Parsons Dance spins and darts through Miles Davis
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Parsons Dance spins and darts through Miles Davis
Dancers perform in David Parson’s “Juke,” a world premiere by Jamar Roberts set to music by Miles Davis from “Bitches Brew,” at the Joyce Theater in New York on May 14, 2024. For its Joyce season, the company unveils “Juke,” a spiky premiere by Jamar Roberts, along with dances by David Parsons and Penny Saunders. (Julieta Cervantes/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- The combination of choreographer Jamar Roberts and jazz is a dance land you want to live in. Roberts, a veteran of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, has made some of his most succinct yet passionate works to jazz. His voluptuous movement, however sharp or delicate, flows on waves of musical notes.

In his latest jazz-inspired work, “Juke,” a premiere for Parsons Dance, bodies bend and dart with shuddering briskness as the dancers dig into what it means to juke, or to fake a move — like in sports. One by one, they dodge, slip and outmaneuver the music, “Spanish Key” from Miles Davis’ groundbreaking 1970 album “Bitches Brew,” with its rock and funk influences. The dancers, twisting and spinning — sometimes agile, like boxers — fill the stage like brushstrokes, some rapturous and others cutting.

“Juke,” which debuted Tuesday, is one of three premieres being presented by Parsons Dance in its two-week season at the Joyce Theater. Does it expand the art of dance, as Davis’ album did for jazz? Not especially, but for much of it, “Juke” gives the Parsons dancers a frame for pure movement and music: a swelling, ever spiraling showcase of psychedelic funk.

The driving sound has a way of meshing with Roberts’ spiky gestures in surprising ways: Elbows poke, hips swivel, the arms ignite the air like matchsticks. Costumes, by Christine Darch, pay homage to the time Davis’ album came out. Dancers wear pants and tops, adorned with fringe, in glowing purples and reds that bleed right into Christopher S. Chambers’ moody lighting. The stage is like a den.

But as trios and couples start to enact little scenarios, over-before-you-know-it scuffles can turn trite. Parsons members dance more capably than they act; the same force they use to propel, say, their legs, doesn’t carry the same effect in their faces. The ending, in which a male dancer is gradually abandoned by the others, feels a little anticlimactic. With a little salute, he fades into the background. Did he outsmart the others, or did they just give up?

In another premiere, “The Shape of Us,” David Parsons, the group’s artistic director, explores the journey from alienation to connection with music by experimental band Son Lux. At first, dancers cross the stage purposely, walking with firm steps; they exist in bubbles, lost in their own worlds. Their motion builds to sprints until two dancers, with some drama, slide to a halt in the center of the stage.

It’s pretty predictable from here: As they explore each other, their resistance begins to seep away and their growing bond leads the others to follow suit as they touch one another with awe and tenderness — embracing the beauty of each other and their community ties. We are living in fraught, divisive times, but do dances embracing togetherness have to be so obvious?

The New York City premiere of “Thick as Thieves,” a dance by Penny Saunders, formerly of MOMIX, was tepid in a different way: It veered toward the cartoonish. Costumed in long black coats by Barbara Erin Delo — oversize with white trim running down the lapels — the dancers spent an inordinate amount of time using them as props: tossing them in the air or sitting on them while being pulled as if they were on sleds.

Set to a score by Michael Wall, who performed live on piano and trumpet, with Lily Gelfand on cello, “Thick as Thieves” was dark, though more in look than in evoking mystery. The conceit was comic, but with the dancers looking more like shoplifters than best, thick-as-thieves friends, their pervasive whimsy was grating.

The Parsons dancers have a driving athleticism that can’t be overstated — their stamina is unreal, and it’s sweet to see a company so committed to the capital D of dance. But as skilled as they are, the dancers have a way of muscling through movement, which allows for too little texture and tone.

The program was dotted with other, older works, too — Robert Battle’s “Takademe” (1996), along with Parsons’ “Whirlaway” (2014) and his classic work “Caught” (1982). In “Caught,” the use of strobe lights gives the impression that a solo dancer is flying through the air; on Tuesday, its magic held up as Megan Garcia, a former Rockette, did the honors. With her ponytail streaming behind her, she circled the air in an incredible display of leaps that dotted the stage’s horizon: a dancer transformed into a superhero.

Parsons Dance: Through May 25 at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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