writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

A True Collaboration

The Parsons Dance Company with the Ahn Trio
The Filene Center
Wolf Trap National Park for The Performing Arts,
Vienna, Virginia
June 15th 2004

by Tehreema Mitha
coyright © 2004 by Tehreema Mitha
published June 21, 2004

The rain had just settled; the warm humid air made for a lazy evening. The dancing on the stage, though, was anything but lazy. The Parson’s Dance Company was in fine form, aided by The Ahn Trio, which consists of three siblings that could easily make it into any beauty contest. I am glad that they paid attention instead to their wonderful talents, honed them and lent them to the world of dance in this collaboration.

The opening music number, Oblivion, composed by Astor Piazzolla, is a beautiful piece in which one realized the performing potential of the three women, Angella Ahn on the violin, Maria Ahn on the Cello and Lucia Ahn on Piano. While the next two numbers, Riders On The Storm, composed by The Doors, and Orange Blossom Special arranged for The Ahn Trio by Kenji Bunch, were accompanied by dance (choreography uncredited), the focus in this part of the performance was only on the musicians. The stage on which they sat rose from the pit at the beginning of the performance and was placed at an uncomfortable height next to the stage so that at times we were straining to follow the dancers as they crossed the stage, obscured in part by the musicians and their page turner.

The dance set to Riders On The Storm was confusing. A female dancer was supported throughout this piece by two male dancers, turning, flipping, somersaulting, churning and turning. Yet the emotionless, gentle movements done under watery light effects did nothing to suggest a storm, but instead a safe haven, with one rider and two saviors.

Amazingly for musicians trained in classical works, the Ahn Trio’s rendition of a Blue Grass arrangement of Orange Blossom Special was joyful, played with all the right accents and not at all condescending. The dance was appropriately frisky and playful. Lights were concentrated on just hands, a whole set of them, belonging to the dancers who maneuvered them to visually pleasing, funny and lyrical effect. At times the music made one think of trains and the hands did just such movements. At other times, they seemed to talk to one another.

It reminded me of a brilliant “puppet” theater piece from Iran in 1997. Banned from performing themselves, that group of nine women found a creative loophole, performing on stage in blinding darkness, wearing black clothes and cloth over faces so that they were completely invisible (unlike the Parsons dancers who were not illuminated but clearly visible and that was slightly disturbing), maneuvering fiber glass pieces they had created which lit from within. They started off as a skeleton, but then each piece broke away to rejoin in different ways, making a whole hilarious journey into another world of ideas.

Rise and Fall, choreographed by David Parsons, should clearly have brought the focus back to the dance, but the raised pit stage with musicians well lit, still kept at an awkward height in front of the main performing arena, became a visual irritation in this piece. While The Trio played the music composed by the Turtle Island String Quartet, four women and three men took to the stage. While the others seemed to have collapsed in a stupor, one woman seeks to awaken them. Yet as they unfurl themselves and move across the stage, now waking, now falling again, now dancing with abandonment, the leading woman seems to be seeking something as if in different partnerships and seeking a community, yet not quite finding it.

In what is like a middle section of the dance, we see two of the other women, having fun together, joining in childlike glee in jazzy loose movements that deny all grownups concerns. Joined soon by the whole group, they all break into energetic coupling and group movements, yet, the seeker still seems to seek, unfulfilled.

In all of David Parsons’s work, the influence of his years dancing with Paul Taylor is undeniable. The base of his movements comes from both the humor and the particular quirks of Paul Taylor’s style. Parsons has now taken off on a road of his own, creating a dynamic sense that combines steps in a way entirely different to Taylor’s approach. He has come into his own some time ago, without forsaking his origins.

Caught is one of Parsons most famous pieces. Indeed its concept is stunningly simple, yet breathtakingly unexpected. Not to mention, perfectly performed by Sumayah McRae. You can see it and then see it again and marvel at its obviousness and the fact that no one thought of it quite like this before. Based on split second timing with a strobe light, the synchronization of which is designed by Howell Binkley, the dancer begins a coordinated set of movements that are different each time she jumps into one of the four different spotlights that come on across the stage, as if acquiring a different persona in each spot. Suddenly then the strobe light begins and we see the dancer with the absence of the transitions between jumps and hops and skips. We never see her touch the ground as she seems to fly across the stage in a big loop, walk backwards as if pushed by a strong wind, or rush forward to confront it. In between the portions she seems to suddenly land into a spotlight as if a bird landing on a branch or a gymnast landing on the floor mat. And then she takes off again. The human relationship to gravity and the link to the earth is set aside for this piece. Stunning for the audience, this dance demand not just stamina of the dancer but also an amazing sense of balance so as to not get disorientated by the strobe lights; not the easiest of tasks.

The music for Caught was played by the Violinist Angella Ahn. I could not quite fathom what the trick was, but she seemed to be plugged into an instrument that either recorded her work and played it back as she kept adding to the base line each time, or an already recorded segment was being played to which she contributed live. Whichever way this was done, it was ample and convincing.

After the intermission the trio moved onto the stage, occupying a comfortable portion and the dancers took center stage. Choreographed by Parsons, Slow Dance, Dies irie and Swing Shift all seem to be parts of the same dance yet the focus turns from the dancers in the middle section to the musicians again. Slow dance by Parsons was not too slow but gave off a feeling of timelessness and weightlessness. Three women and three men, with no great emotions and no great story…just a gliding dance through life.

For this and the next two pieces, all the music played live was specially composed for the trio by Kenji Bunch. At times, the dancers become an accompaniment to the musicians’ performance. In the dance there were shifts in the mood, from fun to an emotional, from light and flirty to sensitive. There were sections in which individual dancer seemed to come forth with almost robotic movements, a gentler form of break-dance if you will, strange when danced to such sentimental and moving music.

This piece seemed to go on and on moving from one section of beguiling movement to another, each grouping, each partnering capping the one before till one lost track of the whole. Something in the vein of Twyla Tharp’s “ The Golden Section”, yet the spirit of this dance is different, looser, lighter, more fun orientated.

Few dance companies are able to afford live musical accompaniment and though this is a much touted desire of the public, or at least the funding class, very often there is no great benefit in the actual happening for the audience. Only once in a while does one come across a collaboration that fits so perfectly that the music and the dancers seem an integral part of each other’s performance. Such was the evening with The Ahn Trio and The Parsons Dance Company.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 23
June 21, 2004

©2004 Tehreema Mitha



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