Annie-B Parson (CBA ’18) co-founded the Bessie and OBIE award winning Big Dance Theater in 1991. Big Dance was most recently seen at BAM, The Kitchen, Philly Fringe, USC, and Mass MOCA. and was honored by PS122. This season The Company is touring to Berlin and The Old Vic in London. Parson’s work in David Byrne’s American Utopia World Tour is currently on the road. Parson has also made dances for the work of: Mikhail Baryshnikov, David Bowie, St. Vincent, Laurie Anderson, Salt ‘n Pepa, Jonathan Demme, Ivo van Hove, Sarah Ruhl, Lucas Hnath, Wendy Whelan, David Lang, Esperanza Spalding, Mark Dion, and Nico Muhly, and has dances in the repertory of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Awards include: Bessie Awards, Guggenheim Fellowship, Duke Artist Award, Franky Award, USA Artist Award, Foundation for Contemporary Art, and an Olivier nomination.

For more about Parson’s CBA Fellowship, visit her fellow page.

Please briefly describe your CBA Fellowship project.

At CBA, I created a duet for two women with the working title of BALLET. For this piece, I was interested in: the imagery and the materiality of ballet itself, in making something that included the fundamental steps of ballet, the objects associated with ballet, the narrative tradition in ballet, and the radical beginnings of non-narrative ballet. And, I was compelled to pull ballet into my own world, to speak about it in my own voice.

How did you approach the choreographic process in developing BALLET?

I had always been drawn, like many others, to Balanchine’s masterpiece Agon (1957). It holds certain qualities that can be analyzed for their kinetic properties, and others that live outside of language and analysis. I was interested in both. I had seen it countless times over my adult life, made a frequent pilgrimage of sorts to re-visit it often at NYCB, and during my residency I studied it on video, gleaning its “bones” from my (subjective) choreographic perspective. I suppose I chose to encounter what I loved  from the dance– and what I could understand. In the studio with the dancers, I engaged with some of these compositional observations, mixing them with my own approaches to dance making. And, I engaged with the tonality of the work, how I “felt” when I was watching it, what I imagined as its interiority.

Additionally, I researched La Sylphide; I wanted to work with material that perhaps Agon moved away from, but still has a relationship to, as an antecedent. I had text from the book Complete Ballet that I worked with as well. This text spoke very directly to me about who we are inside when we watch ballet, a subjective and wonderfully witty perspective of an audience person. This created an added dimension—like speaking in both the first and the third person at once. All of these materials were mixed in the “palette” of the studio work during the spring; these were my source materials.

Dancers Elizabeth Dement and Ogbitse Omagbemi during Annie-B Parson's seminar
Dancers: Elizabeth Dement/Ogbitse Omagbemi. Taken by Xavier Cousens at The Center for Ballet and the Arts.

BALLET has elements of both abstraction and narrative. What role does each play, and how do they work together?

Even if you don’t realize it, the narrative of Sylphide is laced through the entire duet: someone appearing and disappearing, floating and landing, giving and taking away, finding and losing, dreaming and waking. I de-emphasized the “story” elements of the ballet; I don’t care about the “what happens next” aspect of story. What  interested me, what I worked with, what was underneath the relationship between the sylph and the young man, the emotional landscape of this ballet, and as I said before, the “stuff” of ballet itself—the objects and the fundamental positions.

Additionally, the dancers themselves serve as meta-characters, reminding us that narrative ballet is about playing pretend and I wanted to emphasize this pretending because it is this very thing that Agon doesn’t do, rejects. In Agon, dance is the subject matter, the protagonist is the action of the choreography, there is no story. And Agon, and the rejection of pretending,  is part of a larger revolution that was occuring in dance and music (Cage/Cunningham, Judson Church).

The dancers in the duet have dialogue where we glean that they are unlike the people they are pretending to be: they are neither ethereal nor noble nor pure in their emotions.

The relationship with abstraction is one of history. In this piece, we move back in time; we move  from a-symbolic movement backward into dance that has articulated-meaning. And the final section moves us away from both, as Siri narrates text about the nature of ballet. I use the voice of Siri because I think she is the voice of the future and her voice made me feel like we are looking way way back in time.

