“Prepositions: For dance-making” [detail]. “Further investigation into using grammatical forms to generate movement: prepositions are a powerful language tool to connect, tangle, and disrupt bodies in space” (Parson 102). Annie-B Parson, Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts, Wesleyan University Press, Copyright 2019 by Annie-B Parson, used by permission.
“I hate the ephemerality of performance, when it’s over, it’s so gone.” – Annie-B Parson
As a celebrated choreographer and the artistic director of Big Dance Theater in Brooklyn, Annie-B Parson has created choreography for rock shows, museums, objects, movies, augmented reality, and for people like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Wendy Whelan, St. Vincent, David Bowie, and David Byrne’s American Utopia (directed by Spike Lee). In her recent book, Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts (2019), Parson creates choreography on and for the page.
The idea for this book began in 2011, with a prompt from poet and critic Claudia La Rocco: “What does choreography look like on the page?” La Rocco was seeking contributions for an “On the page festival” to appear in The Brooklyn Rail. Parson responded by sketching a dance chart of the props and costumes found in her basement (appropriately titled, “All the Props in My Basement”). Drawing the Surface of Dance is an extension of this work.
As a former dancer and current literary scholar, I am interested in exploring how Parson’s book not only raises questions about what was written and how to engage with it, but also how to read, write, and think about choreography in print. Typically, biographies revolve around the personal life of the choreographer. Instead, Parson offers a biography of her choreography and the choreographic process. How does one write a biography of choreography? And, how do I write about a biography of choreography? Do we read it out loud or move through it instead?
Much critical ink has been spilt by dance critics, scholars, philosophers and poets lamenting, praising, and/or debating how to capture the ephemerality of the body and movement in print. This is something Parson takes up from her position as a choreographer in the essay that opens the book: “Choreography is more perishable than dancing, and dance is more perishable than fruit” (8). What is important to note here is that Parson is differentiating between choreography and dance. If choreography is more perishable than dancing and fruit, it might, in part, be because choreography is often ignored in favor of (mistakenly) viewing all dance forms as purely spontaneous.
The dance performance is ephemeral, but the choreography is not always (not even usually) invented in that moment by the dancer. In an effort to shift focus from the star dancer to the star choreographer, twentieth-century ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev went so far as to fine Ballets Russes dancers if they altered any of the choreography or costumes during a performance—this was taken directly out of their pay! Choreographers each have distinct aesthetic, style, and form that is legible to knowing audiences. However, that knowing audience is, admittedly, extremely insular. The cultivation of the choreographer and the multidisciplinary engagement that goes into their choreography is not as widely known or shared. For a variety of reasons, ranging from simply not being asked (i.e. most women choreographers) to purposefully letting the dance speak for itself, there is a tradition of choreographers being vague or not speaking about the meaning of their work nor its process. Direct insight into the choreographic process often remains as fleeting as the choreography in performance.
Dance notation exists, but it is limited in many ways. For one, not everyone can read dance notation because it requires specific training and there are different notation systems—Labanotation1 being the most widely known among a very small circle of those who know. While dance notation is useful for archiving and saving the literal steps of choreography, notation does not fully capture the aesthetic of the choreographer nor the nuances of their intention. Most recordings of dance are similarly insufficient (although with a good director and the right technology, this is improving). Reviews offer retrospective accounts, but they are written from the perspective of the critic, not the creator. With a few exceptions2 (because they have been established as exceptional), there is not really a common space or venue for the choreographer to reflect on their canon of work. Susan Leigh Foster points out how traditional dance studies “have emphasized individual genius over the rehearsal process,” continuing that they “have privileged the thrill of the vanished performance over the enduring impact of the choreographic intent.”3 Parson, then, is right: the process, the inspiration, all of the work that goes on behind the scenes and that goes into choreographing is more perishable than fruit.
With Parson’s book, we are given insight into her choreographic intent and process as well as a reflection and analysis post-performance. Parson explains: “When the choreography is finally performed and then the piece closes, I think to myself: Draw the nouns. The objects are the nouns in the piece. The dance material is the verbs. The dancers are the sentence constructors, and sometimes the subject but not always” (8). The hand-drawn charts are a way to further counteract this idea that choreography is immaterial: “The charts are indexical, a cataloguing of the materiality of the piece. The charts are an anti-vanishing, the un-evaporation of the work into the ether” (8). This is certainly one way to write against the Cartesian mind-body dualism where here, the body not only dictates that which the mind thinks, but it materializes that which is in the mind through the body and now onto the page through language.
