Find Out How Choreographer Annie-B Parson Got Her Start in NYC

Big Dance Theater performers in 17c (Photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy of Big Dance Theater)

Annie-B Parson can remember her father taking her to see the ballet when she was a kid. Sitting at the very top of a tall and narrow upper house, she first thought the dancers weren't actual people. "They were so tiny, I think I thought they were a kaleidoscope," she says. That whimsical, singular perspective makes sense when you consider the body of work Parson has created as the co-director of Big Dance Theater, the genre-defying company she runs with her husband, actor and director Paul Lazar. At its most simplistic, it is dance theater in the truest sense of those two words: marrying dance with text, music and visual design in most productions.

For her latest creation, based on the copious diaries of 17th-century Englishman Samuel Pepys, she's interested in both the strange and the familiar. "It's fun to know what the Great Fire of London looked like from his perspective, but I don't want to put that in my piece," she says. Instead, she's drawn to Pepys' frank discussion of issues in his life that manage to feel surprisingly contemporary—"Things that remind me of blogging and my relationship to clothes and dance and theater and my spouse," says Parson. 17c has its world premiere in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, November 9–10.


Her start as a choreographer in NYC "It was the '80s, but the thing about the '80s is that the people were brought up in the '70s. We didn't have careers in mind. There was no plan. I just wanted to make dances. I was like a rat in a cage. The path in my cage was: Who could I get in the room with me? Who would agree, for no money, to stand in a room with me and do what I asked them to do and experiment with these ideas I thought were really important?"

Her teaching philosophy "I've created huge systems of tools for choreography, to find the students' voices. I give them very, very small assignments that are completely based in structure—almost no content at all. It's hypergenerative teaching, where they make so many pieces of material. It came from being an art student. We would draw thousands of sketches. It's exhausting—you throw your drawings on the floor. It wasn't about what you draw, it was that you just keep doing it. You get better as you do it. All the people who say, 'I want to be a choreographer'—you have to do it every day."

On working with David Byrne "This was an unusual situation, because if you had asked me who one of my greatest inspirations was when I was young, I would say David Byrne. My artistic voice was so shaped by his. To work with him—it's very simple for me, because I've been making dances in my mind for him. Your mentor doesn't have to be in the room with you. Just like you don't ever have to meet your guru. Balanchine's one of my mentors. I put him in the room with me all the time. I never met him."

Dance Buzz
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

How-To
Thinkstock

Q: Do you have any advice for how to clean competition pieces?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Buzz
Kenedy Kallas (via Instagram)

Every true dancer knows just how valuable a perfectly arched foot that curves effortlessly from the ankle to the end of the toes is to a performance. In fact, it's so important, it seems we've all taken an unofficial pact to spend inordinate amounts of time stretching our feet with ominous looking contraptions that cause us severe pain. We are completely crazy! With good reason, but crazy, nonetheless.

In order to keep us all inspired to stretch our toes until they are drool-worthy, DT compiled a list of five dancers whose feet we have a very real crush on. Honestly, these guys should get their toes insured! Truly, they are perfect.

Check 'em out!

Keep reading... Show less
Thinkstock

Q: After running my studio six days a week for 20 years, it's time for me to delegate. How can I transition into a shared-workload system with my teachers?

Keep reading... Show less
How-To
Thinkstock

Students need strong feet for pointe work, but few concentrate on their toes specifically. "Fatigue sets in and they start knuckling," says Atlanta Ballet podiatrist Dr. Frank Sinkoe. This puts excess pressure on the nails, causing bruising. The exercises below strengthen the arch and intrinsic muscles, which flex the toes and support the feet.

Keep reading... Show less
Your Studio
What are your non-negotiables? Share on Dance Teacher's Facebook page.

It could be argued that half the battle of owning a dance studio is getting people to follow the rules. To ensure your business will run like a well-oiled machine, it helps to have clear expectations in place for students and their families—and, most important, to make sure everyone knows them from day one. Of course, every school is unique, and behavior that may be acceptable to you might be out of the question for someone else. "There are so many studios out there," says Dana McGuire, a studio co-owner in North Kansas City, Missouri. "Know and stand by what you're about." Here, four seasoned studio directors discuss the issues they consider non-negotiable.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

I have a student who's going through a growth spurt, and I'm wondering what advice I should give her. Is there anything you recommend?

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored