It’s a puzzlement, as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s King of Siam said. The Parsons Dance Company, a chamber group that showcases the choreography of the former Paul Taylor star David Parsons, enjoys enormous popular success – globally – and tremendous financial support without being any good. Recently it played a week at City Center, a big-time house Taylor himself can hardly afford or fill, its only ticket-selling insurance the guest appearances of classical ballet’s latest hot item, Vladimir Malakhov. Parsons’s promotional machine seems to be indefatigable, with the choreographer, affable and a hunk, available for disarming interviews and escapades like lying in the buff on an urban parapet for the lens of Annie Leibovitz, celebrity photographer. Parsons has (in)famously said he’s out to give audiences what they want. Hardly the most pure or focused of artistic goals, it is certainly fulfilled – by “lite” entertainment designed to attract people who are not all that interested in dancing.
Anthem, new this season, is an apt example of Parsons’s creations. As usual, it’s based on a gimmick, here the use of flags ranging in size from gigantic to minuscule, exuberantly colored and rippling silkily as they’re manipulated by dancers on the run. A point is half made about the seizing from militaristic authority of the freedom to be you and me. As in most Parsons works, the message manages to be both vague and banal. The choreography itself seems oblivious to the basic elements that differentiate a dance from unshaped energetic motion – a well-defined vocabulary, rhythmic phrasing, clarity and variety of stage patterning, and an overall structure.
Parsons is unable to sustain a movement idea – it’s as if he suffered from attention-deficit disorder – let alone develop it. The ostensible love duet in Anthem might be a dejected exercise routine and is periodically interrupted by those flying banners to veil the fact that there’s nothing conclusive going on, either physically or emotionally. Despite the athleticism and alacrity of Parsons’s engaging dancers (none, however, as subtle a performer as Parsons was in Taylor’s work), it’s frustrating and eventually exhausting to watch move upon move add up to zero. Parsons’s inconsequential, hyperactive, superficially decorative stuff may, for all I know, be what the general public wants. Works of art, however, are not consumer goods, and it’s essential that the artist call the shots, that it be the choreographer, not the audience, who shapes the response to the question “Shall we dance?”