Dancers Elizabeth Dement and Ogbitse Omagbemi during Annie-B Parson's seminar
“BALLET” by Annie-B Parson. Dancers: Elizabeth Dement/Ogbitse Omagbemi. Taken by Xavier Cousens at The Center for Ballet and the Arts.

What is the significance of your music selection for BALLET?

I wanted to work with Stravinsky’s Agon but pull it apart and collage it with other sounds, mirroring my approach here to dance-making, and bringing it into the future. I was able to procure a four-handed piano version, very rare, that felt skeletal enough for the nature of this piece. Other sounds include St. Vincent, who I had generated some of the movement for originally,  and this music felt right for the ballerina’s conversation. And I used Chopin’s Sylphide backwards, which felt sonically and metaphorically appropriate.

Dancers Elizabeth Dement and Ogbitse Omagbemi during Annie-B Parson's seminar
“BALLET” by Annie-B Parson. Dancers: Elizabeth Dement/Ogbitse Omagbemi. Taken by Xavier Cousens at The Center for Ballet and the Arts.

What is the role of the spoken word in the piece?

Speaking serves as another color, bringing us into “our” world, the one we traffic in without translation. We know these women; they are familiar, common—not fairies or sylphs, but they live in the reality we apparently live in.

During your seminar, you described yourself as a “tourist” of ballet. What do you mean by that?

I meant that I am not in the tribe of ballet. I have studied ballet for decades, and watched it since I was a child, but a native to ballet is/was a ballet dancer, or devoted to it primarily. Ultimately, I am more connected to another world of dance that rejected ballet and moved far away from the technique and most of the repertory. At its best, a tourist like DeToqueville or Baudriallard, has a clear lens on the foreign land, and at its worst the tourist doesn’t understand what they are seeing. I am willing to live somewhere on that spectrum.

Dancer Ogbitse Omagbemi during Annie-B Parson's seminar
Dancer: Ogbitse Omagbemi. Taken by Xavier Cousens at The Center for Ballet and the Arts.

During your fellowship, you also held weekly open studios. Could you talk about what you learned from the experience?

Besides making a duet on the subject of ballet, I thought my fellowship would be a great opportunity to reach out to the dance community. Maybe this was because I had a location I was actually reaching out from! So I posted the following invitation on Facebook:

Open_____studio : From Jan. 31- May 7, an invitation to choreographers, dancers, and directors, from all performance family-trees, stages, ages, and disciplines, to come visit me in the studio for critique, and/or open ended conversation about your work, or the field. One hour slots, first come-first served, no money exchanged. Wednesday afternoons @The Center for Ballet Arts

The response was immediate. So, between January and May, I met with 25 choreographers, two directors, and one composer. I told my visitors that the agenda was theirs to create. Some brought in work to show; others wanted to talk about the field. These conversations largely focused on issues practical (space, money), aspirational (career), emotional (relationships in the studio, constant rejection), personal paths (motherhood, nothing about fatherhood), and art-making. Many of the showings were quite in-depth with dancers joining us, followed by intense conversation about the work.

Before I began, I created a pie-chart with my goals for this initiative in colored slices on a circle.  Here they are:

  1. To serve as a very small but authentic antidote to the notion that the dance 
community lacks generosity and mentorship 

  2. Or, to redress bullshit around notions of the dance “community” actually 
owning any characteristics of community at all, by sharing space and time, 
which may be what community needs to activate. 

  3. The little I can do to make the world warmer, more relational, and less 
scary than it seems right now 

  4. To work on becoming a better listener
  5. To give back: in appreciation of the generosity of CBA with their sharing of 
time and space, and to share it with other dance makers. 

I finish the initiative with a strong reminder of the difficulty and counter-intuitive nature of being a dance-maker today. The field is both growing exponentially, and has less resources than ever. We already knew that.

But this was my strongest take-away: There is this strange but real impulse that a small sector of the population has to compose the body in space , no matter the odds–even if it de-stabilizes everything else in their lives, even if it is actually is contrary to the “survival instinct” as we know it. I have found this species to be fascinating and odd. And yes, I am one of them.

Flowers and other props during Annie-B Parson's seminar