People always laugh at David Parker. But the choreographer, who directs a contemporary dance ensemble called The Bang Group, says he doesn’t mind.
“I started making things, and people started laughing,” Parker says. “Sometimes I have no idea why they think it’s funny, and sometimes I try to capitalize on it.”
When The Bang Group turns up in New Brunswick on July 29, performing at the Victoria J. Mastrobuono Theater as part of the free Summer Series at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, there should be plenty of “nyuks” to go around. Parker guesses that what tickles his audiences is not his use of tap dancing, but what he calls the “incongruity” of his images — the Hollywood-inspired bromances and the not-so-subtle blending of high art and vaudeville.
Take the duet “Friends of Dorothy,” for instance. Gay viewers of a certain age will recognize the title as pre-Stonewall code for a homosexual orientation, but the cowboys who swagger manfully through the piece and waltz each other to the soundtrack from the musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” don’t seem to realize, at first, what’s going on.
Parker admits the dance is autobiographical. It recalls his innocence as an 8-year-old, wielding a pop gun and dutifully imitating the stereotypes he saw at the movies, and later his awakening desire for a gay romance. “To me it’s not so much camp as day-dreams,” Parker says. “So I think the audience finds it funnier than I do.” Alex Biegelson and Tyner Dumortier, two dancers from the all-male ensemble 10 Hairy Legs, will perform this number as guest artists.
Graduate students from the Dance Education program at Rutgers will also guest at the event, appearing in “Surrender Dorothy,” a dance Parker created for them. The choreographer says this piece, set to songs from “The Wizard of Oz,” offers a preview of a larger “Oz”-themed work-in-progress whose premiere is still a year away.
Other comic works on this mixed bill include “Nut/Cracked Suite,” with excerpts from Parker’s signature work. Parker incorporated The Bang Group in 1995, but says his career took off after the 2003 premiere of “Nut/Cracked,” his postmodern sendup (with bubble wrap and thumb-sucking) of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas classic. “I can remember when ‘Nut/Cracked’ really hit. We had a two-week run at what was still Dance Theater Workshop, and it was sold-out before we opened,” Parker says. “Now it has become our most popular touring piece. We’ve done it over 250 times.”
Despite his success as a funny guy, Parker says his latest works are taking him back to his roots in tap dancing. Because he also trained as a contemporary artist, pieces like “Settling Scores” and “12 X 4” are hardly the usual step ball change, though. Parker’s experience dancing for Anita Feldman, an experimental hoofer who severed the connection between tap and jazz, has led him to music by Morton Feldman and Steve Reich.
Reich’s “Clapping Music” supplies the score for “12 X 4,” but instead of clapping with their hands Parker’s dancers mostly tap the rhythms with their feet. He says he has divided the two lines of counterpoint among four dancers, giving himself space to add choreography.
“I’m trying to make the visual information as compelling as the aural information,” he says. At one point, they do clap. “It’s a moment really,” he says. “It’s six repetitions of 12, where they clap one of the lines of music with their hands, and they do the other line with their feet. Each of them is the whole counterpoint, which is extremely hard, but they’ve gotten it.”
Translating Feldman’s duet “For John Cage” into tap dancing was even more challenging, because Feldman wrote his piece for violin and piano. Parker, who called his own piece for four dancers “Settling Scores,” says he decided to tackle this music to spur his creativity. “How do we sustain sounds?” he asked himself. “Can you make a dense run of sounds that’s like a piano? Or can we slide? Are there ways of blurring the sound?”
Though Parker says he wonders if Feldman would recognize his own composition, the choreographer feels his adaptation is in the spirit of Feldman’s dedication to his fellow composer John Cage. In Feldman’s score, in addition to Cage-ian passages of silence, “There are things that are impossible, and that is also like John Cage — the instructions you cannot fulfill. There will be 1½ 16th notes juxtaposed to a quarter note, and you can’t just do it. You have to figure out something else to do. So, there are a whole bunch of tricks in it that throw you back on your own resources.
“I’m in a new phase of my work right now. Whether things are funny, or not, is not important to me. I’m open to being funny, but I’m not trying.”
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