Annie-B Parson on Choreography as a Way of Life
To Annie-B Parson, choreography isn’t confined to the studio and the stage; rather, practically everything around us abounds with movement that’s worth paying attention to. In her new, aptly titled book, The Choreography of Everyday Life, an inventive, observant, and witty ode to her relationship with dance and movement over the course of her lifetime, she delves into exactly that belief.
Dance has long, or perhaps always, been a part of Parson’s sensibility. From a young age, she began exploring the art form, taking choreography classes in high school and at age 16 starting her 20-year-long ballet training. Initially focused on the visual arts and set on a career in painting, Parson eventually shifted to the world of performance in college, and went on to earn her master’s in dance at Columbia University. Soon after graduating, at the age of 25, she choreographed her first major theater production, Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, through which she met the actor and director Paul Lazar, whom she later married. In 1991, together with Lazar and their collaborator Molly Hickok, Parson co-founded Big Dance Theater.
From that point forward, Parson threw herself into the world of dance. Over the past 30-plus years with Big Dance Theater, her work has amounted to more than 20 choreographed and co-created works—ranging from pure dance pieces, to adaptations of literature and plays, to original works. She has been commissioned by theaters including the Old Vic Theatre in London, the Théâtre National de Chaillot in Paris, and Les Subsistances in Lyon, and back in New York, institutions such as The Japan Society, The Kitchen, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Beyond Big Dance, Parson’s inventive oeuvre extends in seemingly infinite directions: opera, pop music, television, movies, ballet, marching bands, symphonies. A frequent and close collaborator with the legendary David Byrne, Parson has choreographed two of his world tours; his musical with Fatboy Slim, Here Lies Love; and most recently, his highly acclaimed Broadway hit American Utopia. Other collaborations include two large-scale works in repertory with the Martha Graham Dance Company; a solo for Wendy Whelan, commissioned by the Royal Ballet; and choreography for Ivo Van Hove’s rendition of David Bowie’s musical Lazarus. The eclecticness of Parson’s body of work is rivaled only by that of her choreographic style, which finds inspiration in everything from traditional ballet, to Russian folk dances, to pedestrians on the sidewalk. A meticulous attentiveness and a whimsical ingenuity are the hallmarks of everything she does.
On this episode, Parson speaks with Andrew about how the pandemic has altered our understanding of the ways our bodies relate to one another, why she considers TikTok a new kind of folk dance, and choreography as a means of controlling and testing time.
Parson talks about how Covid-19 changed the way our bodies move in relation to one another; TikTok as a new kind of domestic folk art form; and the writing process for her new book, The Choreography of Everyday Life.
Parson reflects on her upbringing in Chicago and her uphill battle to begin learning ballet at age 16, and explains how a slight fear of her college advisor, the painter Barkley Hendricks, spurred her to leap from visual art to dance.
Parson speaks about choreographing her first major theater production, Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, and her ongoing collaborative relationship with her now-husband, Paul Lazar, ever since. She also discusses her choreographic influences and the process of founding Big Dance Theater with Lazar and their friend Molly Hickok.
Parson explains the components of her choreographic style, including the inspiration she finds in the work of Kafka and in English grammar.
Parson delves into her collaborations with David Byrne over the years—including for his musicals Here Lies Love and American Utopia—as well as with other renowned musicians, including St. Vincent and Lorde.
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Welcome to the program.
ANNIE-B PARSON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
AZ: So I wanted to begin somewhere super simple, which is just to hear how you define choreography.
AP: Choreography is the aesthetic and intentional organization of the body in space.
AZ: And time?
AP: How would I define time?
AZ: No. How does time play into choreography?
AP: Ohhh, that’s a big one. Time is an element that you can play with in choreography. It’s always happening, as opposed to the visual arts, so it must be attended to.
AP: You want to be its master, not its servant, because we’ve all sat in performances where we felt the time was not attended to well. Dance will always be durational because it’s happening in real time. So I guess to your question, the reason that I didn’t include the organization of the body in time and space is because the space part, I guess I perceive as the most fundamental. Time is a compositional element that is always happening, needs attention, needs crafting. But, I would say—I’m going to go out on a limb—that in choreography you might be able to stop time. And you can’t stop time in the world. You know more about time than I do.
AZ: But you can in the world that you make.
AP: I think you can in choreography. That’s the only world I can speak to. So, I have felt time stop. I can make an effort to control time with such muscular attention that I can speed it up, slow it down, and so forth. In fact, now I’m recalling that… I think Gertrude Stein said the reason that theater made her nervous, I think was her word, is because there is a sense that time will be controlled when the curtain goes up. And it’s not the time that you expect. It’s an element of choreography.
AZ: Thank you for clarifying that.
AZ: I was curious what you thought about that. So we’re going to talk a bit about your book, which I’m holding right now, The Choreography of Everyday Life, that I’ve been enjoying tremendously.
AZ: In it, there’s this one quote, you say, “Readiness is insight plus timing.” And I just wanted to use that as a way in to talking about Covid a little bit, which this book came out of—so we won’t spend too long on it, but just a little bit. Proximity and distance—and you’ve talked about this a bit in the last couple years—was a concern for everyone. I want to hear how you were thinking about it. In a way, you’ve been practicing this for twenty-plus, thirty years, and all of a sudden the whole world was thinking about proximity in space. Did you kind of feel like, “Welcome to the party?”
AP: It was a bit comical, yeah. But I also loved watching all the choreography in those early days of Covid on the street, and people truly sensing that the body, our very presence, our sweat, our breath, our liveness, had currency. It mattered more than anything. So the choreography of the bodies in space on the street was really a good performance for me to watch. And it got me thinking—it’s kind of how I started writing the book—was, Wow, when dance comes into the public space, very pedestrian, but dance in that the body is being attended to with particularity. It’s pretty interesting to watch everybody’s choices.
AZ: And you write about that with great humor, which I’ll get into. But ahead of that, and I know I keep pushing it off, but you seem to turn to this idea of things happen because of things you reject, which I’m a big fan of. So I was curious what you were rejecting in lockdown and what sort of drew you to the work you made during that time?
