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Parsons Company Dances with Drones at Philadelphia's Prince Theater

by Lewis J Whittington
December 10, 2016
Prince Theater
1412 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
(215) 422-4580
Choreographer David Parsons has been collaborating for months with robotic systems designers led by Dr. Youngmoo Kim at Drexel University in Philadelphia for a dance-drone project called "The Machines." The full development of the piece will involve eight drones, but the curtain came up on two drones in their first test flight at NextMove Dance at the Prince, December 7-11. They hover like miniature starships as the Parsons troupe was clustered below.

The technology behind it is groundbreaking in this setting, because they can’t be controlled like outside drones with signals bouncing off of satellites. Indoors they have to be pre-programmed in an infrared field.

Parsons spoke after the performance with Dr. Kim, whose team was in the audience. His interest in creative expression through robotics is matched by Parsons choreographic potential using robotics - an auspicious partnering indeed.

But since the drones just descend and swoop, but basically loiter mid-air with undisclosed intent. The best moment is when one is eye-level with a dancer and seemingly reacting magnetically to her movement. Meanwhile, below the dancer are flying under the surveillance with some signature Parsons choreography- ensemble patterns gliding in sinuous geometrics. Will this be a dance final frontier? Tech enthusiasts in the audience were fascinated, but dance fans seemed underwhelmed by these flights of drone fancy.

In "Finding Center" scored to music by Thomas Newman, three male-female couples in a series of friezes with the men women held in positions and swirling ensemble configurations, with aerial fireworks carving out exclusively human space. Parsons central pas deux, danced by Ian Spring and Sara Braverman, was a smoldering duet laced with intricate lifts that keep moving. At one point Spring has Braverman wrapped around his neck in a gorgeous embrace as they lowered to the floor, she perched on his side as he dragged over the stage.

The snappy interlude "Hand Dance" (2003) was danced by a chorus line of spotlighted arms and hands moving to hoe-down music in snappy patterns a la Busby Berkeley.

"Almah" by choreographer Katarzyna Skarpetowska was the only non-Parson work on the program. The title is an Arabic word that can mean many things, artistic expression via song or dance and sometimes the feminine aspect of the male psyche, which was a narrative floating in this scenario of joy and heartbreak. Geena Pacareu and Spring partnered in an expressive dance to music by Klezmer music of Ljova.

The full company piece was the revival of Parsons’ wildly popular 2005 work "In The End" set to a suite of songs by the Dave Matthews Band. An unabashed crowd-pleaser with very commercially stylized appeal, its message of impending doom overcome by carpe dance diem, looked dated already, but fueled by tight unison work and millennial esprit, it still worked.

And no one ever gets tired of Parsons’ 1982 solo "Caught," set to electro-percussive music by Robert Fripp. Originally danced by Parsons himself, it is now a virtuosic piece on any number of Parsons’ dancers. This time Mr. Spring was chosen. He stood in pools of light and wound up the body electric with rippling torso and Samurai focus. Then out of complete darkness he was aloft caught by a strobe light in jumps that made it appear that he was in perpetual mid-air motion. His sequence of jetes lasted all the way around the stage without him appearing to touch down. He was airborne and otherwise punched into another dimension without a drone in sight.
Parsons Dance Company performs in David Parsons' 'The Machines' at Philadelphia's Prince Theater.

Parsons Dance Company performs in David Parsons' "The Machines" at Philadelphia's Prince Theater.

Photo © & courtesy of Bill Hebert

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