More or less, I found myself at David Byrne’s American Utopia by accident. I had tagged along with my mother, who had announced she was coming to town for the express purpose of seeing it, and I arrived at the theater knowing nothing other than that it was David Byrne’s musical. Halfway through the second number, I was fumbling for my program. Who had made this choreography? It was unusual for a Broadway show: pedestrian and precise, unshowy, sometimes awkward—but satisfyingly so. This dancing looked more like it belonged in Judson Memorial Church, the seat of the downtown experimental dance scene in New York, than in a Broadway theater. I found my program under my seat: Oh, of course. Annie-B Parson.
Parson has been a luminary of the New York City dance and theater scene since the early ’90s, when she formed Big Dance Theater with director Paul Lazar (also her husband) and performer Molly Hickok. She did indeed come out of the Judson scene, and was influenced by its avant-garde sensibility. After seeing the work of German dancer Pina Bausch at age twenty-five, she also began to incorporate classical theatrical modes of storytelling into her work: character, costume, certain forms of plot. Big Dance Theater productions are ambitious works of formal and intellectual omnivorousness. Her 2021 work, The Mood Room, featured contemporary German house music, a narrative thread about 1980s Los Angeles and Reaganism, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, soap operas, and the Gnostic Gospels. Other recurring inspirations: ancient Greek tragedies, the Old Testament, braided hair, Thoreau, Kabuki, Russian folk dancing, classical ballet, and so on.
Parson’s work as a choreographer has also extended beyond her own company, and particularly into collaborations with musicians. American Utopia is only one part of a years-long collaboration with Byrne: she choreographed his Love This Giant tour with St. Vincent and his musical Here Lies Love, which opened on Broadway in the summer of 2023. She has collaborated with David Bowie, Anne Carson, Laurie Anderson, Lorde, Salt-N-Pepa, and plenty of others. The Martha Graham Dance Company has two large-scale works of hers in its repertory.
During the pandemic, Parson began writing a book—one unlike the books she had previously written, which include an illustrated abecedary titled Dance by Letter, and Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts, for which she drew her dances as illustrations, mapping their graphic structures. Her latest book, The Choreography of Everyday Life (Verso Books, 2022), documents the early months of the pandemic and serves as a record of her creative philosophy. It proposes that choreography is everywhere, in our most basic personal and civic routines, suffused in the world around us. Equally, it shows the way Parson allows the world around her (from gestures to iPhone photographs to Greek tragedy) to suffuse her own work. The book delighted me—with its ideas about creative process and its prose rhythms, which mimic dance rhythms—so I asked Parson if we could talk about it.
We met at her home in Brooklyn, New York. The night before, I’d gone to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to see a restaging of Água, the 2001 evening-length work by Pina Bausch, which Parson had also recently seen. In anticipation of our talk, she’d just looked at The Choreography of Everyday Life for the first time in months. We spent about an hour and a half at her kitchen table, snacking on a lemon cake and talking about the ephemerality of dance, the Gnostic Gospels, and kinesthetic empathy.
I. The Rolodex of the Dancer
THE BELIEVER: You looked again at your book this morning.
ANNIE-B PARSON: Yes.
BLVR: How was that?
ABP: It was fine, but the photos are too dark, and I’d forgotten that. It jumped out at me that something I was doing in the book but didn’t quite realize is that the book’s also about sound. I know it’s about space, I know it’s about time, I know it’s about proximity and duality and all these elements of Theater—capital-T Theater. But I guess I didn’t really take in how much it’s got sound. I can’t hear this, because the radio’s on, or I can’t hear this, because the AC’s on, or Oh, I heard this, or I heard it because the window’s open. Oh, I heard that Trump was elected through the window. That should have a sound cue, or That shouldn’t have a sound cue. I didn’t realize this.
BLVR: Right. Is there a reason that’s top of mind for you right now? Sound in particular?
ABP: No, I don’t think so. I think I just needed to have some separation from the book to see how present it was.
BLVR: That makes sense. When you say that, I’m like, Oh, of course, it’s in there—but it wasn’t the first, or second, or third thing that I noticed in the book either.
