involves self-actualization, then they shouldn’t be paid for it. No, you need to be paid for your work like other people are paid for their work. Dancers have said to me, “I’m having so much fun, should I really be paid for this?” And I think, “Wow, we have a long way to go.” It’s very American, because we are not artists by nature. We’re Calvinists, and Calvinists outlawed theater and dance. I don’t know what to say about it. It’s depressing, and I don’t see anything that’s going to change. It’s just not the right moment to do it, apparently, and I don’t know why.
Rail: You have been quoted as saying, “Going to theater is like going to church.” In Big Dance Theater, dance is always the sacred object in the room. But how do we turn that sacred quality outward? What is dance’s current role in society, and what is its potential role?
Parson: My father’s family danced everyday because they didn’t have television, but they had radio. We don’t do that. We’re moving away from dance. And the idea of us all being in a dark room together facing the same direction—we’re moving away from that, too. The democracy of the Internet makes us want to be entertained all the time, to feel that we can participate. Make your own movie and you’re a filmmaker. When actually, everyone isn’t a filmmaker; there’s craft and there’s finesse and there’s virtuosity. I feel like a lot of the “immersive theater movement” has to do with babysitting the audience. “You’re not going to have to just sit there; you also get to be in the play.” It’s a little like kindergarten.
I’ve seen immersive theater since I moved to New York. I can remember seeing Annie Sprinkle in college, shocked as I watched her go through the audience masturbating, having people touch her body. If that’s not immersive theater, I don’t know what is. And that’s coming from a different place—a necessity to have the audience experience shock and risk. Maybe that’s a place where dance is going to grow. But I don’t know. I feel like we’re moving away from the body.