Danceletter 14

I’ve always been drawn to the work of Annie-B Parson, since the first time I saw her company, Big Dance Theater, on assignment for my college newspaper in 2007. So I was delighted when Wesleyan University Press asked me to contribute an essay to her new book, Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts, in which she intricately illustrates and maps her dances, with special attention to their material parts (props, costumes, sets).

I’m a little biased, but I think the book is beautiful, and as of yesterday it’s available for purchase here. (For a glimpse inside, see my informal preview here.) It arrives in the midst of a busy season for Annie-B, who also choreographed David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway and just unveiled a new work for a group of “dance elders,” The Road Awaits Us, which I’m sorry to have missed. (I was visiting Seattle for a few days; more from that trip soon.)

For this edition of Danceletter, I thought I’d share an excerpt from my essay on Annie-B’s relationship to objects. We spent a long time choosing a title that both made sense and looked good in the table of contents, and wound up with:

Rearrangements: On Annie-B Parson

“S is for surface, the exterior of the work, what we can see, how it appears. Surface: a register of interiority, its wrapping. Surface houses and suggests the heart of the matter, without need of direct encounter. Decoration is underrated.”

—Annie-B Parson, Dance by Letter

It’s 2009, and I am at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, in rural Western Massachusetts, to watch Annie-B Parson teach a dance composition workshop. She has given the students, a group of about 10, an assignment involving a single, commonplace object: a microphone. As I enter the barn that houses the dance studio, they are sharing their choreographic studies. Her feedback is dry, direct; her aim here, I quickly gather, is not to make people feel good. She is trying to impart what she knows about paying attention to your materials. The mic does not need to mean anything, concretely, or to serve a conventional function. But there needs to be a reason for its presence in this space, with these people. It needs to be essential.

When I think of watching Parson’s work over the past 12 years—built mostly for and with her company, Big Dance Theater, which she directs with Paul Lazar—I think of this emphasis on efficiency. Everything, whether a microphone or a fleeting folk dance, has its place, as if belonging to a natural order. Yet while “efficient” might suggest minimalist or spare, her aesthetic is not. There is so much stuff in Parson’s onstage worlds: a glorious plethora of props, costumes, and scenic elements, imbued with lives of their own. There are just the essentials, yes, but the essentials abound.

This book, as I see it, is largely and loosely about that stuff and its sacredness, its worthiness of a closer look long after the curtain has gone down. What can a work’s tangible surfaces tell us about its deeper, less visible layers? Let’s take the props and costumes out of storage—the aprons, sticks, chairs, fur coats, wigs, guitars and parasols—and see what they reveal about an artist and her preoccupations. Let’s consider the relationships between people and things: how the meaning we ascribe to objects depends on what we do with them; how we need them, and they need us. 

Parson reminds us that even within a medium as evanescent as live performance, not everything disappears, and what remains brims with beauty and information. 

Echoes and Duplications

A few months before this book’s publication, I sit down with Parson to flip through a draft of its charts and scores. The project began, she tells me, with an invitation from the critic and poet Claudia La Rocco in 2011. As the dance editor of The Brooklyn Rail at the time, La Rocco asked a handful of choreographers to contribute to what she called an “On the Page dance festival.” Her question to them, as articulated in her editor’s note: “What does choreography look like on the page?” Parson recalls an even more succinct prompt: “Draw your dance.” 

Parson has always liked to draw—she was an art major in college before turning her focus to choreography—but she had never thought to illustrate her works. At the suggestion of the artist Suzanne Bocanegra, her friend and frequent collaborator, she set out to sketch the props and costumes stowed away in her basement. That exercise resulted in her first published dance chart, printed in the Rail’s July/August 2011 issue andstraightforwardly titled “All the Props in my Basement.”

This simple act of documentation turned out to be illuminating, bringing Parson’s awareness to recurring imagery she hadn’t noticed, at least not consciously. Across the 12 works included in “All the Props,” we find five pairs of slippers, two laurel wreaths, three crutches or canes, two folding fans, and multiple light-up items (logs, house, bonnet, tulips, desk), among other echoes and duplications. 

Parson, who describes herself as “hyper-generative”—the kind of person who “makes things because they can’t stop making things”—had stumbled into a new artistic practice, adjacent to the practice of creating live performance. Drawing allowed her to reflect on what she had made by making something new; developing each chart, finding the right structure, became its own kind of choreographic process. And so she continued putting colored pencil to paper, taking stock of her dances’ material parts. In future charts, she would group objects not by the work in which they appeared but by type—corralling onto one page, for instance, all the logs, trees, and sticks across her body of work, an inventory of trunks and branches. 

Regardless of what repeats, Parson is fascinated by repetition itself. What an artist (herself included) holds onto from piece to piece, and how that interest evolves with further research: These reiterations intrigue her more than what’s different or new in a given work. In her 2015 pamphlet Dance By Letter, a choreographer’s alphabet book, she writes: “O is for originality. The search for originality is motivating; the reality of it is questionable. The artist reshuffles, uncovers, reconsiders, repairs, inverts, extends.” In the space below, she has drawn five snowflakes of assorted shapes and sizes, an expression of variation within sameness. “R is for repetition, repetition, repetition,” she writes a few pages later, invoking Gertrude Stein as she observes, “If you are really present, that which is repeated is always new.” …

Continued in print! Here’s a page of props from The Other Here, the first Big Dance work I saw:

Shows to See

I’m very much looking forward to two shows this weekend, a reconstruction of Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 Parts of Some Sextets at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center (Fri-Sun, part of Performa), and Colin Dunne’s Concert at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (Thurs-Sat). I saw a preview of Sextets (apparently also known as “the mattress monster”) this summer, and the person sitting next to me, a choreographer I admire, joked that it was so good it should go to Broadway. Yvonne Rainer on Broadway… I think I’d be into it!

As for Irish dancer Colin Dunne, I really relate to his post-Riverdance refusal of spectacle (echoes of Rainer there) and continue to marvel at the way he has reinvented his body, releasing the tension of competition and show dancing. Marina Harss captures what he’s up to in this story which, confession, made me cry.

The Paul Taylor season is in full swing, and there are two more chances (Friday and Sunday) to see Pam Tanowitz’s work for the company, one of the best things they’ve done lately, in my opinion. Also in my opinion, Tuesday’s tribute to Donald McKayle, in which the Taylor company handed over the stage to three guest companies, was a treat, especially Songs of the Disinherited as danced by Ronald K. Brown/Evidence.

What You’re Watching

This one came in a while ago from dancer and Whistle While You Work co-founder Frances Chiaverini, who writes: “I love to think about these studios with full lights and trained cinematographers and how this class doesn’t just teach dance and choreo but also how to dance to the camera, how to be confident enough to do that, how to express yourself through style (clothing), and how to watch each other and support one another!” Proud to note that Jojo Gomez, the choreographer, hails from South Hadley, MA, not far from my hometown:

New submissions always welcome! Send me what you’re watching (with or without commentary) by replying to this email or writing to If you don’t want your name included, just say you’d like to remain anonymous, and I will honor your request.

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