How Annie-B Parson teamed up with David Byrne to reinvent Broadway
Annie-B Parson doesn’t want to put labels on her work, and you’d be hard-pressed to do so even if you tried. The accomplished choreographer has created movement and dance pieces for everything from musicians like David Bowie and St. Vincent to the Royal Ballet to modern ensembles like Martha Graham Dance Company to operas to a Jonathan Demme film to her own group, Big Dance Theater, to theatre. Basically, if there are bodies moving in space, Parson has a vision for them.
Her latest venture comes from a longtime collaboration with David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, who has made his mark on the downtown theatre scene in recent years with the acclaimed Here Lies Love, taken from his album of the same name about the Filipina first lady Imelda Marcos, and Joan of Arc.
Parson choreographed Here Lies Love, but this time, she’ll be taking the helm as choreographer and musical stager for American Utopia, a personal piece from the artist that explores his own genesis and where we are in the world today. The show, which runs at Boston’s Emerson Colonial through September 28 ahead of a Broadway run starting October 4, features an ensemble of 12 musicians untethered by mic and amp cords and wearing their instruments on a custom harness so they can dance. And Byrne dances too, which Parson thinks sets him apart as a rock star.
“He always wanted to be in all the dances so there wasn’t the separation like there are in other music groups,” Parson said. “Sometimes the musician dances — and you can think of those people — but a lot of times those people are just holding down the fort with the center position and there are dancers that do stuff around them. But David’s very committed to dancing. He’s always interested in new ways of being onstage and discovering, through other cultures, dances and ways of theatricalizing things.”
New York Theatre Guide chatted with Parson about her long-time collaboration with Byrne, how American Utopia challenges the traditional Broadway aesthetic, and why the show matters for right now.
You’ve been working with David Byrne for a long time. How did the two of you start collaborating?
[It started with] his Brian Eno collaboration called Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. That tour was in 2008. Before then, he had been coming to see my work, unbeknownst to me. This is not unusual; David sees a lot of downtown work. He is a curious and avid and omnivorous viewer of theatre and dance and, of course, music. But for a musician, it’s amazing and I would say completely rare his interest in dance and theatre. When I first talked to him about working with him, my response was, “Wait, you’re my favorite choreographer and dancer; why aren’t you making your own?” He’s like, "Oh, I don’t know." He’s completely modest.
How did American Utopia come about?
He said: My idea is, I would like to have an empty space with none of the ubiquitous stuff you see in a rock show — no platforms, no cords, no standing mics. Just do away with that whole thing and reinvent what it looks like. I want us all to wear gray suits, and I want to construct harnesses so the musicians can carry whatever they need to carry. Everything that you do to amplify or to affect the instrumentation will be done offstage. There’s a lot of magic going on to keep those people cordless. That was his initial idea, which never changed.
The whole show is physical and choreographed and staged, and yet it’s 12 musicians of the highest caliber. I think the closest tradition we could come to in our American imaginations would be a marching band, except for, the material is not related to marching band. Except at one point.
How has your past work together informed this piece?
I’m always following his lead. This is his show. What we choose to dance, where we choose to dance, who dances — all those questions are mine and they’re very influenced by his aesthetic, which I have been influenced by my whole life. It wasn’t [as though] when he called, I didn’t know who he was. I was like, “Wait, I’ve been choreographing to you in my mind since I was 20.”
You’re in charge of choreography and musical staging for American Utopia. What’s the difference?
In this case, the show has 21 songs and everything that happens in it physically is my job. Some of those things might be walking across the stage as a group. Many people don’t identify that as choreography. From my perspective, choreography is the intentional and aesthetic arrangement of bodies in space over time. That may include steps, which is what most people think of as choreography, but it may mean that the whole group is standing in the upstage corner in a clump and David is standing downstage in another corner. That’s choreography because it involves space. Anything intentional with the body to me is choreography… The general public would not perceive that as choreography; they’d consider it musical staging. It’s sort of an umbrella term for where we put the bodies in space and when.
A lot of your work uses non-linear storytelling, and you’ve described American Utopia as non-narrative. Can you talk a little bit about the form of the storytelling?
So that’s evolving right now; it’s getting less non-narrative. It’s getting less abstract every day. There’s interstitial text where David speaks to the audience. It is not autobiographical; David completely rejects the fetishizing of the rock star's autobiography. That’s not his thing. But it is personal, and it’s his perspective on the world. He has organized the text so it takes us from the beginning of him being a young musician to now. There is a narrative arc in the loosest sense. And it’s in progress.
All of the performers on stage are also musicians playing instruments. How does that affect your choreography and staging?
It’s really cool because I love limitations. These harnesses are heavy and they definitely limit their movement so there’s things they can’t do for sure. But that’s really fun. You have to think very particularly about those bodies. It’s kind of a new skeletal structure, and it changes the way they move. At first I was very worried about their backs, but over time I feel like their bodies have really adjusted to them. We’ve found a lot more ways of moving than we thought they would.
Do they have dance training?
Only two of them had any dance training. One of them was in my company. The other one is in [the dance company] Urban Bush Women. And those are the vocalists. Nobody else has any dance training. But I have had a whole career of working with people that have no dance training, and I feel very interested in those bodies moving. You could say they have no dance training until we started, so they kind of have a year and a half of dance training.
You have an extensive career working across mediums, and American Utopia marks your Broadway debut. What does it mean to you to be on Broadway?
I don’t know yet. When you do what I do, audiences are interesting. I literally judge a city based on the audience. Whenever I go on tour with my company, I always find myself unconsciously thinking, “Oh, I love Berlin.” Why? Because of the audience. It’s very unconscious, so I feel like I’m always interested what’s the city’s audience going to be like. In a sense, Broadway is a city. It’s got its own audience. It’s different than the Off-Broadway audiences, and it’s different than the downtown. So I guess I’m TBD.
Does it feel like you’re bringing a new aesthetic to Broadway?
From my perspective, which is of course going to be very distorted, what’s very radical for Broadway is David’s very minimalist aesthetic. I don’t think we’ve seen that before. David made the set and it’s very different than what we’ve seen on Broadway. The movement material itself, the vocabulary that I’m bringing to this theatre, is quite unique to what you see on Broadway.
Why do you think this show is important for audiences right now?
David’s not cynical and he’s not ironic in this piece. He’s very well-known for his irony, and his ironic work is very genius. He’s really not going down that road here. It’s a very earnest piece of work because of the moment. There’s a lot of faith here, but there’s also critique. It’s not a feel-good piece about this moment, but it is a feel-awake piece, a feel-alive piece. It’s great for the moment because he’s dispelling the idea that we can all be very cynical and very negative and feel very discouraged, He’s rejecting that without in any way being unrealistic.
The word “utopia” is a beautiful concept, hundreds of years old in America. It’s aspirational. We’re a work in progress, and we always have been. We’re constantly reinventing who we are. That’s what I feel when I feel the show. I feel that it’s very aspirational and I think we need it.