I am tempted to read Parson’s statement alongside Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text (1973): “The pleasure of the sentence is to a high degree cultural. The artifact created by rhetors, grammarians, linguists, teachers, writers, parents—this artifact is mimicked in a more or less ludic manner; we are playing with an exceptional object, whose paradox has been articulated by linguistics: immutably structured and yet infinitely reviewable: something like chess. Unless for some perverts the sentence is a body?” (51). Which part of the text does the reader and/or viewer derive pleasure from? Is it in the text about the choreography or the choreography as text? Both Parson and Barthes seem to be pointing to the materiality of sentence construction via grammar and linguistics. However, for Parson, the artifact created by using the tools of language to trace her choreography is literal—the sentence is composed with and through the dancer’s body. Or at least inspired by the dancer’s body in this retrospective account.
Perhaps a closer look at the material that composes the book is appropriate here. Structurally, Drawing the Surface of Dance includes an introductory and concluding essay4 and is divided into four chapters that contain creative elements. Chapter 1 reflects on 21 pieces of choreography Parson created between 1991-2018 and includes hand-drawn charts with a paragraph of explication. For example, A Simple Heart (1996) is an early piece based on Gustave Flaubert’s short story of the same title. Parson explains that A Simple Heart was an “exploration into compositional notions around complex symmetries, reverse mirroring, and duality” (14). The themes, structures, and inspiration are reflected in the chart (Fig. 2): objects representing reverse mirroring such as the whole pie and pie piece, complex symmetries with the braids, the collapsible table with text “to fold,” and an excerpt of Flaubert’s text. Parson draws objects and the way that they are used to help readers visualize the image she recreates on the body through corresponding movement—“to rock”, “to braid”, “to fold.”
Chapter 2: Structures and Scores offers further analysis of the choreography profiled in chapter 1. Parson charts recurring themes, props, structures, and shapes that appear across her canon of work, such as: “Issues of Layering and Reiteration,” “Issues of Erasure,” and “Prepositions” (Fig. 1). Chapter 3 is a collection of photographic stills of the choreography discussed in chapters 1-2, as well as photographs of inspiration labeled “Research/Process.” In these photographs, the dancers gaze back at us as do the props and objects. The hand-drawn charts in chapters 1 and 2 prepare you to be able to engage more critically with the photographic images. You are suddenly more cognizant of the recurring shapes and objects charted, such as books, sticks, rectangles, and tulle.
All of this leads up to Chapter 4: Elements of Composition: A Deck of Cards. As the title suggests, we find a series of hand-drawn Mexican Lottery Cards “to break down elements of choreographic composition . . . . parsing dance-making tools and concepts into small parts, addressing the belief that images can refract and deepen text-content” (154). You can cut them out of the book, deal them out, and “make something from all the information on the cards the dealer gives you” (154). I appreciate that in using the directive “make something,” Parson leaves space open for a variety of ways to engage and create that are not necessarily contingent on having an able body. Prompts include: “Time”, “Space”, “Fragmentation”, “Repetition”, “The Prosaic,” “Text.” I admit, in this example, I selected cards that would enable me to create a Gertrude Stein piece. The connections between Stein and Parson are plentiful. Burke and Parson discuss this in the concluding essay: “In [Parson’s] 2015 pamphlet Dance By Letter, a choreographer’s alphabet book, she writes . . . ‘R is for repetition, repetition, repetition,’ . . . a few pages later, [Parson invokes] Gertrude Stein as she observes, ‘If you are really present, that which is repeated is always new’” (168-9).5 Elsewhere, Meindert Peters and I have discussed the performativity of language in modernist literature, where I pointed to Gertrude Stein’s repetition of the now infamous “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” as “an example of the dynamic performance of the written language. The rose is always in process each time it is read . . . . Like choreography, Stein’s staging of the rose is never the same.”
As with most of the works written by Gertrude Stein, Drawing the Surface of Dance presents an interesting challenge: What exactly is this and how do we read it? Is this a book of drawings? A biography? Photography? A card game? Performance art? A visual poem?
