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Athletic Dance

David Parsons brings a selection of choreography to Centennial Hall including a piece that was born there

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David Parsons' dance "Nascimento"--literally "birth" in Portuguese--owes its life to the University of Arizona.

"It was commissioned by the UA," choreographer Parsons recounts, speaking by cell phone from New York on Good Friday afternoon. Back in 1990, when Alexandra Jupin was the director of the UA Office of Cultural Affairs, the predecessor of UApresents, she ordered up the piece.

After it debuted in Tucson's Centennial Hall, "we danced it all around the world," Parsons says.

"Nascimento" returns to its birthplace next Thursday, April 3, when it opens the Parsons Dance concert at Centennial. The big group piece, danced by eight of Parsons' 10 exceptionally athletic dancers, is a joyous explosion of color and pattern, full of nonstop jumps. "Flying couples" are dressed in costumes colored in south-of-the-border hues.

"It's a gringo's take on Brazil," the choreographer explains. "It's about music, color and community--what we experienced in Brazil. It's really beautiful, serious dance."

The noted Brazilian composer and musician Milton Nascimento "did the music as a gift," Parsons says. "So I named it for him," neatly paying a compliment to his friend while playing on the word's literal meaning.

That sense of fun is an essential component of Parsons Dance. One of the great contemporary companies, it's led by a man with sterling credentials: He trained with Alvin Ailey and danced for eight years with Paul Taylor. Born in Chicago, he grew up in Kansas City, where, unconventionally for a modern dancer, he never set foot in a ballet class.

"I've never done ballet, but I've done ballets," he jokes, alluding to his multiple compositions for such high-flying companies as American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. As a kid, he studied contemporary dance and gymnastics--which may account for the exhilarating athleticism of his dances. At 17, he landed in New York as a scholarship student at the Ailey school.

To pay the rent, "I worked at a gas station at night." And as a scholarship student, he had to do jobs around the studio, Parsons recounts. He met Ailey himself when "I was mopping his floor."

If his tale of meeting the great African-American choreographer sounds a bit apocryphal, it's undeniably true that within six months, Parsons joined Paul Taylor Dance Company.

"I joined Paul when I was 18," he says, around 1978. He started as an understudy, but, in a classic dance break, he was asked to replace an injured dancer. The next thing he knew, he was flying to Moscow to dance in a concert sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

"The State Department used to be involved in cultural exchanges," he sighs.

Parsons danced multiple lead parts for Taylor over the next eight years, with the older man choreographing roles specifically for him in such famed pieces as "Arden Court," "Last Look" and "Roses." Then around 1985, he founded his own company, overlapping a bit with his tenure with Taylor.

"I think it's 23 years," he jokes. "When you start it out of your apartment, you never really know."

Parsons quickly built an independent reputation for joyous dances, complicated in technique and rich in variety. He's choreographed some 70 works, which the company performs routinely around the United States and abroad. After the current swing through the Southwest, the dancers will head off, coincidentally, to Moscow, where Parsons got his start.

"We do international work all the time. Thank God. The dollar is not exactly strong, but we get paid in euros, which makes sure I can pay everybody."

The diversity of his dances plays out in his shows, including in the Centennial concert, which features six quite different Parsons pieces.

"We're always very varied in our programs," he says. "We like to do an emotional rollercoaster. 'Nascimento' has freedom. The next piece, 'Sleep Study,' has comedy."

An early work, from 1987, "Sleep Study" was originally choreographed for a kids' TV show.

"It's a comedy about sleeping, all the movements everyone does every night," he says. Seven dancers in PJs toss and tumble to music by Flim and The BB's, and the stage doubles as a giant bed.

"In the End," a full-company piece from 2005, is danced to a medley of tunes by the Dave Matthews Band.

"It's politically tinged. People are moving forcefully through the stage, intimidating other people." But it also "has a beautiful solo."

"Kind of Blue," a quartet from 2001, switches the mood. A tribute to jazzman Miles Davis, the dance--and Davis' music--are "down, dirty and smoking," Parsons says. The work was commissioned by the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy, where Parsons is the "only dance company to play regularly."

"Caught," a riveting solo from 1982, is Parsons' signature piece. Choreographed before he even started his own company, the dance alternates between darkness and strobe lighting. The dancer does at least 100 jumps in the five minutes of the dance, but the audience sees him only up in the air. When he begins to descend to the ground, the lights go dark. The impression created is of a dancer flying, never landing.

It was inspired by photography, Parsons says. He'd worked with both Lois Greenfield and Annie Leibovitz, doing photo shoots "where you have the dancer up in the air. Strobe lights allow you to do it in dance. This is one of the things that I'm proud of."

It will be performed in Tucson either by Miguel Quinones or Tommy Scrivens.

The evening's grand finale, "Shining Star," brings Parsons back to his early days in the Ailey studios. The full-company piece was arranged by the Alvin Ailey company, commissioned for the birthday of an Ailey patron.

Artistic director Judith Jamison "called me and said, 'I need something quick.' I made it on my dancers, and they set it on Ailey in two days. It's a lot of duets, a celebration of mature love, a lot of duets."

Set to the 1970s disco-era music of Earth, Wind and Fire, "It's a pretty heavy-duty party piece. It's really about having a good time."

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