Off the handles
A husband-wife team argues it's curtains for the dance/theater divide.
“I don’t think, Is this dance or theater? Not even for a minute,” says choreographer Annie-B Parson, 51, by phone from New York. “It’s a waste of time.” In that case, we’ll just call Comme Toujours Here I Stand—at the Museum of Contemporary Art beginning Thursday 4—a show.
Parson and her husband, Paul Lazar, 55, founded Big Dance Theater in 1991. Comme Toujours is the company’s 15th show; number 16, Supernatural Wife, premieres in Paris next March. Two of these productions played Chicago, also at the MCA: A Simple Heart (1997), with “about ten spoken words,” says Lazar, leaned heavily toward dance, while their 2002 production of playwright Mac Wellman’s Antigone slid more easily into the theater column. For nearly two decades, Lazar has collaborated with the genre-blurring New York performance collective the Wooster Group. And Parson’s last two choreographic gigs outside of Big Dance were Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and the David Byrne/Brian Eno concert tour.
As our colored tabs attest, Time Out Chicago sorts shows by type—so do audiences and venues. “Genres are handles,” says Peter Taub, 14-year director of the MCA’s performance programs. (He adds, accurately, that “you can count on one hand” the theaters that, like the MCA, regularly commission and present companies like Big Dance in the U.S.) “People still respond to general categories as points of entry,” Taub says, “but the lives people lead are not defined by one-thing-at-a-time experiences.” As Parson, a professor at NYU, wryly notes, “Our lives aren’t very narrative.”
Albeit fictional, a case in point is Cléo, protagonist of the 1962 Agnès Varda film Cléo de 5 à 7, whose original shooting script was the sole blueprint for Comme Toujours. (Lazar and Parson hadn’t seen the film, and forbade each other from watching it. “Give yourself rules,” the latter advises. “There’s nothing worse than a blank canvas.”) Cléo de 5 à 7 follows, in real time, an unremarkable pop singer as she wanders Paris awaiting the results of a test for cancer. “Internally,” Lazar observes, “she’s wafting between the searing reality of the present moment and all of these things that pull her away [from it].”
To re-create this story for the stage, Big Dance saw no point in confining itself to one discipline’s set of tools, or eschewing sets and costumes to make its job easier. “How does she end up in a bedroom, and one second later she’s out in the street? The problems of translating film to live performance were physical, and I feel like we were more involved in the kinesthetics of that than of dance,” Parson says. “Whatever ‘dance’ is.”
Viewers may decide whether Comme Toujours is theater or dance, but Lazar and Parson hope we reject the question entirely. Now that spoken text in dance is commonplace, both genres are just bodies in action on a stage, after all. So is the only useful distinction left the one between art as event and art as object? Lazar won’t say, “but that idea is incredibly invigorating, very open and surprising, and lively and unpredictable, and all those things are good, so let’s hope so!” he exclaims. Parson’s response to the same question—I interviewed them separately—points more directly to the historical wedge between dance and theater.
“I wish [theater] directors would be more involved with the body as an expressive tool and trust it. I wish there was less focus on the text as the supreme king.… I hope more work is on the cusp. The theater needs dance. Bad.”
Bessie Award–winning whatever-it-is Comme Toujours Here I Stand plays the MCA Stage Thursday 4, Saturday 6 and Sunday 7.