Dallas — David Parsons is no stranger to Dallas. In fact, his solo work Caught which uses strobe lights to create the illusion that the dancer is flying has been featured at the annual TITAS Command Performance twice in the last five years. It’s one of those pieces you never get tired of seeing which is great since it will be making its third appearance in Dallas this weekend as TITAS presents Parsons Dance at the Winspear Opera House. This company is known for its physical and visual prowess so you definitely don’t want to miss them.
Raised in Kansas City, Parsons moved to New York City at 17 to begin his dancing career. He joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1978 where he danced many leading roles in works such as Arden Court, Last Look and Roses. Parsons has also appeared as a guest artist with the Berlin Opera, MOMIX, New York City Ballet and the White Oak Dance Project. He founded Parsons Dance in 1985 with lighting designer Howell Binkley who went on to win a Tony Award for best lighting design of a musical for Jersey Boys in 2006. Parsons and Binkley are currently working on a new project together which they will premiere in Kansas City this June.
Over the last three decades Parsons Dance has toured 30 countries and five continents and has performed in world class venues, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Maison de la Danse, Teatro La Fenice and Teatro Muncipal. His works have also been performed by Batsheva Dance Company of Irsael, Hubbard Street Dance Company, Nederlands Dans Theatre and Paris Opera Ballet just to name a few. Parsons is also a recipient of the 2000 Dance Magazine Award, the 2001 American Choreography Award and the 2011 Dance Master of America Award.
Parsons Dance will be in Dallas at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 25 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House. The evening’s program includes Parsons’ Caught (1982) Bachiana (1993) and Whirlaway (2014) as well as pieces by Robert Battle, Trey McIntyre and Natalie Lomonte.
TheaterJones asks David Parsons about breaking into the world of contempororay dance, developing his choreographic voice and the creative process for his phenomenal work, Caught.
TheaterJones: How did you enter the realm of contemporary dance?
David Parsons: I started out as a gymnast and I specialized in trampoline. So you can see where Caught comes from. Basically my mom didn’t know what to do with me during the summer so she would put me in arts camp and that’s where I was introduced to contemporary dance. In my mind it was incredibly challenging because dance isn’t just about moving around. It’s colors, lights, choreography, costumes and business, and it was a huge revelation for me. Then I started learning technique and you find freedom in technique. I then saw the Paul Taylor Dance Company and I knew I wanted to be in that company. I actually went to New York because I received a scholarship from Alvin Ailey, but once I got into Paul’s studio and he said I could hang around and understudy I knew I wasn’t going to leave.
What did you discover about your artistic self while dancing with Paul Taylor?
Paul Taylor is a genius and he was a great teacher for me. His work is so profound and I was totally attracted to the physicality of his work. I mean that is dance and we do the same thing at Parsons. You can’t come into this company and not be able to do a mild sprint I can assure you. It was probably a year after I joined Paul’s company that I knew I wanted to be a choreographer. I had done trampoline routines and other choreographic ventures, but I knew I needed to learn about music and lighting design and so I studied Paul like a sponge. I would study the tools and structures he used in his choreography as well as his business model. The experience turned out to be Taylor University for me.
The Dallas program includes Caught (1982), Bachiana (1993) and Whirlaway (2014). Looking back at what point would you say you found your choreographic voice and how does your work reflect this?
I really found my voice when I made three pieces within two years. They were Caught; The Envelope, set to Rossini, which was a comedy; and Brothers, which was done to Stravinsky and looked at sibling rivalry. Those three pieces kind of set the pace for me because they were all so different. I am somebody who pushes to have a huge variety in my program. Brevity is important too. But for me it was really about making the audience feel like they are on an emotional rollercoaster. Meaning that we would do humorous and dark works all in one evening. So it’s like your day. You wake up and throughout the day you’ll laugh or maybe cry or be sad. We really like to take the audience through an emotional, visual and physical roller coaster. We also communicate well with the audience. I like to touch things that we’ve all experienced like The Envelope for instance. It’s about an envelope and the performers just can’t get rid of it. It keeps coming back on stage. Then there’s Sleep Study which is done with only the movement of sleeping and then Caught which connects you with flying and that inner dream that we all have. Then there’s just beautiful pieces like Whirlaway which connects you to New Orleans. It takes you on an actual trip somewhere.
Caught is always a crowd pleaser wherever you go. Can you talk me through the process you went through to put this work together?
I created the solo at a very young age. When I first came to New York at age 17 I worked a lot of odd jobs including being a stunt model. And on these jobs I worked a lot with photography and that’s how I found out that Caught could be done. That there was a way for me to connect with people’s primitive need to fly. We all dream of flying and that’s the connection I was interested in. Again, when I make dances I’m interested in touching everybody in personal way. I look for those things that we all have in common. So, once I understood that I could catch myself in the air on a dark stage and take the same shape and move it around it’s really like looking at a live photo shoot all, of course, hovering over the ground. It really was just trial and error and fun to put together this journey of a man who starts in a room in conventional lightening preparing himself to fly and then he takes flight. This is a little contemporary gem that people love to see over and over again with different casts, sometimes it’s a woman, and it’s quite an astounding piece.
From the get-go did you know you wanted to use strobe lights?
Yes, the whole piece was wrapped around me finding the idea of working with a strobe light like that. Some people say it’s a gimmick, but I say it’s a darn good one.
Do you have to adjust the timing of the strobe lights or the dancer based on the size of the venue you are using?
Yes, depending on the size of the stage the dancer does have to change his timing. I mean this is millisecond timing we are talking about here. We also do this piece outside and sometimes there is extraneous light like there was in Rome and I went around and put garbage bags over every lamp on this pedestrian walkway. In this instance you have to flash the strobe lights a little bit faster when there is ambient light so that the audience can’t see the dancer moving in between shots. On a totally dark stage we don’t have that problem. So, there are a lot of things we have to do for an outdoor venue compared to indoor venue compared to a small stage or an Opera house. It’s all constantly changing.
You and your lighting director, Howell Binkley, have known each other for more than 30 years. How did you two meet?
Howell was brought in as the lighting supervisor for Paul Taylor so we toured together and became buddies. And one time when we were sitting on a bench in France I told him I was thinking about starting a company once we got back to New York and he said he was right there with me. Now he is one of the major lighting designers on the planet. He did the lighting design for Jersey Boys and [Lin-Manuel Miranda's] Hamilton. We are currently working on a piece that will premiere in Kansas City at the [Kauffman Center] this June.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com