AP: Oh my goodness. I think what I was rejecting in lockdown was pretty communal in that because of so many things we were disallowed, so many other things came into view. And one of those was slowness. The time of lockdown was durational. It was like a Rothko painting. It just sort of was like molasses. It was so slow. But we enjoyed it, rather than fighting against it. Or, I enjoyed it rather than fighting against it. As somebody that’s pretty quick and moves around pretty quickly in space—some people think I’m running when I’m walking, but it’s my tempo, my natural tempo—I enjoyed and embraced the rejection of that speed. Whatever my rhythm was that I had become accustomed to was not important anymore. It didn’t have any value anymore.
I sat more, I strolled more, I wrote more, I drew more. All these things that are the opposite of, if you can imagine, standing in front of a group of people and telling them how to move. How every second of the time is filled with their body is very, very stressful. It’s very intense, and I didn’t do that. I sewed masks, in the early days [of Covid], when you couldn’t buy them, very slowly. So yeah, time really, really changed.
I do think that in the big picture we do reject. Our rejections are inspiring and generative. When you say, “Oh, I’d never do it like that.” Well, how would you do it? And that is some of the most inspiring stuff, especially when you’re younger and you’re working with people and you reject the way that they see the world, make art, whatever it is, live. You say, “Oh, I don’t want to live like my parents.” And then you create your own. It can be a very generative act, rejection.
AP: I even think competition, I talk about this a little in the book, is really downgraded because it’s competition. A good competitor, what they used to call a good competitor in the forties, like I’ve read that in obituaries, “He was a good competitor.” It’s like we forgot, that can be a really generative positioning that someone is raising the stakes for you.
AZ: Yeah, absolutely. It doesn’t happen with participation trophies.
AP: Right. No. [Laughter]
AZ: It kind of goes away.
AZ: Well, I want to hear a bit about the impetus to write the book because you have written books before and they’ve always been in an interesting form. This book has this kind of… Well, it’s a memoir, in a certain way.
AP: I guess, yeah.
AZ: It has dance theory and it’s a lot of different things, but what it really is, is kind of a clue into how you see the world and how you think in jumpy, connected, synthesized ways.
AZ: So what got you to write the book?
AP: Well, what got me to write the book was somebody asked me if I would want to write a book and I said, “Yes, but what?” And then because it wasn’t like the other books that you refer to, which were charts and choreography ideas, and they said, “Just write something.” I really feel tone is very underrated in general. The tone of her voice when she said that, I took it through the whole writing process. She was so light and it gave me the freedom to just write something. And what came out was stuff I’d been thinking about for thirty years, about the way the body moves in space. And, in the domestic space. So because I was in a domestic space, because it was Covid, these conversations that kept happening between my son and my husband were very present.
AZ: On the phone?
AP: They were on the phone and they were very present in my day. So they were seeping into everything, just like the radio does, and step out the window. It was a big John Cage piece, Covid. Just whatever’s coming in is what’s happening.
AZ: Amazing. And you really feel like it had a lot to do with the provocation, the tone she set.
AP: I do.
AZ: For this space?
AP: I definitely do. If she had said, “Write your theory about…” Ugh, no way. That would’ve been so heavy. I don’t think anything would’ve come out. But there was a lightness to her tone.
AZ: And you get into this idea of folk dance in a way. And then you bring in the idea of TikTok.
AZ: It’s probably the most novel thing I’ve heard about it, of this relating TikTok to a new kind of folk dance. I was curious if you could elaborate a bit on that for us. What is happening there?
AP: I think of folk dance as a very natural physical form that a community builds together without authorship. So TikTok always has struck me as a domestic folk art form. It happens often in bedrooms, on beds, or in the living room, or the backyard. It’s created by just people that are dancing with their friends or their family. And so to me, it checks every box of a folk dance form.
AZ: And this idea of connecting through the screen, which is also something you were doing a bit during Covid, you were pushing against this idea that we can’t dance together in a way.
AP: Well, I was trying to embrace, I think, eventually, the idea that a new dance form is being created. I don’t know if it should be called “dance.” I think it needs a new name. But I think it’s a new form. And the beautiful thing about dance, as is the same with poetry, is it just keeps reinventing itself depending on the limitations of what’s going on in the world. That’s what was going on in the world, so dance got sent into the virtual world from the visceral world and there it was a new form.
The reason I don’t think it’s dance is because I kind of think one of the essential parts of dance is liveness. I kind of think one of the essential parts of dance is the energy that happens between you and your partner or you and the audience. If you go and see, for instance, a great, virtuosic dancer that leaps through the air, your body, inside, leaps through the air. It’s actually leaping. There’s a word for it—it’s called kinesthetic empathy. That doesn’t happen when you’re looking at a screen. You’re actually denied that energy loop. It’s literally not happening. So it’s something else, but it is something.
AZ: Yeah. It’s kind of vernacular folk dance.
AP: Yeah. So I think it needs a new name.
AZ: You were recognizing TikToks, or defining it, or what it was, you were recognizing what was happening on the street through this book. So much of it is the recognition of the movement in the streets and how people are in proximity to each other. We talked about this a little bit. So I was curious, as you walk through life and sort of understand the motion in daily life, do you make visual notes? Do you write notes? What’s your process in terms of taking note of what you experience on the streets?
AP: The tradition that I suppose you could say that I came from is a very pedestrian tradition. That would be the Judson [Memorial] Church. Those choreographers—Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer—they were making movement that was embracing the movement of the streets. Beautiful pieces that moved from one side of the stage to the other, just walking, and then they come back and they’re naked. They walk across again and someone falls. These beautiful embraces of a rejection of the big leap and that kind of virtuosity. This was a new virtuosity.
So I can’t really say that I’m that kind of choreographer exactly because it’s more like I learned that and then I try to do something different, I guess. Or I felt the world looked a little different than the way they felt the world. But it’s definitely in my bones. I guess, more I see on the street, beside the Covid choreographies, is events that are dramatic. I find myself gawking when issues of tension, or sharing weight of some kind, sharing space in an interesting way. Dualities in space are interesting to me. I think I’m taking note of more things like that.
