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By David Parker
If you’ve ever seen David Parker’s Nut/Cracked, you might have laughed yourself breathless. The final duet, performed to Tchaikovsky’s sublime Sugar Plum music, punctuates lifts between two men with thumb-in-mouth antics. Not all his works (con)fuse romance with toddler comforts, but many of his pieces are just as hilarious.
David Parker grew up in Lynnfield, MA, and studied tap and ballet in Boston as a teenager. He attended Bard College before moving to New York in 1979, where he danced with Stephan Koplowitz, tappers Gail Conrad and Anita Feldman, and the late Amy Sue Rosen. He began showing work at Dance Theater Workshop in 1990, and in 1996 co-founded The Bang Group, which tours internationally. Parker has received commissions from many companies, festivals, and universities, including American Dance Festival, the Juilliard School, and Concord Summer Stages Dance Festival in Massachusetts, where The Bang Group has been in residence for the past 11 summers.
Parker is on the faculty of The Ailey School and Barnard College and has written several stories for Dance Magazine. Last fall, Dance Theater Workshop honored Parker for his contribution to DTW. His newest show, Misters and Sisters, will have its New York premiere at Joe’s Pub in NYC in June.
I choreograph because I know of no other way to contend with the world. For me, choreographing functions a little like Temple Grandin’s “squeeze box.” This wonder, also called a “hug machine,” was invented by Ms. Grandin, who is autistic, after she observed the calming effect such a contraption had on cattle under duress. So, as with the cow before slaughter, choreography allows me to face what lies ahead.
I grew up in a hyperarticulate family, my father being a best-selling author with a Ph.D. in English literature and my mother a professor of early childhood with a passion for socializing. I was mistrustful of words and was a solemn, awkward child with few friends—at least, few corporeal friends. I had a plethora of Pirates, Princes, and Cavaliers with whom I danced in my room behind closed doors, feeling like a singular sensation.
I began dancing formally when I was 16, starting with tap because I had fallen in love with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. While Mother Nature had permitted Fred Astaire and not me to dance like Fred Astaire, she had still given me a good pair of eyes and a mind eager to decipher the rhythms he threw down. It wasn’t only that I longed to dance like him, but I longed to organize everything I knew into beats and steps as he did.
When I went to college, a high school sissy with a flair for 1930s slang and a spiffy pair of tap shoes, I declared myself a dance major and plunged into a study of modern dance. I didn’t find the humor and juice of the dances I cherished from the movies. But I loved the strapping hauteur of the Merce Cunningham technique, the springy nobility of the Limón technique, and the tart bounce of Nikolais. Plus I got to go to New York to see performances.
There I saw Twyla Tharp’s The Fugue, and something exploded in my head. Here was a fully modern, streamlined, pared-down, Pan-Am kind of a dance for three men (originally women) and it made the going great. I thought it a real tap dance (performed in heeled shoes on a miked stage), just without any actual tap steps. It was perversely intricate, louche, and lofty at once. I knew then what I wanted to do.
I grew up and made a series of a capella dances in which the music was made by the dancing itself. These dances featured Velcro costumes, toe-tap shoes, bubble wrap, whistling, harmonicas, singing, actual hoofing, and smacking and clapping. One of them, called Bang, which gave my company its name, featured the unadorned body thuds of two men lying on the floor together and culminated in some syncopated kissing. Audiences found it funny. I found it poignant. I saw it as a love story about men fitting themselves together, sharing a beat, kissing in 5/4 time.
These dances taught me about the cadences of intimacy. They helped me choreograph my way in and out of love, friendship, and sadness. My father died last January and I am choreographing a song-and-dance show set to songs he loved. Jeff Kazin, my longterm muse, and I will sing and dance many of them. We’ll be joined by my two other favorite dancers: Amber Sloan and Nic Petry. Choreography is what makes us a family and there is no better reason to keep doing it. I hope never to stop.
David Parker, center, with Mic Petry and Jeffrey Kazin. Photo by Stephen Schreiber, courtesy The Bang Group