ABP: If I was sound—if I could personify sound—I’d be like, Nobody pays attention to me! You go to a theater piece and sometimes I have 150 sound cues in my work. And nobody ever mentions it. And they’re so significant. They define what you’re looking at. In straight theater, they tell you how to feel.
BLVR: Or because there’s so much else… Especially in the realm of theater and dance, there’s so much other stimulation happening, often, that it fades into—
ABP: And that’s cultural, don’t you think? For instance, we’re very geared toward paying attention to language. I am not, personally. I am narratively challenged. I’m not following the text. I’m looking at and listening to sound cues—the way they use space. I’m looking at it like a choreographer. I can’t help it. I’m not even trying to.
BLVR: That’s interesting because one of the things that I’ve been picking up as I’ve gone through your work is actually how much you seem attuned to language. How language seems so primary for you.
ABP: Absolutely. It is. But not narrative.
BLVR: You’ve said in the past something I’m really obsessed with, which is that our body is like a memory organ: it carries everything that’s ever happened to us. But also, movement of the body, and dance in particular, are so ephemeral. How do you think about memory in relation to your work and in relation to your practice? It feels like the body is this memory organ but the thing that results from it can’t be held, or can only be held in memory. How do you feel about that?
ABP: It’s an upsetting subject, because there’s no… Dance is so ephemeral that I have no record of my work, basically. Like, the experience that you have watching a live piece is, of course, unrelated to watching something at the library. And that experience of you in relation to the work is what I’m interested in. Only every once in a while have I been able to have that experience with a video… That’s why American Utopia was such a big deal for me. Because Spike Lee came in with thirteen cameras and he said, “I want to follow the choreography.” [Spike Lee directed and produced a 2020 concert film of a Broadway performance of American Utopia.] So that’s a real record of that piece. I’d never thought in my whole life that I’d have a real record of my work. And I hate ephemerality. And I don’t romanticize it.
It’s a very odd, fleeting, embodied experience when you leave a dance performance. It’s in you, as a viewer, but it’s not like how you can go to the Met your whole life and look at a Vermeer. You can’t. You can’t reexperience it the way I can reexperience the Old Testament every weekend. I can reexperience the Bible, if I take the time! I didn’t today. [Laughs] I can’t do that with dance.
BLVR: That also means you can’t track the way you change in relation to the art. We do pay attention to how books read to us through different decades or how we see a painting differently.
ABP: That’s very important! That’s the triangle I talk about in my book. You, the book, the world. You, the dance, the world. We can’t do that with dance. Unless someone like BAM brings a twenty-year-old Pina Bausch piece [Água] with seventy-five people… Seventy-five people were on tour for that. Imagine the resources. Did you see that piece?
BLVR: I just saw it last night. It was… spectacular.
ABP: Yes. It’s remarkable. And you can imagine, like, that’s one piece we get to see, not just from Pina Bausch, but from many choreographers. It’s so rare. And that piece is only twenty years old. What about a piece that’s one hundred and twenty years old? So yeah, dance is fucked. It’s just gone. It just goes. It just keeps going away. And some people think that’s cool. I don’t.
BLVR: To what extent is that a problem you feel like you can intervene in?
ABP: That’s it. Just the book. Because my happiest thing about the book is it never closes. It doesn’t have a two-week run, or a three-day run. You know what I mean? Anyone can read it. Anytime, forever. This book thing is good. I’m just like, This makes sense.
BLVR: That it becomes something that can exist, or that can persist in time.
ABP: Persist, and that you can revisit. And see who you are in relation to it, or to any book.
BLVR: The other thing I’m thinking of is that the closest analogue to that is in the bodies of longtime collaborators.
ABP: The Rolodex of the dancer. Absolutely.
BLVR: They can hold some of that.
ABP: They do. And I do. The few dancers that hold huge amounts of information in their bodies, of my work—I can’t even tell you how I feel about them. They’re literally walking repositories.
BLVR: They’re your archive.
ABP: They’re my archive. And of course, I’m at their whim, basically. They have so much power for me. And the way that material has been internalized—and I’m talking about a very small handful of people—with them is so beautiful, the work they hold. I have two dancers that literally have, like, twenty years of movement in their bodies.
BLVR: What an unbelievable relationship between two people.
ABP: It’s intense.
BLVR: I wonder if they feel this way about it, but it seems like a lot of pressure on them.
ABP: It’s a lot of power for them. And I hope it’s not pressure. I hope they feel like they’re the goods. They have the currency—I hope. Yeah. I don’t think they feel pressure.
BLVR: I guess the reason I thought of the word pressure is because sometimes I work on projects that involve archives. Like literal paper archives. And often it seems like the people whose job it is to maintain those archives feel a kind of obligation, that this is a precious thing they are stewarding.
ABP: I hope they feel that way.
BLVR: I mean, I wonder. To feel like in my body is this thing that doesn’t really exist anywhere else.
ABP: That’s absolutely the case. I know there was this famous reconstruction of the 1913 version of The Rite of Spring and there was a woman—I think her name was Millicent Hodson. She had retained that material in her body and was very old, and the Joffrey [Ballet] put it back together, using her direction. I saw the reconstruction, like, decades ago. Of course, I had nothing to compare it to. But it was off the charts, one of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen. And that woman is the archive. She’s carrying the sacred material. She’s holding… You know, recently they found that thousand-year-old Torah. And everybody was up in arms because in the picture the person didn’t have gloves on, the person holding the Torah. Did you hear about this? It was in the paper just yesterday.
BLVR: Really? I didn’t see it.
ABP: I was one of those people. I saw the picture and I was like, Why do they have their bare hands on that Torah? When I saw the picture, I had the same freak-out. I was like, She should be wearing gloves! Why isn’t she wearing gloves? It’s too old, it’s going to fall apart. And, no, I was completely wrong, which I love. The bare hands—the oil in our skin—is actually fine for the manuscript. What’s bad is the gloves. Because it’s natural. There’s no mitigating material between the hand and the book. They’re all a tree, in a sense. I loved that.
BLVR: In a metaphysical sense, it really satisfies me, the idea that the book wants to be touched by a human hand. It makes me think about contagion magic.
ABP: What is that?
BLVR: Contagion magic is the notion, as it manifests throughout eras and cultures, that something of a person is contained in the objects that they touched often. So, like, the theory behind a relic being holy is contagion magic.
BLVR: It’s something of you that’s in your sweater, or in your book. I’ve been thinking about it, because if we’re thinking about the book that wants to be touched by a human hand, one of the things that is special about a book that’s so old—like the Torah or, no, maybe the Torah is special because it’s a holy book… But if you think about holding a book that was in Emily Dickinson’s house, the thing that makes that book special is that she held it. That’s contagion magic.
ABP: That’s such a scary word for it… contagion.
BLVR: I know, but also magic!
ABP: That’s just got to be true. It just has to be true.
II. Faith, Not Fate
BLVR: How do you accumulate your material? It seems like so much of your process, whether it’s dance-making or writing or sketching, is collage-like. So how do you magpie your world together?
ABP: I do call myself a magpie. I think it’s a belief system—which may be false and which doesn’t work all the time—which is that everything is related to everything. So, like, when I did Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, underneath that is a score of stage directions in a Chekhov play, which are completely unrelated. But I’d read the Chekhov play at the same time I was working on the Flaubert, and I was like, These stage directions are so cool! I want to choreograph them! So I used that. Dance is very, very flexible—plastic—and you can move it in any direction. Dance doesn’t have any of its own meaning. It means what you make it mean.
BLVR: I want to press again on the question of how you find the things. Is it just like a random accumulation process—if accumulate is the right verb? Is it a lot of reading?
ABP: It’s perception. It has to do with perception. That’s why I have a problem with research. Because I feel like research sounds like something you’re intentionally doing that’s very narrow. But that word doesn’t work for me at all. I’m sure it’s good for other people. But for me it’s more like living. For instance, right now I’m reading the new translation [by Damion Searls] of the Thomas Mann short stories. Have you read it?
BLVR: I haven’t.
ABP: Oh my god, it’s so good! It’s starting to give me thoughts. Or, like, I have a really cool dress where the seams broke, so I sort of stripped the back off the dress. Another example: I was at the dentist, near the Morgan Library and Museum, and I went into the library and they have an exhibit about the first author and the ancient Etruscan period of writing. The clothes in the exhibit are amazing. The women wore these dresses that might be leaves, but you can’t tell, because they’re sculptures. They also might be fabric; I don’t know. But they’re, like, leaf shapes… Imagine you had a dress that was just, like, layers of leaves. So great. And all the dresses have slits. I’m doing that with my next costume. I want to do things choreographically where they slide their hands into their clothes or take a part of the fabric and move the dress.
BLVR: So your research is just moving around the world.
ABP: Just moving around the world. Like, that interests me, that interests me. I like gathering. Hunter-gathering.
BLVR: I forget which interview this was, but you once corrected an interviewer who was asking about the role of fate in things coming together to make something out of these disparate elements. And you said it’s not fate, but faith, when you are working. There are also moments in the book when you refer to art animism, with [Fernando] Pessoa, and a belief that’s more like a religion, that creating is as natural as a leaf growing. We’re sort of skirting that subject: the role of faith in making. How has your thinking about that—the faith question, or the belief question—changed over time? Did you always have it?
ABP: I always had it, I think. But like everything, the more you do it, the more conscious you get about what you’re doing. So I think I was very free when I was younger. I was like, Oh, I love Cassandra. I’ll put her in this Pinter text. Or, like, I need Andrea Dworkin to walk in… I don’t know what I was thinking. But it was, Oh, that’s interesting to me; that interests me. I’m looking for resonance, right? So you put these two things together, and even though they seem very disparate, they’re going to shine light on each other in some weird way.
Over time, I realized that what I’m doing is this: trying to find these resonances, and I seem to think it can be anything, literally. Some people call it high/low. I don’t think that describes it enough. It’s not just about horizontal and vertical, nor is it about culture and currency. It’s really about this, not that. This, not that. That’s why I think I said it’s not fate; it’s faith. Because fate makes it sound like stuff comes together and you accept it. It’s way more active than that.
III. Who is a choreographer?
BLVR: I wanted to ask you about writing a book from choreographic principles. I know it’s been done, but I don’t see it done that often, especially not right now.
ABP: Some people see it as meta, and I think in moments it is. Choreographic principles are just art principles. It was very natural for me to do. It wasn’t conscious. But time is there, definitely, and rhythm, definitely, and spaces… I’m also talking about choreographic elements and how they relate to other things, like duration, for instance, vis-à-vis poetry. I think the poem I use is a ten-line poem, by Catullus, as a way to talk about the meaning of duration. I know about compositional elements. So that’s what I’m going to write with. That’s going to be my writing. Because I don’t identify as a writer. In any way.
BLVR: But you are a writer.
ABP: Really? OK, thank you.
BLVR: A writer is someone who writes.
ABP: Yeah. I mean, I feel that way about dance also, so it’s very generous of you to say that. I’m not sure I could say that a choreographer is someone who choreographs.
BLVR: Why not?
ABP: Because, well, I think choreography is misunderstood as a process of generating steps. So a lot of people who are choreographers are creating steps. And you see it all the time. In every pop concert, on TV, all the time. Everybody’s facing forward, they’re only showing their front body, they’re only dancing in unison, and they’re doing steps. To me, that’s like this tiny corner of the painting of what choreography is. I can hardly see that as choreography.
BLVR: So then who is a choreographer?
ABP: I think a choreographer is someone who looks at something in an über sense choreographically. The whole space. The whole body. My most basic definition of choreography is the aesthetic organization of the body in space. Because if you say it’s the organization of the body in space, that could be somebody who, like an engineer, would figure out where people should stand in a production line. That is a choreography, but I wouldn’t call that person a choreographer, because there’s no aesthetic. Choreography to me has to do with the larger rendering of aesthetic through the body.
BLVR: Actually, I would maybe make a similar claim about writers and writing. I know I just said that a writer is a person who writes. But I don’t actually think that, because everyone writes. But I do think a writer is a person who uses the materiality of text and of language and the possibility of conveying ideas through text and language as a form of specific expression that is creative and exploratory.
ABP: That’s a pretty good definition. And now you’ve got it on tape!