AZ: And when you wrote, you really did translate what you sort of feel viscerally, in your body, into language.
AZ: And you do it in a very specific form that I want to talk about. But what is your relationship to writing and has it changed through this book?
AP: Oh boy. I don’t think of myself as a writer at all, so I think my relationship to writing is very free. My relationship to writing, the closest relationship, I could say, is as a reader. And then, being inspired by ideas that I glean from reading. But I’m still a choreographer when I’m writing, as you could see on the page. I mean, I really choreograph the page, and I use the rhythms of language. I embrace this idea that I would have these blocks of text because I thought they would look choreographic on the page, and then I would have a very short line to follow it. And that line would be five to seven syllables, and it would sound percussive in a certain way.
AZ: They all end on these very short beats.
AP: Very short beats.
AZ: “A readiness.” “The wide shot.”
AZ: And this sort of staccato beat that for me at least, it helped me as a reader understand what you had just said.
AP: Oh, good.
AZ: It gave me a moment.
AP: Good. And it is about breath and time and that’s very much about dance-making. Dancemakers are really good at that. We really get how to deal with time because we have to. This was not analytical at all in my mind, but I see it now, that I was trying to use my strengths. That I understand, at least for myself as a reader, that I need a breath, that I need time, that I need space on the page. Not to say I don’t love, like, [David] Markson or somebody that gives you no space and no time. I do, and that’s also a use of time.
AZ: Different in time.
AP: It’s very dense. Well, you speed it up, in a sense. So I think one of the things that I embraced also as a writer—even saying “as a writer” feels funny—but as a choreographer who’s writing—
AZ: You do have a couple books out there, so it’s okay. [Laughs]
AP: … is form. So when you’re making dance, there is always a playing with form itself. And I use a lot of poetic forms when I’m making dance. But I had this fun idea. It occurred to me that every dance I’ve ever made had braids in it. Pretty much. I think maybe every. I had done a chart of braids in my last book, and I thought, Well, I don’t want to have this dance not have braids. So I decided that the structure will be a braid. So whether the reader understands that or not, it helped me because it gives me shape. It gives my brain a way to… So there are five strands of ideas that I’m braiding throughout, and that’s by form. It’s very choreographic.
AZ: And it all involves some form of humor and wit, which gets into everything… It seems like you’re trying to get that into most of the things you do.
AP: I’m not trying to, but I’m glad that it’s there.
AZ: And it’s important to your work. What are your thoughts about humor? Especially in the context of modern dance, that for an uninitiated audience or someone who doesn’t know a lot about it, I think there’s a common thought that it’s so serious.
AP: Oh, it is.
AZ: That it’s so not fun.
AP: Oh, it isn’t. [Laughs] I’m with you. I don’t know if I like to think my work is funny, but I mean it’s not like ha-ha funny. Hopefully it’s witty on some level. But what is wit but just a kind of playing with intelligences that are happening? And I think also because I embrace the people-ness of my performers, they’re not neutral bodies in space. I mean, I have made work like that, but it’s not typically what I’m interested in. I’m interested in those people. So it’s really, really could be quite funny because people are weird. [Laughs]
AZ: And you’ve always had these characters.
AP: Yeah, definitely.
AZ: As part of your troupe.
AP: It’s true. I feel like I’m looking for beauty, but I guess my perception of beauty is odd, a little bit. Something that I find a bit strange, in a cool way.
AZ: Right. And you took note of the shift in our everyday choreography during Covid. And now that we’re sort of out in a way, do things look different to you now? Are you noticing this massive new kind of choreography or have we returned to the old street choreography?
AP: Hmm, it’s just all so dynamic. I feel like, for instance, I walked into your office without a mask—that’s very new. So I’m not sure we as bodies in the public space really have decided how to comport ourselves completely. Do we hug each other as much? Are we shaking hands a little more? I think we are. But I’m not sure there’s been a radical shift. But I would guess that people are much more aware of each other’s bodies than they were before Covid.
AZ: And awareness maybe in general. I mean, you talk about this sort of panoptical awareness as you walk through the streets,
AZ: This noticing of so much—
AZ: —and so much you bring to bear on what you notice—
AZ: —from your own experiences. It seems like New York City is important to you.
AP: It is.
AZ: How important has it been, not just the community, but the city itself to the development of your work?
AP: Yeah, it’s such a great question. It actually makes me want to cry a little bit because… Well, just starting with the most recent New York City that we know as the New York City in Covid, I thought, Okay, so we all have our New York City conceits, one of which is that we’re really good at walking as a group really quickly. I thought New York was really the place to be throughout Covid. I mean, it was boots-on-the-ground. We saw everything. We participated in everything. And I write a lot about that. Ecstatic dancing on the streets when Biden was elected. Real ecstatic dancing.
AZ: Talk about seeing your mailman.
AP: See my mailman. Oh, is that in my book?
AP: My mailman and I danced and hugged.
AZ: I’m not sure if it was in the book or you talked about it, but you talk about a moment where you were truly ecstatic with someone else.
AP: Yeah, a stranger. It was all over the city. And throughout the protests in the summer of 2020, we were all physically there in space. It’s not that we heard about it on the radio, we were doing it, and we saw the whole city. I mean, there were so many things that were happening throughout Covid that friends that had left, the diaspora into Hudson, New York, or whatever to bake bread. That’s lovely. But actually, we were living that history, and I found it intense, fascinating, beautiful, moving. Yeah, it was a great place to be.
But before that, New York has always been a teacher to me. My mother told me that some babies are born and they come out of the womb and they say, “I want to move to New York,” and I was one of them. I do think it’s a curiosity of wanting to have that kind of inspiration of a crisis of artists before Covid for decades. I saw tons and tons and tons of performance and it was my church. It’s a community of people that are in constant conversation, through their work, around how to live, how to describe the world, and how to approach form. It was always, a really… Well, a place where I felt like I couldn’t kind of live without and still do my work. Now, the jury’s out because we’re just creeping back into the pleasures of this city, which are: going to museums, seeing shows, all the public things. And it’s all come back for the first time starting three weeks ago in full force. I’m seeing a lot of work again, and so on and so forth, and it feels different.
