‘American Utopia’: A choreographer helps reimagine pop concerts

Why We Wrote This

Change happens when people aren’t afraid to imagine something different. Choreographer Annie-B Parson has collaborated with musician David Byrne to create a Broadway show that offers a new model for concerts, and dance. 

Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
“David Byrne’s American Utopia,” currently on Broadway, features material from Mr. Byrne’s solo career and hits from his Talking Heads years. The musician (center) collaborated with choreographer Annie-B Parson on the design of the show.

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Sought-after choreographer Annie-B Parson often doodles drawings of dances to get a sense for the spatial relationships of bodies on stage. Her imaginings are included in a just-released book, “Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts,” and can be seen live on Broadway in “David Byrne’s American Utopia.” 

Ms. Parson and Mr. Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman, had collaborated previously and came to this latest venture wanting to give concert audiences something completely different. The musicians are untethered from power cords and stationary instruments, and their boxy performance space with curtains made of beads works with them – reflecting shadows, or providing a hiding place so that only hands playing instruments appear. 

The narrative running through “American Utopia” is about human connection. Mr. Byrne eschewed the idea of including video screens, Ms. Parson says, so that audiences would focus on the stage and thus forge a bond with the performers. 

“The audience craves seeing bodies moving. I think they crave invention. I think they crave imagination,” she says. “And new ideas of how people move are like new ideas of anything – it’s stimulating.” 

When David Byrne hired Annie-B Parson to choreograph his cutting-edge Broadway show, he asked her to think inside the box. Mr. Byrne envisioned a cubical stage boxed in by curtains of beads. His 11-piece backing band would be entirely untethered – no cords, no microphone stands, not even a drum kit – to allow freedom of movement on a bare stage. 

“He said, ‘Nice opportunity for a choreographer, because it’s limitless, spatially,’” recalls Ms. Parson, who’d previously collaborated with the onetime Talking Heads frontman on two earlier tours and a musical.

In a bid to dazzle concert audiences, most musicians engage in a maximalist arms race with more of everything: costumes, dancers, lasers, holograms, and multiplatform stages that are architectural marvels. By contrast, Ms. Parson explores the possibilities within Mr. Byrne’s ultra-minimalist concept. In “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” which recently arrived at New York’s Hudson Theatre, the people are the special effect. Drawing on her fascination with pictograms, gestural movement, and bodies arrayed in playful shapes, Ms. Parson configures Mr. Byrne’s musicians into imaginative formations. It’s a reinvention of the pop concert. Music publications such as Q magazine and NME have called it the best live show of all time. 

“It’s not based on any vocabulary that’s familiar to that audience,” says Ms. Parson, the co-founder of New York’s Big Dance Theater, during a phone interview. “It’s not drawn from jazz, or musical-theater dance vocabulary, or modern-dance vocabulary. It’s a personal vocabulary.”

During her distinguished career, Ms. Parson has worked with professional companies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at theaters in London and Paris. But for “American Utopia,” which marks her Broadway debut, only two members of the company were trained dancers. The other cast members had to learn precise movements while carrying heavy instruments such as drums, guitars, and keyboards.

“The movement she incorporates has influences from all over – folk dance, ballet, pedestrian movement, and of course her own invented world,” says Mr. Byrne via email. “Some of the movement is tricky, but much of it says to an audience, ‘Hey I could do that.’”

Each musician wears a gray business suit fitted with electronic sensors so that they’re followed by their very own spotlight. (One imagines that a big chunk of the production budget goes toward specialized dry-cleaning.) Sometimes the company configures itself into kaleidoscopic formations that change with each musical turn. Groups of performers also veer off in unpredictable migrations, like kinetic molecules in Brownian motion.

For Ms. Parson, the creative process begins by listening to the songs alone in a room. She begins to conjure up images of human shapes.

“Is it a rectangle? Is it a triangle? Is it a small group? Is it a large group? All these kinds of questions, without even asking myself, they just sort of float in,” she says. “And, sometimes, I just dance.”

Greg Allen/Invision/AP
The team behind the Broadway concert “David Byrne's American Utopia,” production consultant Alex Timbers (left), musician David Byrne, and choreographer Annie-B Parson, attended a press event Sept. 4, 2019, in New York.

Ms. Parson doodles drawings of dances, which resemble scattergrams, to get a sense for the spatial relationships of bodies on stage. She’s assembled many of them in a just-released book, “Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts.” The book offers insights into how her choreography is influenced by time, space, light, rhythm, reversal, scale, and dynamics. Her eye naturally gravitates toward composition.

“I’m looking at my kitchen table and there’s seven objects and they’re all sort of messy, thrown onto the table,” she says. “But right now I’m lining them all up in a row so there’s a piece of paper, there’s two dish cloths, there’s two bowls of fruit. They look beautiful. Because I gave them form.”

Ms. Parson’s inspirations are often witty. At one point in “American Utopia,” the musicians hide so that only hands playing instruments protrude through the beads. Later on, a single light source transforms the band’s movements into a giant shadow play on the rear drapery. And in the middle of “Dance Like This,” the music abruptly cuts out for four bars yet the performers continue dancing. 

“The whole choreography of that song is based on setting up that silence,” says Ms. Parson. “We always get a sort of delighted insider laugh.”

Another suggestion that Mr. Byrne agreed to (“a little reluctantly,” Ms. Parson says, “because he’s really interested in what’s new”) was to imitate the jerky, befuddled, arm-waving movements from the original Talking Heads music video for “Once in a Lifetime.” 

“She’ll come up with a staging idea and sometimes I would suggest taking it further, or I might suggest a starting point for a song and Annie-B would flesh it out,” explains Mr. Byrne. “Not everything worked; our relationship survives sometimes admitting when an idea doesn’t work as much as when it does work.” 

The choreographer says the joy of the project is assisting Mr. Byrne, a longtime dance aficionado, realize his inimitable creative vision. 

“All my favorite performers I’ve ever worked with love rehearsal, because it’s about process,” says Ms. Parson, who has crafted dances for David Bowie and Mikhail Baryshnikov. “Those are people that really love to break the form because that’s where it happens. Performers that are frustrated in rehearsal, and find it tiring, just want the result.” 

The scripted narrative running through “American Utopia” is about human connection. Mr. Byrne eschewed the idea of including video screens, Ms. Parson says, so that audiences would focus on the stage and thus forge a bond with the performers. Mr. Byrne fosters that communal spirit by encouraging audiences to dance to the exuberant movements during Talking Heads hits such as “Burning Down the House” and “Road to Nowhere.”

“The audience craves seeing bodies moving. I think they crave invention. I think they crave imagination,” says Ms. Parson. “And new ideas of how people move are like new ideas of anything – it’s stimulating.”

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