BLVR: [Laughs] And not everyone who writes a book actually does that.
ABP: That’s exactly what I’m saying. Like, I don’t know what the equivalent of steps is in writing, but there definitely is one. Because sometimes you go: That person isn’t a writer. They had some sort of anecdotal thing that people relate to, and great. Writing is this other thing. Writing is conceiving. Like Beckett is conceiving of the world in a particular way and finding language to support that. And that’s where it gets into that “exploration” at the end of your sentence. [Beckett] needs to invent a whole other way of using language in order to describe this larger world. That’s what I mean about the über thing. It’s not just sentences.
BLVR: Right now I’m teaching a class on the nonfiction collage, or the essay collage, and I have this student who came in to talk to me because she was worried about whether it was OK that she was smooshing so many different things together. Especially because she doesn’t always immediately know how to explain why this math theory and that piece of art and so on—things that apparently have no relation—belong in an essay together, but they do for her. We were talking about how one way of thinking about writing an essay is as if you’re inventing a container where these disparate ideas can sit together and make sense to the reader the way they intuitively do to you, the writer.
ABP: Would you say that my book is a collage essay?
BLVR: Yeah, probably.
ABP: OK. So the way I did that, from my perspective, is through form. Like I created a form that could hold this braid structure. How would you do that?
BLVR: For me, the challenge is understanding, surfacing, what those connections are so I can actually understand them. Because often the thing that’s bringing these things together feels random, and maybe even is a little random, but it does have a logic that’s either in the ether or buried somewhere deep in my brain. And the first task is figuring out why they belong together, to me.
ABP: I’ve never thought about it like that.
IV. “Describe, describe, describe”
ABP: My very, very favorite writer right now is Isaac Babel.
BLVR: I don’t know who that is—who is that?
ABP: Isaac Babel was a little after Chekhov. He was killed by Stalin. He was Jewish. He’s like Chekhov with blood running down his face. Babel has a thing that I’ve printed out and put by my desk and it says, Describe, describe, describe. He says, Describe a Cossack. Describe his pants. Describe his shoes. Describe the earth under his shoes. And on and on and on and on. He just goes, Describe, describe, describe. And then he goes on to say, Describe these very ineffable things. Describe a thunderstorm. Things like that.
BLVR: Is there an equivalent in dance?
ABP: Oh yeah.
BLVR: What is it?
ABP: [Exasperated sound] Choreography is so hard. [Laughter] The equivalent… When you generate movement material, you then have to make it legible or repeatable, because it’s never existed before—it’s not like I’m working within a tradition of jazz or ballet, where there are terms. So you have to generate movement material, you have to make it legible, and you have to figure out how it moves. Does it move? What are its tonalities? Shaping and sculpting that material is, I guess, describe, describe, describe. Something like that. It’s very hard. I don’t even like thinking about it. [Laughs]
BLVR: In your first book, you write, “C is for choreography, the most unfree of forms.” Why work in an unfree form, and what is a free form?
ABP: I was working with some musicians, and as I was choreographing them they were pushing back, and they said, When we play music, we’re always dancing and we feel so free and now we don’t feel good. And I was like, Choreography isn’t free. It’s not free. There’s nothing free about it. It’s an unfree form in that once it exists, the body is, in a sense, confined to a series of actions in a particular space in a particular time wearing particular clothes, you know what I mean? It’s very unfree. What you do within it, if you’re a great dancer, is very free. Like, I’ve seen people do things with my choreography that were thrilling. And they didn’t change the choreography; they just interpreted it, lived inside it.
BLVR: So it’s not unfree for you, making it, nor is it necessarily unfree for a truly great dancer, but there is a kind of strict structure that gets made.
ABP: Oh, more than a strict structure! Everything. The material itself. Of what your body is doing. Like if I said right now: Oh, Jordan, don’t actually use those fingers to pick up that card. I just want you to pick up that top card and put it on the table without using that hand, but that other hand: Can you put it behind your head, but extend your arm more slowly when you do that? You’d go insane; it’s terrible. You’d feel very unfree.
BLVR: Right, right.
ABP: But once you have it, once you have the experience, then it’s like—within that, where am I? And it gets super interesting.
