By Rights

by David Parker 

In 2006, I arranged a song-and-dance number for Jeffrey Kazin and myself to perform at my parents' 50th wedding anniversary celebration held at the Taj Hotel Rooftop in Boston. For me, the Taj will always remain the Ritz as it was for most of my life and, for this occasion, I would be puttin' it on. I chose Irving Berlin's intricate and witty contrapuntal duet called "Old Fashioned Wedding" written for the 1966 revival of "Annie Get Your Gun." Jeff and I sang it and then did a tap routine in which we portrayed a pair pledged and promised but ambivalent about the nature of our nuptials. In 2006, Massachusetts was the only state in god's country to have achieved marriage equality. This gave our performance a certain piquancy as well as a measure of poignancy. We seemed to have skidded on our taps into a zeitgeist moment. This was the beginning of the marriage equality tsunami which has since swept through the entire northeast and beyond. Catching the wave, Jeff and I performed this again at my company's benefit in New York the following winter and, in a twist worthy of a musical, Robin Staff, the visionary producer of the series of dance-cabaret-musicals which began with Doug Elkins' "Fraulein Maria" was there as a guest. She was searching for a second show to follow Fraulein at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater. I had been dancing in Fraulein Maria as Liesl and I leapt at the idea of making a show of my own. The kind of electricity that I felt performing a legitimate dance show in a cabaret was less easy to find in the soberer spaces of the avant-garde where I often toiled and spun. Thus was "ShowDown" conceived. I began with alacrity. I made a tantalizing distillation for Groundworks Dance Theater of Cleveland called "Annie Redux" which seemed to land in just the right way and then I transferred and expanded that into a somewhat too--loose version that I did in Boston as part of First Night 2008. At this point, the whole thing hit a snag.

I did an interview with The Boston Globe about it. I was immediately contacted by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization because I had failed to ask their permission. They owned the rights to the show and, of course, to the Sound of Music, so they had actually seen me as Liesl when seeing the show in order to extend their permission to Doug Elkins. I was really quite stupid not to have sought performance rights. The Rodgers and Hammerstein organization handled this issue with extraordinary grace and generosity and, as it became clear that I was making this show out of my love for the material, granted their permission for me to continue. This was an enormous relief, because I was passionate about this project.

I saw in "Annie Get Your Gun" a classic show in which gender roles were still available for examination. A show in which the collision between romance and ambition was articulated against a background of the ramshackle allure of show business. As a middle-aged artist, I felt at one with these themes. The score is full of famous highlights-"There's No Business Like Show Business", "Anything You Can Do", "They Say It's Wonderful", "Doin' What Comes Naturally" and so forth, but their original context is less well-known. I had therefore, great freedom.

I would have been devastated if I'd not been permitted to work with this score and I've learned to be very scrupulous about the matter of rights and permission. My own ignorance brought me close to losing this opportunity. It is thus without the slightest hesitation, that we pay a modest fee for the right and privilege to perform this work each time we do it. My position was not common among people petitioning to use the score. I was not, per se, doing a production of "Annie Get Your Gun" (like a regional theater or Broadway revival) but was doing a kind of parallel work in another medium. I didn't use the whole score and we sang but one song. I used the music as a platform for choreography, as a point of departure. Although I worked with its rhythms and images very deliberately, I was, at first, confused about which version to use. I chose the unused recordings of the score made for the 1949 MGM movie by Judy Garland and Howard Keel because they are so beautiful and because neither Ethel Merman nor Betty Hutton is easy to listen to while watching dancing. Judy Garland's limpid renditions of the songs opened up possibilities and spaces in the score that I was able to negotiate and which were genial to my purposes. I felt that Judy became my friend during this process and, it must be said, I was already a good friend of Dorothy's.

"ShowDown" opened at Joe's Pub in 2008 to considerable enthusiasm and did an encore season the following year, it has been touring ever since and is one of my most beloved works even returning again to Joe's Pub last season. I followed up with two more cabaret oriented shows commissioned by DanceNow/NYC through Robin Staff. The second of which will premiere in February 2014. Having been involved in Fraulein as well as my own three shows (I also did a cameo in the first run of Nicholas Leichter's The Whiz which was third in this series) I came to see these modern-dance-musicals as an aesthetic movement which has astonishing implications for us all. We're not making commercial work, but we are making work which openly accepts the responsibility of communication. We perform in a celebratory environment. There is no dissonance or ambivalence about our purpose which is to work vividly with dance as a way to get to the heart of the kind of transcendence that musicals have, at their best, offered. For me, this is a return to my essence. As a youth, I watched musicals with the devotion of a seminary student pouring over the gospels. The truths contained therein may be ethereal but they are no less potent for it. They have to do with the sudden projection of imagination, through song and dance, into an otherwise quotidian environment thereby endowing it with splendor.

Throughout my career I've made a series of a capella dances in which the dancing itself makes the score. I've done this through body percussion, singing, speaking, vocalese, barefoot hoofing, actual tapping, percussive pointe work and even through the ripping and smacking of Velcro. That means, of course, that I compose the scores. These are largely metrical/percussive scores but I have also been exploring the use of a non-metrical form by tap dancing in Morse Code. In "ShowDown", Jeff and I tap out wedding vows in Morse Code. I've made a entire footwork equivalent of the Morse Code alphabet which is highly rhythmic but, of course, based in language and not music. When I work with music, though I may know it somewhat as I did with Irving Berlin's score, I still do not use it in rehearsal until I've established-composed, really-a strong rhythmic character in the choreography. Therefore I work with the dancers for a long time in silence until our rhythms are strong enough to stand up to the score. "ShowDown" is primarily about partnering both in the actual physical sense of people lifting and holding each other and in the temporal sense of contrapuntal sharing of rhythm. I take this to the level of the relationship between dance and music as well. They banter and spar, neither yielding all the way to the other. No quarter is given but the weight is shared.

I have been inspired and delighted by the works made by several New York artists for the DanceNow/NYC series and I want to bring this phenomenon to the Boston area. Therefore, in partnership with DanceNow/NYC, I am presenting a cabaret/dance series at Oberon in Harvard Square during the month of March which will culminate in commissions by three Boston choreographers. This happens on three consecutive Friday nights. The first two will feature The Bang Group's newest dance/cabaret and the third week will feature "ShowDown" along with commissioned work by three Boston choreographers: Lorraine Chapman, Kelli Edwards and Nicole Pierce. These ladies are ideal choices for this endeavor as they have all shown their savvy with regard to musicals and they are all fine artists whom I respect and admire. They have also all been guest artists in "Nut/Cracked", but that's a story for some snowy night by the fire. Until then, I look forward to seeing you, constant reader, in March at Oberon.

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