The re-staging, or perhaps more appropriately, the re-imagining of Anna Halprin’s Parades & Changes is one of the most anticipated works in Performa 09. Those in the dance world who know Halprin’s work and her lasting influence on the form over the past sixty odd years have been eager to see this piece on the stage again. And judging from the response of the audience the night I was there, no one was disappointed.
Originally staged in 1965, the piece caused a sensation both in the dance world and with the general public. When the work was mounted for the first time in New York in 1967, arrest warrants were issued for the artists involved. Why all the fuss? At the time nudity on the city’s stages was illegal and rarely used, even among those who would thwart the law. Today, nudity in performance art and dance has become banal in some sense, or at the very least expected in many settings. Halprin’s use of the nude body was one of the earliest, most deliberate and prolonged examples. That said, the lack of clothing was only one of the conventions that Parades & Changes was pushing up against. Perhaps more importantly was her testing of conventions of sexuality, authorship, and even the definition of dance.
Given all that, it might be fair to expect that the reimagining of the piece, parades & changes, replays (at Dance Theater Workshop through November 21) would no longer carry the same bite as the original had over forty years ago. While it’s true that it wasn’t a shock to see naked bodies on the stage or to see same sex couplings, what was surprising and still resonant about the piece was the struggle that we still have within ourselves and as a culture to come to terms with our bodies, our sexuality, and what it means to represent oneself in the world. In other words, the work taps into both a universal human struggle and a cultural struggle that persists.
The dancers in this new iteration of the piece are all choreographers themselves, including Anne Collod of France, who directed the piece in collaboration with Anna Halprin and Morton Subotnick. Subotnick, who created and also live-mixed the music for the original production (and was the only one to actually get arrested after the 1967 New York show—the others had left the city) returns to this new production, acting as the conductor at the piece’s opening and also the composer. The piece itself is structured as a series of “cell blocks,” as Halprin dubbed them in the 60s. Each block consists of a score that instructs the dancers on the actions they need to accomplish during that section as well as the tempo those actions should follow, along with the sounds they will generate in combination with the live electronic music. The work is created by the group as a whole in the moment, recreated each night as a new experience within a given structure, though even the structure itself is flexible. This New York version of the show is different from the one performed earlier this year in France, and will be different again from the one staged in San Francisco in a few months.
At the opening of the show, we’re introduced to the company when they begin to speak from seats in the audience, their voices conducted by Subotnick, who stands in front of the audience. Then the dancers come down onto the stage, each dressed in an androgynous black suit with a white collared shirt. In the first section their gaze remains outward, on us, as they slowly, methodically disrobe, one clothing article at a time, each in a different order and at a slightly different pace. Their faces reveal no emotion, their movements hint at no specific seductions—they are blanks, upon which we project our expectations. Their non-responsiveness teases us—what shape do they have beneath their clothes? what article of clothing they will remove next? are we excited by the sight of them? Once naked, each stands for a short time, looking out at us, offering themselves for observation and also choosing to bear themselves. They are testing the relationship between audience and performer. Then they put their clothes back on, as carefully as they removed them.
The next section changes the focus of the gaze. The company moves around the space eventually stopping in new positions further up on the stage, with their focus aimed at others in the company. They are no longer performing for us, the disrobing is aimed at a new audience, and this new audience does not look back at them. Like an unrequited love or lust, or a secret desire, they disrobe and dress again for one who does not watch them.
In the final block that involves the removal of clothing, after moving around the space again, they now stop in pairs, pairs that look at one another. In fact this time the order and specifics of their undressing mirrors the other in the pair. Again, there is no overt sexuality in their movement or the act of undressing, but the plainness and simplicity of the actions helps to transcend the raw sexuality of it, allowing us to see the multiplicity of impulses that drive and underlie the revealing of the body.
Following this, large sheets of brown paper are brought out onto the stage, which the dancers proceed to tear into progressively smaller pieces. More and more paper is brought on and ripped apart. The effect of the lighting is such that the skin of the dancers and the surface of the paper take on the same hue—one loses track of the division between limbs and shredded sheets. As this section crescendos the paper is tossed into the air repeatedly, the sound and movement becoming a powerful mix of imagery, like children playing in a pile of autumn leaves, a fire burning, or a geyser erupting. But it is also satisfying simply as what it is.
This is followed by a section in which the dancers, in soled shoes, dance in rhythm on wooden platforms, a dance that clearly informs and echoes contemporary takes on tap dance like the show Stomp. Next, the dancers play a tag-like game of coupling where each dancer lightly calls out the name of another that they then proceed to embrace. These embraces are not carnal—the dancers literally hold one another, moving very little, though the sight of their bodies entwined could elicit any number of thoughts in the viewers. These embraces are mostly in pairs, sometimes in trios, and the gender composition of the groupings changes as often as the groupings themselves.
In the final section, rows of props and found materials are laid out. Each dancer walks up and down their row, placing the materials and objects on their bodies in different ways and in different combinations. The objects function as costumes, adornments, identities, toys, and occupations. Eventually the dancers begin to trade, borrow, or purloin props from each other’s rows, and at the crescendo, they work together to dress two of the dancers, making use of every object or piece of material on the stage. These two dancers attempt to move about the stage as they are weighed down with new adornments and identities, new impositions. In their new trash drag, they treat the audience to an unexpected but well-constructed ending that would be spoiled by description here, save to say that it adds a good deal to the depth of the piece.
Though this is a reenactment of a historically important piece, it is not simply an academic revival intended to instruct us on the origins of modern dance. parades & changes, replays is a live and energetic work that creates a conversation with the past, but also indicates a present that the past could never have anticipated. And it’s beautiful. If you can get tickets to one of the remaining shows, it would well be worth your time.
(photo credit: Jérôme Delatour)