American Utopia choreographer Annie-B Parson on dance, social distancing, and movement.

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On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with choreographer Annie-B Parson, who is the co-founder and artistic director of Big Dance Theater. They discussed the relationship between music and movement, her experimental approach to theater with Big Dance, and her recent work choreographing David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway and HBO Max. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Annie-B Parson: I realized right away with COVID that people were becoming dancers, in that their spatial awareness was growing. We were literally afraid of each other’s presences. We were backing away from each other on the street, remember? We were walking in the bike lanes, right?

Isaac Butler: Yeah, totally.

Our bodies were very, very alive, unfortunately with this negative sense of contagion, but nevertheless it was a choreography that was being learned. I was fascinated by it, so I sat down and wrote about what the world looked like from a spatial perspective.

I was very, very moved by [your short video] 6’ when I was watching it yesterday, and it really made me think about choreography differently. I feel like those of us who aren’t in the dance world were taught to think of choreography as this very abstract, highfalutin’, almost indescribable thing. But at the same time, it’s this very mundane, concrete thing. It’s just bodies in space moving, and what could be more normal than that?

Thank you, Isaac. I so appreciate your saying that. Choreography is simply the aesthetic organization of bodies in space, and it could be stillness, it can be pedestrian actions, it could be anything. I don’t know why we’re taught to think of it in this highfalutin’ way. I don’t understand our relationship to choreography as a culture, and the negative use of the word all the time. I heard it this morning, if something [negative] in politics is happening, it’s usually called either “theater” or “choreography.”

Your two fields.


That’s fascinating, because I do think of your choreography specifically as combining those three categories of moving. You were talking about stillness, and then everyday mundane gestures drawn from life, and then much more abstract forms. Is your relationship to those three things intuitive as you’re working on a piece?

The use of space is a craft, and once you have craft, over time how you use it becomes intuitive. But it’s something that I “work on,” the way a pianist would practice scales every day.

How do you do that? A pianist can practice scales in a very concrete way. How do you practice arranging still bodies in space?

I think about it. It’s like I’m stoned. I look at stuff. I take walks, and I look at the world. Just now I was down by the water in our neighborhood, and I saw a van that was packed with someone’s belongings so tight. I’d never, ever seen anything packed so tight in my life, and it was such a beautiful example of density and proximity and space. I’m kind of stoned when it comes to looking at space. I think it’s perception.

You think about, how can I arrange bodies in a way that’s that packed, for example?

Yeah, how can I use that? Or you look at an ear of corn. Nature is expressing itself through the use of space. Two trees in agreement of how to use the space. It’s everywhere. I just look at it.

To listen to the full interview with Annie-B Parson, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.

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