The choreographer and former professional dancer says that when he attends dance concerts, it often seems like, if the intermissions were taken out and the dancers were all given the same costumes, the audience would be watching the same piece over and over. It’s a phenomenon he tries to avoid in his own work.
“You got to ask the question: how do you want the audience to feel?” he said.
In a single show, his Parsons Dance company will display its signature modern dance style, some hip-hop, even performance using only the dancers’ hands. The nine-person company hits the Lensic stage tonight.
“I think Stephen Sondheim said it best for me, and that is surprise your audience,” Parsons said in a telephone interview from New York City, where the company is based.
“Surprises are good. We’ve just done that, and it’s kind of made a little niche for us. It’s not your usual contemporary dance evening.”
Parsons Dance was started in 1985 by Parsons and his colleague Howell Binkley, a Broadway lighting designer who won a 2016 Tony for his work with “Hamilton.” The company now performs Parsons’ choreography – and his collaborations – around the world.
Parsons said his style was influenced by dancing professionally during a time in the late ’70s and ’80s when the worlds of ballet and modern dance were beginning to intertwine. He began with New York’s Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1978 at the age of 17. After that, he performed with the New York City Ballet and the White Oak Dance Project, which was run by famed ballet dancers and directors Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris.
As a choreographer, his works have also been produced by the likes of the American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera and the National Ballet of Canada.
The company’s Santa Fe show will begin with a piece called “Wolfgang,” which Parsons described as his take on classical ballet, using the music of Mozart mixed with signature Parsons movement, which he describes as highly athletic and strong.
The next piece, the comedy “Hand Dance,” goes in a completely different direction. The only thing the audience sees is 10 hands dancing. The piece is meant to make the audience laugh. At one point, some of the dancers’ fingers “jump” off another person’s forearms like pushing off of a diving board.
Parsons said comedy is a genre that choreographers are often afraid to tackle, and with good reason – it’s difficult and can make them look silly. “It puts yourself out on a limb,” he said. “And it’s quite hard to get an audience to really laugh. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
The show also includes a “get down funky” dance number called “Whirl Away” that Parsons created in collaboration with Allen Toussaint, the New Orleans R&B and funk music legend who died in 2015.
The program takes still another turn with “UpEnd,” Parsons’ first full hip-hop number that he choreographed last year with Brooklyn break dancer Ephrat Asherie. Parsons said he’s been interested in the genre for decades, recalling his personal encounters with the early days of hip-hop on New York’s street corners.
“I worked in the Bronx as a teenager and my brother had a building in the South Bronx,” he said. “That’s where hip-hop came from; the tagging, the clothes, the dancing all started in the South Bronx.”
He also recalled a performance in 1982 in which he did a show with Steffan “Mr. Wiggles” Clemente, who grew up in the Bronx and was one of the early fixtures in hip-hop dance. Parsons said the moves he picked up from Mr. Wiggles and his Rock Steady Crew influenced one of his now-famous solos, “Caught.” That solo, which will be performed during the Santa Fe show by one of the current company members, features 100 jumps in five minutes with a strobe light hitting the dancer at the peak of each jump.
“Basically, you’re looking at a live photo session where the dancer never touches the ground … . At the top of their leap, just when your hair is starting to rise up, the strobe hits them. It’s an awesome scene,” he said.
It’s performances like this and others in the show that he says exhibit classic Parsons style. In just a few adjectives, he described his modern dance with words like “stamina” and “air time.”
“Physicality, that’s what you’re going to see,” he said. “And, as we know, variety.”
Parsons Dance will be at the Lensic tonight at 7:30 p.m. The company will perform a show earlier in the day for Santa Fe Public Schools third-graders.