Smashing Pumpkins with Big Dance Theater

10/25/2012 9:00 AM |

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  • Paula Court

Near the end of our chat, Annie-B Parson asked me why I thought it was important to talk with artists about their creative process. Whether she intended it, I sensed some resistance in the question, a resistance I think she shares with other artists and that I, as a playwright, have felt, too. I think it’s good for certain aspects of a process to be inarticulate or unarticulated. Not because it preserves a romantic notion of mystery or prevents people from having access to the work, but because there is such a drive in our culture to tabulate and quantify and dissect every thing that we do—and much is lost in that process. A great deal ends up being oversimplified or made overly complex when we insist on getting the arts down in words or numbers. The inability to put it into words, the failure of language alone, is precisely why we so often turn to the arts for other modes and means of expression.

Inarticulateness is of particular interest in the new show on which Parson and Paul Lazar are collaborating with playwright Sibyl Kempson, Ich, Kürbisgeist, which opens today at The Chocolate Factory (co-comissioned with PS 122). I stopped by at the tail-end of one of their rehearsals last week to talk to them about the show, whose dialogue is written in a language that Kempson invented and which no one in the world, except those involved in the production, speaks—or has any knowledge of.

Parson and Lazar have been making work together as the Artistic Directors of Big Dance Theater for over 20 years. They’re also married. Big Dance Theater has gained an international reputation for creating thoughtful, surprising, and rigorous dance theater work that often brings together seemingly incompatible material, as they did in their 2004 work Plan B, which combined the secret recordings of Richard Nixon with an obscure figure in early-1800s German popular culture, among other things. Another commonality in their work, as seems to be the case in this new work, Ich, Kürbisgeist , is how they often seem to enjoy feeling like outsiders looking in on a culture or subject that they are not familiar with.

Parson touched on this idea in an interview with BOMB magazine in 2007, when discussing Big Dance Theater’s piece The Other Here: “We’re tourists in a sense to Chekhov, and to folk dance, and to Japan. We’ll always try to remain in this observing, learning stance; we like to bring that out.” In my own chat with them I asked both Parson and Lazar what that was about for them—that desire to observe and react to the unfamiliar. Lazar related an anecdote that the playwright Sibyl Kempson had told him, about being in a foreign country. “She really enjoyed letting the language wash over her—it liberated her from the verbal back and forth.” He went on to say that he enjoyed the unfamiliarity with the language in Ich, Kürbisgeist because it allowed him to “play this game where the odd surfaces of the language induce a more sharp and playful listening.”

Parson, a choreographer by training, spoke about a similar experience related to seeing dance: “As you watch a new dance piece, you amass a new movement vocabulary.” She and Lazar went on to walk more about the idea of being a “tourist” in a variety of settings, but what seemed to come across most clearly is that, for them, there was a value in the experience of having to acknowledge one’s own ignorance—that it freed them up to gain new information that may not fit with what they already knew or that may do something familiar in a totally different way.