Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts
(Wesleyan University Press, 2019)
“When you go on a trip, and come home, there is a closure to putting everything away in your drawers,” Annie-B Parson writes in the introduction to her recently published book, Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts. In this intimately curated volume, the tirelessly inventive choreographer, and cofounder of Big Dance Theater, charts her body of works by tracing the fil rouge of images, objects, and patterns—laying bare her creative methodologies in the process. Serendipitously, the drawing Parson made for the Rail in 2011, titled “All the Props in my Basement,” graces the inside cover of her new book. And, as the pièce de résistance, in the final chapter Parson shares a modified deck of Mexican Loteria cards, repurposing it as a choreographic tool. I chose to shuffle the deck myself to divine the questions for Parson. The following conversation took place over Skype in early May 2020.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): When a performance you make runs its course, there is a kind of strange nostalgia that ensues. In the introduction to your book, you wrote: “Post-post-post everyone else involved in the work, the choreographer (me) reclaims stolen property in some dingy bus station.” Tell me more about complicated feelings that emerge after a work you’ve made is done-done.
Annie-B Parson: When the show is being performed, it is necessary that I give the performers physical and emotional space to own it—to stay out of their way, and be in relation to their audience. They like me to be around, but it becomes a duet between them and their audience. It’s a very necessary and weird feeling! Then after the show has closed, the load-out is over and it’s been written about—or not written about, as is more common these days—the piece exists in my body, almost on a cellular level. It’s like I am taking the piece back psychically. So—I begin to draw it.
The metaphor there is dark (dingy bus station)—I think it’s hard and dark because there is so little feedback in our community and society.
Rail: In the “Structures and Scores” section of your book, you create a historical chart tracing the use of certain objects across the timeline of your productions. For instance, you noted that you started using furry objects as props in 1999, then in 2010, they disappeared. If you were to dramaturg yourself, what would you say might be the source of your fascination with certain types of materials or objects?
Parson: Over years, I have been creating work(s) that depart from and relate to past works as I use up ideas and discard them. But I can’t discard them when they are still pulsing and present for me. So a texture or object or sound may find its way into many pieces until it’s not interesting to me anymore. To your question: it’s about resonance(s). Meaning, certain objects have personal resonance, historical resonance, and topical resonance and, of course, aesthetic resonance. Furry was funny and beautiful from 1999 until 2010, and then it lost its appeal, I guess, and fell off my radar.
Rail: Do you ever find yourself going back to certain notions or objects you’d previously been interested in but then discarded? Or is it an evolution of sorts?
Parson: I don’t think so—I think I would consider it undisciplined. Of course, some I have never left, like aprons. I still feel adventurous around an apron. I still feel adventurous around a braid.
Rail: There is so much history in a braid.
Parson: Timeless imagery laden with narrative, character, archetype, beauty, and algorithm. It’s the perfect marriage of form and content.
Rail: The way in which you spatially set the stage in your works always feels deeply intentional. It’s almost like a playground that has a very exacting set of rules under which the action unfolds. How do you go about “formatting” the space as you embark on a creative process?
Parson: Ah, that’s inside baseball! Usually I have a secret spatial structure underneath each piece that serves almost as a game to play with myself. And, each area in the room has its own power, or tonality, I just need to figure out how to play it. The chart structure, which is more overt, gave me a certain freedom, or way to use the space of the page as well.
The personal use of the space is part of expressing the depth of surface. One of the tools (to use a dry word) a choreographer has in her power.
Rail: We were talking earlier about certain objects and materials that act as a recurring reference across your body of work. Can you handpick one of your leitmotifs and tell me more about its significance or symbolism within your choreographic vocabulary?
Parson: I think there is a recurring use of grammar in dancemaking. The use of verbs; the use of prepositions and nouns—all as distinct movement materials. Language/text and the space in the text, the appreciation of writing, how an object and a piece of movement material are related by shape and structure is an abiding interest to me.
I’ll trace the path of a stick as best I can—maybe out of order. I like to have sticks in pieces because they bridge the worlds of nature, man made practical objects, and compositional elements. But I may be done with them now!
I think the first time I used one was in Girl Gone: the teacher used a stick that was tall and later it was very short and made her stoop. Then, I had one in The Other Here and used it for the servant as a mic stand. There was a tree with a mic in it in Shunkin. It served as a traditional prop in Plan B when I studied a dance from Japan from a very early film of an ancient master—early-early-20th-century Stick Dance. It was a compositional element—a line in space—in Short Ride Out. It was a motif of old age for Antigone for the old sage and used for a dance as well, and a bundle of sticks appeared in Alan Smithee. There was a stick path in Another Telepathic Thing, and a stick fence in Shunkin; a stick bonnet in Ich, Kürbisgeist, a fake stick and log fireplace in Summer Forever, a stick from Tanazaki's world in Resplendent Shimmering Topaz Waterfall. And, there are probably more sticks lying around!
I’d love to have a glass stick that was fashioned from a London Plane tree with knots and such. I like it when objects appear to fly, transform, and have multiple meanings.
Rail: To what extent do chance and intuition play a role within your creative process?
Parson: Although I carry dice in my backpack, I don’t use them. I guess they are there just in case I need to summon the goddesses. And, though I teach the use of chance in dancemaking, I personally don’t use it with the intentionality of, say, Cunningham, where I ostensibly give over authorship to the universe. My work is sort of the opposite: the place where chance enters and is welcome is whatever I can capture from real life in rehearsal.
Rail: I wanted to circle back to the title of your book: Drawing the Surface of Dance. What does the word “surface” mean to you?
Parson: The surface is underrated as a place of depth, paradox intended. I have always leaned into it, felt that it can be exploited for its endless theatrical opportunities. For instance, the use of clothing in dance. When I was young, everyone wore drawstring pants and t-shirts on stage. I felt this spoke to a certain rejection of theater with a capital T. I didn’t agree with that rejection; I wanted to exploit the use of costume without using the idea of character or type as signifier. When I first started making dance, many of my works referred to post-Holocaust culture in Germany. I was obsessed with European kitsch and muzak—this was all on the surface. I made no attempt to even get near using it as articulated content, I left it on the surface to resonate as it would on an almost subconscious level. I think articulating what you see in one of my dances would be an interesting way to approach them. So I drew everything visible in them. We can never ever regain the kinesthetic, empathic experience of watching live dance; this is what is left.