New York choreographer Annie-B Parson on adapting the 17th-century British diarist for the contemporary stage, sexism and Tanztheater.
Since 1991 Annie-B Parson and the Big Dance Theater she co-founded have been famed for the kind of idiosyncratic mix of text, dance and media that many critics and audiences don’t quite know how to categorise. By now, Parson has choreographed and co-created more than 20 works for the group, and they have been recognised with just about all of the prestigious awards available to New York’s downtown performance artists. This August, she and Big Dance Theater are bringing to Berlin their latest production, 17c, a reference to the 17th century candidly recorded by Englishman Samuel Pepys in what has been hailed as Britain’s most celebrated diary.
Why choose a 17th-century text like Pepys’ diaries?
I always wanted to know about worlds that value dance and theatre because the culture I live in does not. Reading the diaries, I saw Pepys’ world definitely took the arts seriously, and it was a currency for him to learn to dance. Going to the theatre was so charged that sometimes he would just quit, like he was quitting drinking. I was really attracted to that. The other aspect that drew me in was his description of his world: It felt post-modern in that it’s very nonhierarchical. He talks about the boils on his ass as equal to seeing the king. I loved the uncensored dailiness of it.
The dairies have been accused of misogyny by modern readers. Is this why you decided to introduce the work of Pepys’ contemporary Margaret Cavendish as a play within the play? As a feminist note?
When I first read the diaries, I wanted to represent theatre on stage and had different ideas about how to do that. In the end, I decided to do a play within a play. Of course, I always want to include female voices. He mentioned Margaret Cavendish a few times in his diary. She was one of the really radical figures of the day. She had a free soul, but he didn’t approve of her. He was shocked by her. I thought, well, he didn’t see her plays because they weren’t produced because she was a woman, but I could produce one. And so I slipped it in. It’s very boiled down. I changed some of the language but I didn’t change any of the ideas because they’re really radical feminist ideas, and I wanted to bring that out.
You’ve said women today are still neglected like Cavendish. Are you and other women marginalised as choreographers?
We are very marginalised. If you go on the website of any major company hiring choreographers on a large scale, it’s predominantly men who are hired for the main stages. It’s been a big issue at the New York City Ballet, and in London. If you look at the bottom of the food chain, there’s tons of women. But not at the top.
Big Dance Theater has been compared with German Tanztheater: yet your work doesn’t really make one think of, say, Pina Bausch.
A long time ago, a presenter told me, “Big Dance is like American Tanztheater.” In the 1980s, I saw Pina Bausch for the first time at BAM and was very affected by her use of theatricality – by her use of clothing, her use of circumstance and relationships, her complete lack of interest in story. I feel a connection to all of that, but 17c is closer to theatre than to Tanztheater; I think they mesh in terms of their tools but they don’t feel the same when you see them.
What has been most striking about audiences’ response to 17c?
Because of #MeToo, the sexual aggressiveness became the focus. That was fascinating because I don’t make “political work”. I’m sceptical of that. But I was also pleasantly surprised that people found it profoundly emotional, and you know what? I want them to find it emotional. Even though I come from the post-modern, where the content is the body and space, I still find myself liking that people are experiencing feelings while they’re watching it!
17c Aug 25, 26, 19:00 Deutsches Theater, Mitte