AP: I don’t really know yet what it is.
AZ: It doesn’t feel like it used to feel here. Something is happening.
AP: Something. Something. Because it’s so dynamic, I’m not going to be a prophet, I’m just going to say, “Not sure.”
AZ: Yeah. You’re not originally from here. Where did you grow up?
AP: I grew up in Chicago.
AZ: And what was your childhood like in Chicago?
AP: Well, my father was a huge dance fan, so I saw a lot of dance. He liked experimental dance, he liked ballet. He danced a lot. He came from a family that danced socially a lot for fun. So there was a lot of dancing. But I mean, I don’t think he wanted me to be a dancer or anything like that.
AZ: You weren’t put into dancing.
AP: No. I was actually a visual art major in college. I really thought I was going that road.
AZ: And how did you get into dance?
AP: Just like my advisor—you’re not going to believe this—was Barkley Hendricks.
AP: Yeah. I mean, I’ve always been just such a giant fan, and he was quite intimidating. He probably did not want to be there. The dance department was just very friendly. So I ended up spending a lot more time there. It was just not intentional.
AZ: So you had no formal training in dance before?
AP: I did, I did. I had danced quite a bit in high school, and had studied choreography in high school, but I wasn’t focused on it the way I was on painting.
AZ: How did you get into studying choreography in high school?
AP: I went to a really good public high school that had two choreography teachers.
AP: Yeah. Wow is right.
AZ: I mean, I don’t think any of the—
AP: Also, a brilliant painting teacher and a brilliant art history teacher. It was just crazy. It was just some luck.
AZ: And you trained in ballet?
AP: Yeah, I’ve always trained it. I trained in ballet for twenty years.
AZ: When did you start?
AP: I started when I was 16, when I got my driver’s license. I drove to ballet class because my mother did not want to drive me to ballet class.
AZ: So you didn’t do ballet because you couldn’t get a ride?
AP: So I didn’t do ballet because I couldn’t get a ride, and I got my license, and I literally got my license and drove to ballet. I didn’t even go home.
AZ: Wow. That’s how bad you wanted to learn.
AP: That’s how bad I wanted to learn. I signed up for a class, a beginning class, and it was all little kids.
AP: Yeah, it was 4-year-olds. They didn’t have adult ballet then. I just studied ballet with kids and it was fine. And then I just kept studying it and I studied all the way until I had a baby.
AZ: Why do we, speaking of babies and young children, why do we get kids into dance so young? What is the advantage of a child?
AP: I feel like it’s an organized system of movement and somehow parents understand that children need to move. They dance so much before you even tell them to dance. They’re dancing so, “Oh, he loves to dance,” and so forth. But I think something else is going on in class—we call it “class” in dance—that’s going on in class, which is, the discipline is so intense that people I know that studied ballet as children, they ended up doing all sorts of other things. Obviously, most of them didn’t become ballerinas or dancers, but they always would attribute their scholarliness, their studiousness, their discipline to their ballet class.
AP: Rigor. It’s so hard.
AP: It’s so hard.
AZ: Do you think that if you had trained as a child, the movements you make now would’ve been different?
AP: I kind of love that you’re asking me that because I kind of think they would’ve been because there is this certain freedom in not having that in your body your whole life.
AZ: Yeah. This pedestrian style that you do.
AP: Exactly. It’s hard to let go of that ballet stuff. [Laughs]
AZ: It seems like it wouldn’t have informed the way you’re thinking now.
AP: I don’t think so. I think I kind of lucked out that my mom wouldn’t let me go, now that you’re saying that. Never thought about it.
AZ: At 25, you had your first opportunity to choreograph. So you learn a bit, you go through school, and then you have this opportunity, I believe, in a play. Is this right?
AP: Well, I mean, I choreographed a lot before then, like choreographed just dancers.
AZ: But this was a big project. It was when you met your partner, Paul [Lazar].
AP: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true.
AZ: What was that project?
AP: That project was a [Bertolt] Brecht play. I think it was The Good [Person] of Szechwan. And through a friend of a friend, somebody needed a choreographer. And I walked into this rehearsal and I met Paul. I knew so little about theater, that I didn’t know there was a director. That’s how little I knew.
AZ: Because you had fully focused on visuals and dance.
AP: Fully focused on dance. I knew all about [Merce] Cunningham. I knew all about [George] Balanchine. I knew all about very obscure stuff in dance, but I knew nothing about theater. But I was a big reader, so I immediately glommed onto the whole theater thing. We did Ibsen and Chekhov and Gogol. I mean, the writing is so brilliant. And of course, I loved it. I had full reign in this theater company that I ended up working in to make dances. I would go to the New York Public Library and watch these dances. A lot of the literature was Russian because we were doing Chekhov and Gogol and stuff. I would watch these Russian folk dances and we didn’t have our phones to like… So even better, I would just imitate them, stand in front of them, then write down whatever I could. And so they were these really weird versions that I made of these Russian folk dances because I wanted to bring folk dance into the theater for some reason.
AZ: So you were sampling?
AP: Yeah. So sampling, and just kind of badly learning them, and then making new material out of them. Once I was working in theater, I never ever could make sense of letting go of the pleasures of theater: character, circumstance, cause and effect, costume, props, all these great things. I just didn’t like the stories, or I wasn’t interested in the stories, but theatrical elements then just like, seeped into my work.
AZ: And you immediately started this very long, fruitful partnership with Paul Lazar.
AZ: What is the strength of his, and maybe you’re already talking about that, that you rely on most, that you admired most in the beginning, have learned the most from, and that you rely on most now?
AP: Yeah. So he is trained in theater as an actor and a director. So when we work together, it’s a bit hard of course to tease out exactly who does what. But he’s just so much better at understanding the play from underneath. I’m much more interested in the compositional elements of the play. At that point, if I had tried to direct a play, I think I would’ve been very lost without him. I think I still would be pretty lost. That’s a very particular way. It’s a particular doorway in. And even though he thinks very experimentally, his dramaturgy, if you want to call it that, or it’s just thinking about the way the play works and what’s needed and what’s happening, it was essential to what we made. He could talk to the performers in ways, even the dancers who we were asking to do all these theatrical things, in ways I could never even have thought about.
