Name a piece “Bachiana” and you invite comparison to two twentieth-century greats: Fokine’s Chopiniana, with its nimble-footed sylphs, and Balanchine’s swan song, Mozartiana — one of the choreographer’s last ballets. Both of these works engage seriously with the music, illuminating its contours, reacting to changes in tone and rhythm.
David Parsons’ Bachiana, set to Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 and Air on a G String, does none of this. There is, of course, the obligatory nod to the courtliness of the music (in a slow section of the piece, two dancers bow to one another graciously); and there are occasional movements that fit the music comfortably. The partnering is, at times, vaguely witty: in one pas de deux, the delightful Elena D’Amario perches her knees on the shoulders of her partner (Jason MacDonald) and mimics his movements with light gestures of her arms. Overall, though, the piece reads like Paul Taylor Lite (it’s a bit like Taylor’s Airs, but without the nuance).
Among the pieces presented by Parsons Dance in a recent performance at the Joyce, nearly all had the same problems. Slow Dance and Nascimento lacked coherence: one part of the latter piece (named after its compser) recalled, bizarrely, the opening section of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, when a group of dancers, gathered center stage, raise their light-bathed arms in high “V” positions. Why Parsons chose to allude to this masterpiece (and, indeed, whether he did so knowingly), I do not know: the effect was only to make me wish to be watching the original. (On a related note: Wendy Perron recently wrote a fascinating editorial on dance plagiarism, citing Sarah Michelson’s well-received Devotion as an example. Perron and many others have noted the similarities of Devotion to Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room.)
Other pieces on the program included two world premieres, Parsons’ Portinari and Monica Bill Barnes’ Love, Oh Love. Portinari, read the program notes, was inspired by the artist Candido Portinari, known for the murals “War” and “Peace” that he painted for the UN. The artist died of lead poisoning (from the paints with which he worked). The piece is, predictably, quite literal: the artist (Miguel Quinones) dances with his work of art (Sarah Braverman) until he dies. At one point there’s a column of light that (yes) seems to climb up to the heavens.
I must admit I expected unadulterated sappiness from Barnes’ Love, Oh Love. Yet though set to the types of love ballads you might hear at a high school prom, it mostly avoids descending into sentimentality. The ironically stilted way in which the dancers move to music by Richie, Rogers, and Ross, at first delightfully awkward, gets lots of laughs; but it failed to keep me entertained past the first few minutes of the piece.
The highlight of the program was Parsons’ Caught, which he created in 1982. Danced on the evening I saw it by Quinones, the piece uses strobe lights to catch the dancer traveling through the air. It sounds gimmicky — and it is, a bit — but the effect is nevertheless mesmerizing. Caught has made it on to youtube, so you can watch it below (though it is somewhat less impressive on a screen than when you are in the theater).