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A Conversation with Annie-B Parson

By Nicole Kaack

Jan 4, 2016

Big Dance Theater has had a profound impact on the New York performing arts scene since its establishment in 1991, challenging the boundaries of the form and pioneering a new level of hybridity. Co-Artistic Directors Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar have used the medium of dance to explore the relations between the various art forms, referring to histories of performance, film, literature, and music. Rather than accepting the limitations implicit in the categories of dance and theater, the company has instead chosen to embrace both, feeling out a style that is simultaneously highly-choreographed drama and theatricalized dance. To watch a Big Dance performance is to enter a dream-like world in which seemingly disparate languages, sounds, costumes, sets, and motions are interwoven in an intricate and evocative collage that puts wrinkles in time and space. Bolshevik revolutionaries come into contact with American nuclear families, literature of the Japanese countryside enters a conference on insurance sales, and practices of contemporary theater production are superimposed onto the narrative of a Swiss children’s story. Somehow these almost nonsensical narratives are not only sound but also stirring, daring viewers to adopt novel perspectives.

Big Dance Theater has had a long history with The Kitchen, performing Girl Gone in 1999, Shunkin in 2001, and Comme Toujours Here I Stand in 2009. For its twenty-fifth anniversary, Big Dance Theater returns with the New York Premiere of Big Dance: Short Form , a series of short dance works that, nonetheless, continue to pursue expression in concision. 

In a conversation with Kitchen intern Nicole Kaack, Annie-B Parson articulated some of the reflections and intentions behind the creation of Short Form in terms that, following the nature of Big Dance performances, were by turns humorous and passionate.

Nicole Kaack: Parts of Short Form felt very reflective of or on the worlds of dance and performance. There are elements of this in different sections of Short Form such as in The Art of Dancing as well as in Goats. To what extent are these critical observations playful or political?

Annie-B Parson: I am interested in dance. Dance as subject. Dance as object. In its material form it addresses our transcendent selves, our social selves, our communal selves, our ethnicities, our corporeality – in short, who we are. And the role of dance is also interesting to me, and so my dances may refer to how people in different times felt about dance, that it used to be a daily activity, that it was once prized, even used as a payment for losing battles, that dance was used as a ransom. (Well, I lied about the ransom…)

It is not political, not meta, but instead it is the sacred object of the beloved. I suppose you could say I fetishize dance. In a good way!

N.K.: You have said in the past that you are cautious about including "overt emotion" in your work, however, acted sequences often seem to play on the changefulness of emotions. I remember, in particular, the opening dance of Short Form involved several moments in which a correspondence is drawn between glitches in the music and ruptures in the emotional state of the performer. There was something deeply disturbing, but also amusing about this apparent fickleness of passion. What are your thoughts on your use of emotion in Short Form?

A-B.P.: I have changed. I am very interested in emotion, not just as an adjacent element to time, and space, and line, and such, as I used to be. But for myself—I don’t know how else to put it. I want to know how to use it. I want to push performers to feel things. This is new for me. It has to do with a deeper interest in the memory and knowledge that the body holds, and how emotion lives in the body, but also in the very theatricality of emotion. And what occurs when it is used “well,” when it is earned. I need to find my own way to it.

N.K.:
The relationship of the body to dance reminds me of Antonin Artaud who said that "there is a poetry of the senses as there is a poetry of language and...this concrete physical language...is truly theatrical only to the degree that the thoughts it expresses are beyond the reach of the spoken language." What you describe is a very intellectual form of feeling but is also, through the relation to the body, something very visceral. Do you think you could speak further to this idea of the "theatricality of emotion?”

A-B.P.:
I am wondering, re-thinking, asking.
What in emotion can be staged, embodied, presented, choreographed that I can stand behind and not wince and not cringe, but feel real feelings, even if I don’t know what these feelings are or why I have them.

Sure, we have seen emotion gutted by the post modernists, myself included,
We have seen emotion skirted and skewered
Myself included.
We have ignored it, hated it, treated it with superficial irony— not like Euripides or Flaubert— but the easy kind you didn’t earn.
And used Emotion as a choreographic “tool,” equal to, but not more important than shape, or space or time.
Myself included.

All fair. But that happened.

I am not so interested in any of these things anymore. It’s a kind of hiding.

We did all that in reaction to…

To our History. The artists before us. We didn’t want to be them or say the things they were saying. It was more reactive than responsive. And it generated a lot of great work.

But a few months ago, I went to Dia Beacon and everything was elegant and refined and smart and detached and male. And I had this strange, strange experience that I didn’t care for any of that work anymore.

The only one I cared for was, was, was, was…

Joseph Beuys.

Because he is a hot mess, because he came from a world that didn’t have the privilege of expressing itself minimally. Beuys was all emotion and confusion. And it doesn’t belong there. It should have its own country home. But now it’s a guest in the wrong house.

One day, I asked my designers: give me the saddest music, the saddest lights, and I made the saddest most desperate shape, and told the performer to cry. Really cry. And I loved it. Because I recognize it, and need it. And strangely, it was just sitting there waiting to be aroused—it was actually perfectly organic.

So you ask, what do I mean by the theatricality of emotion? I mean: what does emotion look like in my work. How far can it go. If our world need to rage, it may not look like an abstraction that remains elegant and remote.

And as I am writing that, I imagine all the scary-bad dance and theater that has emotion as its first objective. So please know this is not what I mean! Not that kind of emotional expression where there is a presumption that we feel a certain way when certain music comes on, or the chest lifts to the ceiling…. Something else, as yet unnamed, but feelings are felt. They are not facts anymore.

Last night Big Dance staged a reading of Anne Carson’s Antigonick. This play is a brief, radical, feminist adaptation of Antigone. And I asked Yvonne Rainer to read Creon, the failed, flawed patriarchal monarch. Yvonne, one of the great icons of contemporary dance who I think its fair to say completely rejected emotion in her work—well, she read Creon with so much life, with so much truth. She showed us that he will now suffer the consequences of his error, that his actions have caused great and unfair suffering, and she let us know, through her emotional performance, that he would grieve forever without consolation. The ancient Greeks in the hands of the likes of Anne Carson and Yvonne Rainer pitch the intellect against the heart, a great agon in the most classical sense of the word. Yvonne Rainer met Sophocles and this happened.

I could go on. But I am getting emotional!…and need to get to rehearsal, so I will sign off.

"Antigonick by Anne Carson with Kimberly Clark and Yvonne Rainer"
Photo by: Lucy Taylor

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