AZ: You’ve also remarked on the influence of Pina Bausch who you were looking at a lot at that time. What did you love most when you saw her work? What was this thing that, connected to what you were just talking about, that—
AP: Very connected.
AZ: —really lightened you up?
AP: Well, it was jaw dropping when she first came to BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] because we had been seeing—I say we, this sort of loose group of choreographers at the time that were in their twenties—seeing drawstring pants, T-shirts, Trisha Brown-phrasing, pedestrian stuff. And here came this, it felt very post–World War II in aroma rather than post-Vietnam [War]. An aroma of a European past that was interested in society—men and women, their relationships, their conflicts, smoking, kissing. All these things that my forebears had totally not, they were not interested in. But she took this material and she used loops, and all this stuff. So it wasn’t narrative, it wasn’t story ballet. So it was everything that I loved. Everything. It was like being at a party with the most cosmopolitan, urbane people and having the time of your life, and the party lasted long into the night.
AZ: And you were also looking at Laurie Anderson?
AP: I worked with her a little bit, too.
AZ: Yeah, at that time.
AP: Yeah, and her stuff, well she’s also very theatrical. She, to me, was like a vaudevillian figure. Her elfish, impish quality of the way she could just sort appear and do stuff, and then with that extraordinary voice.
AZ: And virtuosity on the violin and sort of everything. But it’s funny to think of these multiple influences.
AP: It is, and we all have them, where they seem very disparate, but they’re all sort of crashing into your brain, and they’re all so beautiful and inspiring.
AP: Yeah. Well, that’s how I got my name, was from Big Science.
AZ: Was a nod to Laurie?
AP: Yeah. Definitely. Nobody’s ever mentioned that before. I remember that album coming out, Big Science, and thinking what a cool name. Why not “Big Dance?”
AZ: It’s great. And the aesthetic of the cover of that record—
AZ: —and what you play with in terms of essentialism, sort of like, I want you to look at this here and I’m only going to say one thing.
AP: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]
AZ: So you hear it.
AP: That’s good.
AZ: So a bit about Big Dance Theater, which is your company you’ve run for many years. How did that come about? I mean, you were in the space where you’re seeing Pina Bausch stuff, you’re doing some directing, you’re in a theater company.
AP: It was pure rejection, this idea that you’re inspired by what you don’t want to do. We all have it. You’re in your early twenties, you’re working as a grunt in some situation, you say, “If I was the boss, instead of making that, I’d make that. Instead of doing this, I’d do that.” So I had this friend who I worked with named Molly Hickok and Paul, and we wanted to make a piece. I sometimes think the definition of a choreographer is somebody that’s trying to get people in a room to move like how they want them to move, and that’s it. I was trying to get people in the room and Molly and Paul would come in. And then, “Well, what do we do with it?” You need that loop where you have to find an audience. So we just looked around and tried to find people and it became a company. But we never wanted to be formally a company. We didn’t want anything—
AZ: In terms of physical space.
AP: Yeah, or a budget or applying for things or 501c3 or any of that because we rejected all that. But eventually, we did it all. [Laughter]
AZ: Right, of course. Because you need that stuff, right?
AZ: What’s the process of making a piece at your company? How does it start?
AP: It usually starts with a bunch of things that are really interesting to me, like I said, on the street, for instance, that I see a bunch of stuff and I find it inspiring. I would find a piece of furniture or a piece of a costume and then I’d hear a piece of music. I heard this Okinawan pop song in the early 2000s—I don’t know how I heard it—and I loved it so much. And then I got all into Okinawan pop. And then I was like, “Well, here’s this cool umbrella and here’s this thing and that thing.” And then you bring it all in. It’s almost like a trunk full of cool things, some of which are actually material and some aren’t. And then a text. Usually, Paul and I had read something we loved like The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain, or he had done some audition tapes, and he secretly recorded them, and he wanted to use that. Just, like, whatever.
AZ: Terms of Endearment. It could be a film.
AP: Terms of Endearment. I mean, that was a big one. Just ideas, like, terms of endearment, I brought that in because I liked the idea of doing a very American movie script, but because I had just done an Agnès Varda French film script, so in reaction, too. And then I didn’t like the text, so then I rewrote the whole text in poetic forms. I spent six months studying poetic forms so I could rewrite it. So you see all this stuff comes in, but it’s just completely unrelated. So underneath that, I kind of look back and think there was some belief, if not a religion, that there’s a synthesis in the world of things. That there’s a belief that things will come together, that everything is related if you have the craft to bring it there, whether it’s related through circles or lines, or that you bring it together in some way.
AZ: This is your readiness as insight plus timing.
AP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I mostly—
AZ: So you believe in fate? You believe in this idea that synchronicity occurs.
AZ: It’s fate that brings this Okinawan pop song into your life.
AP: Faith, I would say, not fate.
AP: Faith. That if you put your faith in it, you will reap the benefits of the attention. You are giving attention to that and not to something else. So once you make that decision—like, musically, this is where I want to be even if I don’t understand why—then you have the faith that these other elements will… Even though they’re very disperate—will find their way together because maybe underneath it all, everything is related. So it’s not such a strange idea. The problem is it takes a lot of craft. I still believe it, but it takes a lot of craft, and I wasn’t always successful with that, I think.
AZ: To draw it out.
AZ: So, you’ve had these incredibly long running collaborators with Big Dance—the people you’ve mentioned, but the dancers themselves as well. So what’s the advantage of having this kind of maintained crew, this troupe, in a way?
AP: They hold the material in their bodies, almost like a Rolodex. They are like the back matter in a book. They hold so much material. And because dance is so terribly, horribly, ephemeral, it’s to have somebody that knows all that material. So you can say, like my associate choreographer on almost all the projects I’ve done, is Elizabeth DeMent.