Burke indicates that Parson’s Big Dance Theater has a similarly compounding reputation, often referred to as “genre-blurring (the label you apply when no label applies)” (169). She continues that one might consider a Big Dance Theater performance as “a contemporary play, a Greek tragedy, a film adaptation, a dance piece, a musical . . . to fixate on categories won’t get you very far, so thoroughly does the work dissolve any boundaries between them” (170). Parson’s work in Drawing the Surface of Dance continues dissolving disciplinary boundaries on the page, as her work does on the stage.
Even as I type this, I realize how writing about Parson and her work causes me to resist boundaries within my work and writing—by proxy, this piece is inherently “genre-blurring”: quasi-book review, quasi-literary criticism, quasi-dance criticism. My approach, therefore, is informed by Parson herself, as the work being studied resists categorization, my own engagement reflects this in its form, content, and practice.
Wesleyan University Press identifies this book as contributing to the subjects of “Dance/Theater/Art.” But given the way the text performs as it retraces performance, I suggest expanding this to include “Literature/Literary Criticism.” To be clear, I am not proposing that Parson’s work needs to be included as literature or considered from a literary perspective as some kind of legitimization; rather, I want to demonstrate some of the ways I think Parson’s book could be of relevance to those of us working in literary studies and how a literary approach can expand (and encourage more) critical engagement with this wonderfully perplexing, quirky book across the arts. Ellen W. Goellner and Jacqueline Shea Murphy reinforce the benefits of such an endeavor in Bodies of the Text: Dance as Theory, Literature as Dance (1995): “Including the ephemerality of dance in contemporary critical debates could help scholars working outside the field of dance examine long-held assumptions about the permanence of art and the cultural significance of works recited, sung, danced, or otherwise performed” (5).
Out of the 21 pieces covered in chapter 1, 13 are either responding to, inspired by, or adapting literary texts ranging from Anne Carson to Eugène Ionesco to Masuji Ibuse. These charts are generative in returning to the texts that inspired them. If I were teaching Carson, for example, I might circulate Parson’s chart(s) to facilitate a discussion or a written response. What themes does Parson pick up on and where/how do you see them in the text? This could also work for adaptation studies. Assign Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, a video of Parson’s choreography, and her hand-drawn chart (Fig. 2)—two different ways of engaging with the source text; two different adaptations that enable us to ask, “what does it mean to perform textual fidelity through the body and then back onto the page? What do the charts tell us about the adaptation process from a choreographer’s perspective? What does this process tell us about Flaubert’s A Simple Heart?”
Parson draws on punctuation, grammar, and poetics to structure her choreography. Alan Smithee Directed This Play (2014) is described as “a very complicated piece that held narrative and abstraction as one, I rewrote the script of Terms of Endearment into multiple poetic forms. Although I had employed poetics for choreographic structures, I had never used them to repurpose text” (34). Parson is playing with disciplinary boundaries here both in her work and in this text. It is true that poetry can be performative, oral, and visual, but it is frequently studied as a text-based art form. As such, the novelty here would more likely be perceived as using poetics for choreographic structures. Instead, Parson cheekily makes this the norm and places the use of poetics to repurpose text as the novelty. Having this knowledge offers yet another way into Parson’s choreography—the use of poetics to analyze Alan Smithee Directed This Play.
Indeed, poetry and poetics are a conducive source for critical engagement; after all, the text, drawings, and photographs work together performatively on the page (or “soloing on the page” as the book jacket declares). Eric Schmaltz’s Surfaces (2018) would make for an excellent comparative study. Both Parson and Schmaltz explore circles, curvature, rectangles, and erasure as structuring devices as well as subject matter (matter here being literal). As Derek Beaulieu writes for the cover copy: “Surfaces reminds us that the page is a 3D object . . . The language skims and streaks across the thinnest of sheens, a glistening moment, an uncanny reminder of what language could be, if only we let it.” Parson similarly invites us to view the relationship between language and the page as a performance: “The shape of the chart is a new choreographic structure. The charts are their own dance piece where the proscenium stage is the horizon line of your eyes, and the floor is made of paper. The lighting is your desk lamp. The music is the sound of you” (8). This certainly answers the question of whether we are to read the text out loud with a definitive yes.
