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HUMOR IN THE MIX: KC Ballet nabs world-renowned local hero for commission

David Parsons embodies the kinds of values and ideals that any Kansas City artist would do well to emulate. He is as comfortable hacking through weeds at the Leawood home of his hardy 91-year-old father, UMKC Emeritus Professor Stanley Parsons, as he is gathering accolades (with the New York-based company he founded in 1985) in the glittering capitals of the dance world. Thus when the Kansas City Ballet was seeking a third choreographer for its mixed-rep Spring Program, David seemed an ideal choice: Perhaps his worldly earthiness could balance out the quasi-esoteric works of Twyla Tharp and William Forsythe.

KC Ballet dancers join Courtney Nitting in ‘A Play for Love,’ a newly commissioned piece by David Parsons / Photo by Brett Pruitt 

A Play for Love is the Ballet’s first commission from the Kansas City native, who attended Southwest High School and moved to New York at 17 to study at the Alvin Ailey School. And our company gave him carte blanche.

When David discovered the program already included two of the towering masterworks of contemporary dance (Twyla’s In the Upper Room from 1986 and William’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated from 1987), he realized that some lightness might be welcome. “Don’t we laugh throughout the day?” he said in a recent phone conversation. “We don’t cry all day long! We’re not serious all day long! So every once in a while, I really pull out the stops and do a comedy. And it’s the most stressful thing to do.” When David described a scenario for a sort of rom-com in which a Shakespearean love-couple journeys through time and space à la A Christmas Carol, the company was cautiously delighted.

“He knew that he was on a program with Tharp and Forsythe,” said KC Ballet Artistic Director Devon Carney, “and I think it was great that he came up with something that would be a counterpoint to the other works.” Indeed, David added: “You have to have guts to commission a comedy. Jeff Bentley and Devon Carney came through for us. They didn’t requesta comedy, but when I said something about doing one, Devon was like, ‘Great!’ ”

David Parsons / Photo by David Cohen

David, who danced with the late Paul Taylor before forming Parsons Dance, feels he learned something of the delicacy of comedy from that choreographic giant. “Comedies are something that not all choreographers can do. They’re dangerous, because right away, critics think that you’re not a serious artist.” Yet Devon and Jeff knew that if they could trust anyone with a comedic ballet, it would be our own hometown superstar.

“David really is kind of the Gene Kelly of the dance world,” Devon said, adding that “I hope that if he heard me say that he would take it as a compliment, because I adore Gene Kelly.” As a counterpoint to Fred Astaire’s arty sophistication, Kelly is seen as a more down-to-earth sort of dancer, Devon said. “And I just kind of feel that about David’s work. He’s more relatable, in a way, to people who may not know dance.”

Thus a brand-new Parsons work could provide just the right balance for this program: especially, Devon said, “considering you’ve got these sort of wildly esoteric and heady conceptualizations of Billy Forsythe’s In the Middle, and … you’ve got Twyla’s In the Upper Room, which is this complex mix of all kinds of movements.”

William Forsythe’s ‘In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated’ / Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

But fear not: This Season Finale, challenging or not, is going to be simply gorgeous to see and hear. Tharp/Parsons/Forsythe might sound like a forbidding title, but this program, which runs May 10th through the 19th at the Kauffman Center, promises to be one of the most exciting, adventurous presentations the Kansas City Ballet has ever staged.

“These are huge, iconic works,” said Devon, who has already blazed trails for Kansas City with daunting works by Adam Hougland and Jiří Kylián. William’s and Twyla’s works “have formed much of what we view today as contemporary dance,” he said. “I have always wanted to do a Forsythe ballet … and In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated was a turning point for contemporary dance. It was like ‘The Ballet Heard ’Round the World.’ ”

Likewise, In the Upper Room is “the ballet of all ballets of Twyla Tharp,” he said. “This is on the bucket list of every dancer I mention it to.” It’s not just any choreographer who can solicit a new score from the likes of Philip Glass: But Twyla is one. “It definitely pushes ballet into a new realm,” Devon said of Twyla’s early masterpiece. “There’s an infectious energy to this ballet. I mean, it literally makes you want to just get up and start moving, start doing something. By the end of this ballet, you’re ‘lifted up,’ and in a wonderful way.”

Twyla Tharp / Photo by Richard Avedon

To be sure, Tharp’s works can be daunting, not just for the sheer speed and density of movement but also for the complexity of ideas. William’s work is, if anything, more complicated still, and it pushes traditional ballet into areas that are almost impossible to describe.

To wit: “The dancers … move in undefinable ways,” wrote Roslyn Sulcas in The New York Times in 2001, “their bodies arcing and convulsing around invisible forms, their limbs swerving in contrary directions and their movements apparently refracted from one part of the body to another with no implicit reference to any predetermined dance vocabulary.” (See what I mean about difficult to describe?)

All the more reason, David said, to get some lightness into the mix. A Play for Love “delivers a fanciful romp through the battle-of-the-sexes, and the trials, tribulations, and triumph of love,” reads the official publicity for the new piece, which also describes world-renowned author David Glass’ scenario:

“Desperate to marry-off his beautiful but insufferable daughter, Baptista, a wealthy merchant of Venice, promises Petruchio, a mercenary cavalier, rich ducats of gold if he can successfully woo, wed, and rid the house of Katharina. Irresistibly intrigued, Petruchio accepts the challenge. And what follows, no one could foresee.”

Whitney Huell and Nicholas Keeperman join company dancers in ‘A Play for Love’ / Photo by Ali Fleming

This conflation of the tragic and the comic should make for some welcome relief, and according to David that’s perfectly all right: We don’t live in the ’80s anymore, when dance strayed into some pretty uncomfortable “outer limits” (whole companies dancing nude; or women throwing themselves against walls with as much force as possible; or choreography that took on topics such as AIDS with confrontational ferocity).

“Contemporary dance has always touched on the politics of the day, or on the struggles of the people of the day, and that’s fine: I’ve done that also,” David said. But at a time when everyday life is as contentious as ever, he added, “I just wanted to let people sit in the theater and take a freakin’ break.” And there’s hardly a better way to touch on the foundations of theater than through the bard’s flawed but lovable characters.

“He just knows about humanity, and how we all interact together,” David said. “It’s such a joy to have literature that lasts this long, and that can be relevant even today. … Because you can never stop learning about Shakespeare, right?”

 

 

For tickets call 816-931-8993 or go to www.kcballet.orgTo reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor; send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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