AZ: Fifteen years.
AP: Yeah, and Lizzie, I mean, she literally can say, “What about that phrase we did to the Shirley MacLaine monologue in Terms of Endearment?” And it’s like, “Oh my God, there it is.” And she can just do it. And if she can’t remember it, she can kind of remember it, and then we can look it up, and there it is. It’s so rich. I had this also with Chris Giarmo, who was in American Utopia, because he had been in five Big Dance pieces. So he was just like, it’s so much fun and so deep to have that.
AZ: Chris Giarmo, fascinating character.
AP: Yeah, so great.
AZ: I mean, I’m a fan of his YouTube channel.
AP: Oh yes. Me too. His Kimberly?
AZ: Yeah, Kimberly Clark.
AP: Yeah. Kimberly is a fount of wisdom.
AZ: Aptly named after the toilet paper… [Laughs]
AP: After the toilet paper.
AP: I know.
AZ: You talk about the relationship with the choreographer to the dancers a lot in pieces. I’ve heard you talk, and that it’s seven years, you hit both a groove and a disdain.
AZ: What’s this about? What is this seven-year itch?
AP: I think it’s reality because, now I cannot speak for other choreographers, they may not have had this experience, but when you’re in the lead as a choreographer, you’re very much in people’s business. Specifically, their body. And that body holds everything, right? Your body holds everything—all your memories, all your dreams, everything. And you’re shaping that and you’re choreographing that. I mean, that’s pretty intense. Even if it’s not iterated what is happening, it’s a very, very intimate relationship. People grow up and they need other things, and they need money, and they have children, and they get divorces, and all these things happen to them, which changes their relationship to you. And you can really become a projection screen for them. It’s not a fun position to be a choreographer. I cannot speak to other roles. Maybe it’s equally difficult, but it’s a lot. It’s a lot of leadership and notions of leadership are changing so much now as we speak, right? It’s super interesting. But until—
AZ: How are you seeing that within…?
AP: Oh, well, for instance, if I was like, “Oh, well that thumb that you have on your thigh, can you just move it just… Well, not that way, the other way. And just put a little bit more weight into your fingers. No, not on to your… Maybe try it on the arm of the chair instead because that’s not working.” Listen to that for six months. It’s hard.
AZ: In a time where it’s all about a sense of agency.
AP: That’s right. So now we can’t necessarily do that. And so that relationship is being explored. On the other hand, choreographers throughout time… There’s a brilliant picture of a choreographer, I won’t mention who, looking at the dancer’s foot and picking up the skirt as the person dances. And to me, I see that look on that choreographer’s face as everything. But a dancer might look at that and say, “Ugh, don’t do that.” You know what I mean? So it can become very oppressive. How this all works out? Again, I wouldn’t prophesize, but I think it’s important that it’s being investigated. I am of the belief that dance, because it’s the least lucrative of the arts, it lives outside of the marketplace. It’s also the most radical. So the things that happen in dance politically and in these investigations around leadership and so forth are gonna be the most radical. They’re gonna be the bloodiest in a sense.
AZ: They’re the ones to look at first.
AP: They’re the ones to look at first. Nobody knows it because dance is so obscure, but they seep into the ecosystem of art making in ways that… I mean, I’ve seen it over and over again. It’s really interesting. And they get ironed out.
AZ: Shifts in thought that happen in the dance world seep out into the visual arts and other things?
AP: Definitely. Definitely.
AZ: Help me understand.
AP: Oh gosh. Like Cunningham, for instance. Cunningham, I’ll give that example because he’s the most well-known choreographer. The experiments that he did and the way he handled… Now, I’m just speaking artistically, but the way he handled the body and film, the way he handled the chance elements in the universe in relation to music, in relation to action, I would just say, let’s just go big and say he decentralized the space itself. Do people in the visual art world know that that idea was baked in his studios, all these ideas that he played with? Probably not.
AZ: Even the idea of multimedia, putting sculpture on stage and things like… It’s true things do… Which is maybe why the most interesting artists have always paid such close attention—
AP: To dance.
AZ: —to dance.
AP: Yeah. Like I said, I think that the reason it’s all happening there is because there’s no money. So there’s a freedom. That’s the good side. The bad side is there’s no money.
AZ: Right. How do you go about choosing source material? How do you know what’s going to resonate? What won’t? Do you care? Does it just matter what resonates with you? The rest takes care of itself. How does it work?
AP: Just matters what’s resonating with me. I’ve never really thought about, Will people be interested in this? It’s just when I can see a piece of source material, like let’s speak of text, and imagine music and imagine where dance could occur and why it would occur. And there’s so many great pieces of writing that I love. I’ll mention an example. So right now I’m completely obsessed with “Josephine the Singer” by Franz Kafka. Do you know this story?
AZ: I don’t.
AP: Okay. It is the last story he wrote. It is about a street singer. She’s not good. She stands on a street corner and she performs her songs. It definitely takes place in a shtetl. These people are in great need of joy. They have none and they have no expectation of it. But whenever she sings, even though they don’t think she’s very good, they all come around her and listen and feel different. I love this story so much that I have the feeling, and I also have a musical idea for it, that I have the feeling. That feeling I get, which is: I want to use this as source material. But, I don’t think I should. I’m starting to think I shouldn’t. In fact, I would just rather gather a group of people and have them read it out loud
AP: Because some things just shouldn’t be performed.
AZ: You’ve never done Kafka before?
AP: I haven’t. I’ve put Kafka in a lot of my work in The Mood Room that I did at BAM. There’s Kafka in it.
AP: But I think the other thing that Kafka, like what’s very Kafkaesque to me, is not just the absurdity of bureaucracy in the way he does it. I just reread The Castle, so it’s very fresh.
AZ: He knew it well. He worked in an insurance company.
AP: He knew it well. He did. What’s also very Kafkaesque to me is he’s a very choreographic writer. And it’s not really talked about much, but when I reread The Castle, I took a highlighter and I highlighted all the physical actions. Remember the assistants, the two assistants? Oh gosh, I would love to choreograph them so much. He describes the way they hug and laugh with their arms around each other. It is so expressionistic and strange and choreographic and so good. But anyway, I think some things shouldn’t be staged and they should be read. And maybe, they should be read together in a group.
