It's no great risk investing in a ticket to Parsons Dance. For nearly 30 years, David Parsons, a former member of the Paul Taylor Company, has earned a reputation as a crowd-pleasing choreographer and his company, for reliably accomplished artistry.
So a one-night stand at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, while not particularly ground-breaking, was an enjoyable assortment of old and new that taxed the enthusiastic audience's capacity for applause more than anyone's intellect.
Of six pieces, only one — "A Stray's Lullaby," by former company dancer Katarzyna Skarpetowska — was not of Parsons' making; unsurprisingly, it was distinctly different. I found it the most interesting of the bunch, though it was not the best received.
Set on four dancers — two men and one woman dressed in drab Dustbowl era attire, the other woman in a dusky cranberry dress (design by Reid Bartelme) — it begins with the sound of a horrific traffic jam (musical arrangement by Kenji Bunch). This not-so-merry band of outcasts are each struggling on their treacherous paths toward salvation (implied by movement toward a light from the wings stage right) or at least momentary sanctuary.
Their stories are just intimated, but their setbacks and vulnerabilities are clearly conveyed by tortured movement like spastic body parts with a life of their own or body blows received from an unseen attacker. The final spiritual "Hard Times Come Again No More" brings them together, but in a bleak rather than hopeful way.Skarpetowska's was the only piece that asked much of an audience member's intuition, which is not to diminish the alternately clever, exuberant and visually beautiful entries by Parsons.
The best of these was last year's "Round My World." Parsons himself has said his desire was nothing more than to capture the "connectedness" of today's world through visual metaphors of circularity, rotation and roundness.Six dancers, dressed in pale blue-gray costumes (Emily DeAngelis) begin in a ring center stage. For 20 minutes they rotate as if on a carousel, orbit like planets, swirl like a barista's design in a cappuccino cup and create circular shapes, alone and together, with their arms, legs and entire bodies.
That they can keep this up without inducing monotony is confirmation of Parson's ingenious, if one-tracked, mind. There are poses that are a photographer's dream and the fellow-dancers I was with agreed we'd have liked to dance the piece; it looked like fun.
"Kind of Blue," a tribute to Miles Davis "So What" album, drew from a predictable jazz dance lexicon, with two women rather obviously (hip swinging walks, beckoning fingers) playing cat and mouse with their male counterparts.
"In the End," which (duh) ended the program, was a joyful burst of pure dance to the rhythmically unchallenging music of the Dave Matthews Band, notable mostly for its gymnastic partnering, colorful, skin-tight costumes (Mia McSwain) and run-on finale. I did admire the section where, blown away by a single dancer, the other seven fall backwards as if hit by a gust of wind and flop their legs around in hysteria.
Two familiar standards completed the program. "Hand Dance" is Pilobolus for the digit-minded, the focused lighting (Howard Binkley) capturing only five pairs of hands, which swoop, flutter, clap and wave. At one point, they form a descending bridge, which one hand "walks" down, hesitating before plunging into the darkness.
"Caught" is Parsons' equivalent to Alvin Ailey's "Revelations," a signature work with a big wow factor that is on almost every program. Through use of a strobe, it captures fragmentary movements of a single dancer who appears to defy gravity, space and time As it often is, the brief piece was constantly interrupted by audience whistles and applause.
Parsons predictable? Absolutely. Which is why he's managed to sustain a company for three decades. When it comes to modern dance, familiarity often makes the heart grow fonder.
PARSONS DANCE. Reviewed at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on March. 20. No additional performances.