BLVR: You write in the book that at a certain point in history there arose a division between the dancers and the watchers of the dance. And that gave rise to kinesthetic empathy, or the feeling we get when we watch someone leap through the air and our bodies also kind of leap inside. I wanted to ask how much you’re playing with that space between the watcher and the dancer, the kinesthetic empathy that’s between them. How much of that is also being choreographed?
ABP: I don’t think you can choreograph it. I wish! I hear that and I’m like, Oh, what a fun question. Like, if you could only control how the audience’s body experiences what you’re doing. I can only say that I’ve had the experience when I’ve seen somebody jump very high. When I was a child I saw Baryshnikov leap—it was during his prime as a ballet dancer—and I saw him leap and I remember that his body was in the air for too long. Like it wasn’t possible. He went up and he just hung out there, and I remember my body going [big intake of breath], and I felt the leap! And that’s kinesthetic empathy. And I don’t think you can choreograph that. I don’t know how. I wish I could.
BLVR: You’re very much in conversation with Merce Cunningham, but the quotation of his that leaped out the most to me when you quoted it in the book is “We give ourselves away at every moment.”
ABP: Yeah, that’s huge for me.
BLVR: It made me start thinking about your work as forensic, or anthropological—like, it made me wonder about the extent to which part of your practice is looking at the way we human beings in our pedestrian life are giving ourselves away, and then are trying to make art from that. Does it feel forensic to you at any point?
ABP: I’d say what you just described would describe certain roads I’ve gone down, yeah. I’m very interested in the pedestrian body in public space. There’s no question about that. But some of it was reawakened through COVID because we were all choreographing out there and doing it really well. The citizen body was dancing perfectly. We were good at standing on our Xs, the whole thing. It was great. I was very impressed.
But of course this idea came from the Judsons, and when I was first learning choreography, that was the tradition. Anybody in downtown dance, of my generation, is going to be very affected by that. Speaking of Pina [Bausch], when I first saw her and I was, like, twenty-five, I put those two things together. Her theatricality, her interest in certain theatrical elements that the Judsons had completely thrown out—costume, personality, relationality. All those things. I combined those instantly without even thinking of it. The whole pedestrianism was essentially not enough for me, theatrically. I’m so interested in literature and plays and stuff.
BLVR: I know that when you’ve worked with David Byrne you’ve been interested in the way he naturally moves his body. How much is that a part of your process, in general—observing the way that the people who you’re working with are moving in space?
ABP: I think it’s more like observing what their strengths are, or what they lean into, as movers. David’s such a natural dancer. My favorite quote from David was in some interview where somebody asked him about his early dances and he said, Well, when I was making up my dances… I would just look in a mirror and try to do dances that nobody did. Like, try to make up movement that nobody did, that didn’t look like anyone else’s movement. That’s choreography to me. That’s a choreographic mind.
BLVR: When did you notice the relationship between language and grammar and dance?
ABP: Poetry. I think I even say it in my book. With my mom, we’d memorize poems, my whole life, so I think intuitively I just felt the poetics in there. And then, as a person who, for want of a better word, is a formalist, I wasn’t too long into my career before I brought those structures, those language structures, into choreography. Definitely straight from poetry.
BLVR: We’ll end with my silliest question.
ABP: [Laughs] OK.
BLVR: What are your favorite verbs?
ABP: Not silly! I guess to walk, to attach, to divine. I actually have a series of verbs that I always go to when I’m making material.
BLVR: Do you have them written down somewhere?
ABP: Yeah, I mean in, like, all my notes, all these verbs. To divine, to disassemble, to detach, to lay.
BLVR: Maybe this question has the same answer, but I want to distinguish between what are your favorite verbs and what are the verbs of your practice. What are the verbs of your work?
ABP: That’s a great question. To craft. To construct. To shimmer. I want to think of a word for “the surface.” A verb. I can’t quite think of it.
BLVR: Like scrim? I mean, that’s a noun, but—
ABP: Like a verb for “the surface.” Or the costume. The makeup. To decorate? [Laughs] To decorate. That was a totally fun question. I’ve never thought about that in my life.