AZ: Which could be another.
AP: Yeah, could be a piece.
AZ: I mean, grammar is a huge part of how you work and how you generate material for things. How do you think about grammar? And after you explain it, I’d also love for you to tell me, did you understand this early or was this something you developed along the way? Did you notice yourself doing this? Or did you always understand grammar to be at the root of it?
AP: I think I’ve been thinking about grammar for a really long time. I can’t trace back why, but now it seems just very obvious that grammar is so generative for making material. Look, when you’re making dances, there’s a desperation. Where is this material coming from? It’s not like you turn on music and just start dancing, and that’s the choreography. I mean, it’s happened, but you have to generate it from ideas. And so, something like grammar where, as I say in the book, a preposition tells you where you are. We are “across from each other.” My coat is “next to me.” I can take those two words into the studio, take movement material, and use those prepositions to decide where those bodies are going to be in space. The verbs themselves hold velocity in a very particular way. I do all sorts of phrases with just verbs, just bald verbs. I mean, I would call it desperation. Maybe it’s just looking for ways to make dances. [Laughs]
AZ: Right. It’s kind of the way in which you do that.
AZ: How do you think about emotionality in the performance? I mean, there’s so much emotion, whether it’s taken away intentionally or added, but it’s always present.
AP: Yeah. I love the question. It certainly is, especially the way you put it, because it certainly is one of many elements. It is not like on television, the emotion and the narrative are the main elements that the genre is playing with. In my work, and in much work for my generation, there’s emotion, there’s line, there’s space, there’s shape, there’s dynamics, there’s rhythm. It’s one of many elements. However, it is an element and I love playing with it. And I’ve played with it both from the heart, where I… Oh, well, I’d never played with it from the heart. I used to play with it as a random thing. Just add joy here. Oh, just add sadness here, whatever. Just the way I would play with anything. I worked once with Ivo van Hove, and I thought, I like the way he dealt with emotion. It was kind of like, not childish, but childlike where he just wanted something. Whatever it was he wanted, it was a certain emotional state and I thought, He just asks for it. It was really unusual to me. I’ve worked with tons of directors. I watch directors work all the time and they don’t ask for it so much. It’s funny. So I just walked into the studio once…
AZ: Well, they try to direct it.
AP: They try to direct it. Exactly.
AZ: You would never ask directly for it.
AP: Because it comes from the method. Right. But he doesn’t do that. Exactly. He’s more like, “I want this.” I don’t mean that in a baby way. Very direct. And he’s also very physical the way he directs. So after I was working with him, I would just walk in my studio and just take that with me. I was working with this dancer Jennie [Mary Tai] Liu, I would say, “Jennie, I want to feel sad. I’m not feeling sad.” And it worked. I had never approached movement like that.
AZ: So direct.
AP: So direct, so direct. So I guess I’ve hit it from all different angles because definitely in a formal way and also from a cold way of just like, “Please don’t show me any emotion until we’ve earned it.” And that could be twenty shows later and it starts to seep in. That’s really powerful and strong. I’ll totally take the twenty cold shows in order to get the real thing, rather than to have it be coming in the front door.
AZ: It’s interesting how shows change over time. I mean, you choreographed American Utopia.
AZ: Which really profoundly touched me, that show, both before and after Covid and the change of seeing the show before and after. You’d never done a musical.
AZ: It’s surprising that you… It almost felt like this was not a new form for you, but in some way, you were able to do your best work in this space. What was it about that opportunity, the show itself, the moment in time? Why was it so good?
AP: Well, I had been working on that show for fifteen years, basically, because I started working with David on his album with Brian Eno. He had me choreograph two dances. I ended up doing three dances, then four dances he added, for that tour. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, I think it was called. I think that was in 2000-… It was more than fifteen years ago, I think it was 2006. So what I was working on with him, I had been working… That’s like a continuum, you know what I mean? Then I worked on another show, then I worked on Here Lies Love. Then I worked on his thing with St. Vincent (born Anne Erin Clark). So that’s like all one dance as far as I’m concerned because when you’re working with an artist of that caliber, you’re just on this road with them. You know what I mean? Trying to be adjacent to them in a sense. Ride the bike with them. So it wasn’t like I did American Utopia out of the blue. That would’ve been really hard. And some of the songs I had already choreographed, one of them “Road to Nowhere,” was from another show he’d done. And even the ones I hadn’t, I was so familiar. Choreographing to David’s work is very natural for me.
AZ: There’s something that’s just tonally so extraordinarily symmetrical.
AP: Yeah. I mean, instead of having three weeks of rehearsal, I had like fifteen years of rehearsal, literally.
AZ: And that’s why.
AP: Yeah. And that is absolutely why. Absolutely why.
AZ: That it was so resolved.
AP: So lucky. And it was just another show of his, by the way. It became a Broadway show, but it was one of his tours, another tour. And then when it became a Broadway show, the material, the dance material, and the staging that I did, was already created.
AZ: There’s something, I’m struggling finding the right word for it, the synergy between the two of you. The work that comes out of that. It’s detached, but it’s intimate. It has a form that is resolved, but it’s loose. There’s these dualities in all of it. What is it about David that allows for that, that creates space for that? How does he approach it? What is the sort of brilliance of the way he works?
AP: Yeah. Well, he’s a dancer. So he’s an appreciator of dance, as well. He values dance. He knows its importance. He knows a lot about it. He sees a lot of dance for, you know, oh God, he knows. So he’s coming with a huge amount of intelligence around the form. We share, I would say, those references. We don’t need to talk about them, but we’ve both seen Set and Reset and all this stuff. So that’s really nice when you’re working with somebody and you’re sort of on the same plane of… We are also both really mavericks around ceremonies, rituals, folk material. We’re really interested in the way movement and that’s just, we separately are interested in that, but we share it. I listened to him since I was listening to music. Well, but that’s true with tons of people with him, so that’s not unusual. But he was probably the most important aesthetic influence on me. I felt like I could get inside his material really easily, which is not to say that when I worked on [David] Bowie’s musical or when I just worked with Lorde, I can’t get inside their music. It’s a whole different process because I’m learning their music basically. With David, I wasn’t learning his music. I had already choreographed it, basically, because I was always thinking about his material. But that’s true with a lot of people too. So that doesn’t totally….