And here, too, we are reminded of how the body and mind come together in a material way when creating. The physicality of dance is brought onto the page with Parson’s hand-drawn charts; similarly, the “Path Dependency” piece in Surfaces (Fig. 3) offers a choreography of sorts, as Schmaltz explains in the notes: “I translate each word of the source text [rob mclennan’s “On Writing” series] into a visual representation of finger movements across the keyboard, away from home row, as they produce letters on the digital page.” In addition to studying poetry that discusses dance in its content and/or dance adaptations of poetry, this pairing of Schmaltz and Parson demonstrates a need to consider the formal similarities between the process of creating poetry and the process of creating dance. Both Schmaltz and Parson bring attention to the intellectual and physical labor required in creating, reading, and engaging with their respective artistic media that is critical to our understanding of the creative works themselves.
Parson’s compelling book leads me to Merve Emre’s sharp and dynamic study in Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (2017). Here, Emre writes:
We are overwhelmingly familiar with the equipment that goes into the making of good readers: close reading, critical reading, depth reading; the canon, the curriculum, the literature seminar. But what texts and institutional spaces account for the creation of bad readers? To understand how people read in institutions adjacent to literature departments, Paraliterary articulates a theory of literary socialization that accounts for the distinctive types of genres that people read in tandem with literary works. From elocution primers to conduct books . . . the written artifacts of modern institutions offer surprisingly perceptive commentaries on how one can and should read literature as a properly internationalized subject. (6)
Is Drawing the Surface of Dance paraliterary in the sense that it is a written artifact of a modern institution—Big Dance Theater? If we treat the choreography in performance as analogous to the literary work as featured in Emre’s study, would it be too far of a stretch to consider Parson’s book as “parachoreography”?
Burke suggests that “in the spirit of her postmodern predecessors (Merce Cunningham, the Judson Dance Theater Crew) Parson collapses hierarchies on the stage; no word or image is more important than any other. Flowing in multiple directions at once, her charts and scores don’t tell us how to read them. They give us points of reference and trust we’ll fill in the rest” (172). I might offer another perspective, as it seems to me that Parson does choreograph the reader. Certainly, Parson takes a seemingly hands-off approach that follows in the tradition of her predecessors Cunningham and Judson since we are not told directly how to read the charts, photos, or scores. However, as with Stein, we are guided to read the “composition as explanation.” By the end of Drawing the Surface of Dance, we are able to read closely, critically, analytically.
While reading through chapter 1, the reader (audience?) is provided with the tools to produce a close reading (and viewing) of each individual piece of choreography. This is furthered in chapter 2, as the charts cultivate a critical engagement by establishing Parson’s overall aesthetic, structures, and inspiration across her canon of work. From here, the reader can begin identifying predominant themes, structures, objects, and shapes when looking at the photographic stills of past performances. Finally, in chapter 4, we are invited to make something ourselves—a merging of theory and practice that encourages a movement literacy. Through the printed medium of the book and through a multidisciplinary approach, ultimately, Parson makes us “good” readers (and viewers) of that which is absent, that which cannot be contained to the page—the dance when in performance, her choreography.
- In 1928, Rudolf Laban wrote Schrifttanz (“Written Dance”), which serves as the basis for Labanotation (formally known as kinetography). The system evolved through the 1950s throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
- For example, Merce Cunningham’s Changes: Notes on Choreography, originally published in 1968 and reprinted as a special edition for his centennial in 2019 is one exception that includes insight into his choreography and like Parson’s, is multimodal. However, this book really only exists because, as the publisher writes, Cunningham “is widely considered to be one of the most important choreographers of all time.” Yvonne Rainer’s Work 1961-73 is another example, although it is rare and difficult to access.
- Susan Leigh Foster, Choreographing History (Indiana University Press, 1995): 15.
- This thoughtful essay was written by Siobhan Burke, who writes on dance for the New York Times and is an adjunct lecturer in the Barnard College Department of Dance.
- I would be remiss not to point out that Gertrude Stein also wrote an alphabet book: To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays” (1957), which was published posthumously. For more on Stein’s alphabet book, see Jacquelyn Ardam, “‘Too Old for Children and Too Young for Grown-Ups’: Gertrude Stein’s To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays,” Modernism/modernity Vol. 18, no. 3 (September 2011).