AZ: But there is something, and maybe it’s hard to articulate, but there’s something about the way you—
AP: It’s very familiar.
AZ: It’s a tonality.
AP: It’s a tonality that we share and it’s something that is abstract. It’s a symbolic. We both sort of don’t like diagonals and we both don’t like really oozy kind of movement. He’s a little more open than I am, to tell you the truth, about dance. He likes more things than I do. But yeah, there’s a dryness to… See, but he wouldn’t really agree with that, I think. I think there’s a dryness, at least that I’m holding onto from my side, in the material that I make with him that I think sets right against his music.
AP: And sometimes I do things that are very formal—very formal. The audience may not even notice it like “I Dance Like This.” I don’t know if you remember that song, but the movement material is just two things that reiterate over and over and over again. That’s a musical. Nobody would do that in music. They rely on this variety of vocabulary. David’s music holds a really interesting formalism. Even if he’s not doing it, that’s—
AZ: It’s the world of.
AP: It’s his art worldy thing, you know, so I know it works with it.
AZ: What was it like to work with untrained dancers?
AP: Well, I’ve worked with so many untrained dancers, that that wasn’t new for me. I mean, I choreographed for Mostly Mozart one thousand untrained musicians with a David Lang piece of indeterminacy. And I’ve worked with a ton of classical musicians and marching bands and stuff. Musicians can be quite skeptical around being told how to move. At the same time, this particular group of musicians, they’re my friends. They’re so amazing. They hung in there. It was a very long process. I have great respect for them. But you figure out what… I’m interested in non-dancers because they have their own virtuosities, but you have to be pretty sly and figure out how to bring them out.
AZ: It was interesting because when you watch that piece, it felt very relevant and very American. We don’t really use dance in the ways that other cultures might. We kind of use it to party or celebrate. It’s not ritualistic in a way and everything in that piece definitely felt like the ritual of our daily life in a way.
AZ: Do you think this is changing? Do you think that the awareness around dance is changing? Where is that at? Like the larger, to just zoom out a little bit, American Utopia was huge and that was a piece about dance and music. Not dancing to music.
AP: Not dancing to music.
AZ: Dance and music.
AZ: It resonated so deeply with people. Is that a hint at what’s changing? Do you think that we are sort of seeing dance in a new way now?
AP: I do think that when I started in the dance field, I was very aware that people were suspicious, if not enraged, by dance. [Laughs] So I think that vibe is not there anymore. I think it has to do with Covid and a lot of dancing happening, social media, and TikTok, and all these things. People are more comfortable with dance, for sure. I mean, the mainstream culture. Where it takes us, I’m not sure. And whether, I tend to think that the reason American Utopia was successful vis-a-vis people accepting the dance and not think it was “weird,” was because of David. He’s just telling them all over the stage for two hours that dancing is important. It’s interesting. It doesn’t need to be the steps. It’s not necessarily steps, it’s not necessarily the steps that we see over and over and over again with pop music. He’s just telling the audience, “Take a look.” Who wouldn’t follow where he goes?
AZ: Yeah. He’s also saying, “I can say things with my body that I can’t say with my mouth right now.”
AP: He is. He is. This is why I say he’s a dancer, even though he says “I have no training” and so forth. He is a dancer because he can express movement with his body very persuasively and that’s what dancers do. So he’s very much of a dancer.
AZ: We’re convening, again, as we talked about a little bit ago, three weeks so far. But going to the theater for the Greeks was kind of mandatory. It was something you did.
AP: It was mandatory.
AZ: Mandatory, right?
AZ: And they had these massive spaces to hold these events and it was fun and filled with all sorts of things that drove culture. So the concept of gathering is pretty old, right, but it’s new to us now in a way. We’re going to see where this goes and how much we believe in physical gatherings and our need for it. What hasn’t changed over time in your mind about gathering as a culture to experience something together? Why is it so important?
AP: I think you just have to go back to the body and say there is something physically happening when you’re in real time and space. I’m sure somebody in science could tell you what it is, and I don’t really know what it is, but I can feel it. We would not be having this conversation if we had decided to do it on Zoom. We’d be having a different conversation.
AZ: We believe that we need to sit in this room.
AP: Yeah. And so I would just turn the question back to you, why?
AZ: I think because of something we talked about earlier, which I imagined you would be thinking, which is energy loop. That it is real.
AP: Yeah, it’s real. And when you’re sitting in an audience, it’s a congregation. It’s a cluster of brains and bodies all taking in this material together as a group and you can feel the whole group. It’s very subtle sometimes, the whole group moving away from the piece slightly, moving to the right of the piece, moving to the left of the piece, needing to… You can feel these sort of group actions and experiences. You can also feel when your body is in opposition to what the other bodies are doing. Everybody is laughing. You don’t find it funny?
AZ: This kinesthetic empathy.
AP: Yeah, this kinesthetic empathy is happening. So it’s hard for me to understand that we will reject gathering altogether.
AP: I think we’re just out of practice. I think we’re out of practice of leaving our homes. We have to do our scales. We have to practice, practice. That we’re out of practice of being on the street, of being a little bit uncomfortable, of using a lot of physical energy to get places. All these things. And then, of sitting very still for sometimes two to three hours. Speaking of time, our relationship to time has definitely changed. Mine has. Has yours?
AZ: Of course.
AP: I’m good with an hour. That’s about it for me. So do things get shorter and more brutish? Maybe. [Laughs]
AZ: Well, we look forward to more pieces from you and it’s amazing to see how much recognition your work has been getting after many years now.
AP: Thank you.
AZ: And thank you for coming on today.
AP: Oh, it’s been a pleasure.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on October 3, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Jennifer Grant. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon.