The Bang Group Brings Dynamic Dance to Mason Gross' Summer Series
In 1974, David Parker had an awakening. Though he had fallen in love with dancing as a child growing up in Boston, he faced resistance at home. “My parents said no because dance was for sissies,” he recalls.
But then, when he was 15, Parker saw a screening of “That’s Entertainment,” a film that celebrated the 50th anniversary of MGM Studios with a compilation of clips from classic musicals featuring the sophisticated dancing of icons like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Everything on the screen thrilled him.
“It was as if this whole world exploded before my eyes,” Parker remembers. “Whatever that was, I wanted to do it.”
Forty years later, he’s still doing it — with a little bit of a twist.
After secretly taking dance lessons, moving to New York City and spending his 20s as a professional dancer, Parker started The Bang Group — a company that fuses the tap and rhythmic dancing of those old Hollywood musicals with the experimentations of modern dance. The Manhattan-based troupe, which turned 20 this year, has treated audiences across the globe to a unique brand of dance that features humor, theatricality and sometimes Velcro and bubble wrap.
And on July 29, they’ll visit New Brunswick, performing at the Victoria J. Mastrobuono Theater as part of the Mason Gross Summer Series — a string of free events hosted by Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts each summer.
“The variety of dance styles they are capable of showing is really, really broad,” says Christopher Kenniff, the summer series’ artistic director. “It’s certainly adventurous to a lot of people.”
Despite the issue with dance, Parker didn’t grow up in a household devoid of creativity. His father was Robert B. Parker, and English professor and the author of the Spenser detective novels, later turned into the hit 1980s television series “Spenser: For Hire.”
“We lived in very verbal household,” Parker says. “It was very lively in terms of discussion. Dance was a wonderful escape from that, the world of words. I was always very drawn to it. It was the most authentic language I knew.”
After moving to New York, Parker established a career performing both tap and postmodern dance. That, however, left him bewildered.
“It bothered me that the two worlds didn’t intersect at all,” Parker explains. “I felt as though I had two parallel careers. I wanted to bring tap and my love of rhythm together with modern dance.”
So he formed The Bang Group in 1995, cobbling together all the styles he knew — including what he saw in “That’s Entertainment,” which had fallen out of fashion by the 1970
“By time I was 30, realized I could mix these things,” Parker says.
As time passed, Parker noticed that, like other forms of entertainment, professional dancing became increasingly less economically viable than it used to be.
“I began in New York in the early 1980s,” he says. “It was still the dance boom. The audience was bigger. There was more public funding. We had a false sense of security.”
Now, in addition to his output with The Bang Group, Parker teaches at places like the famed Julliard School to supplement his work.
“We’re in same boat with everybody else,” he explains. “We’re figuring out how to sustain a career in America. I do it with teaching. I consider my work to be as much teaching as well as creating dance.” In 2013, Parker was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, which is given to artists, composers, filmmakers and choreographers who exhibit exceptional scholarship and creativity in the arts. Only about 200 are awarded each year.
Parker actually won’t be at the Mason Gross performance because of a teaching commitment in Maine. But his co-director and dance partner, Jeffrey Kazin, will perform.
Among the pieces slated for the show is a small suite from “Nut/Cracked,” The Bang Group’s crazed, critically acclaimed response to “The Nutcracker.” There will also be experimental tap dances, including ones in which the dancers use their feet and shoes to play percussive scores by composers like Steve Reich.
“We’ve taken modern music scores and treated dancers as musicians,” Parker says.
And Parker got the chance to indulge his love for the golden age of Hollywood with a pair of pieces he choreographed based on “The Wizard of Oz.”
The 1939 film, of course, has long been the cinematic equivalent of riding a bike. At some point, it becomes part of practically every American’s childhood.
“It’s such a shared experience,” Parker says. “Everyone has seen it. It means something to most people.”
But the two pieces in the show re-imagine elements of the movie. The first, “Surrender Dorothy,” focuses the film’s iconic score.
“Not just the story, but dealing with it in terms of the music alone — letting the images come out in fresh ways rather than trying to duplicate stories or characters,” Parker explains. “It’s quite an unexpected kind of contemporary mash-up.”
The piece will actually feature Rutgers students. Parker visited Mason Gross last year to work with the school’s aspiring dancers, and “Surrender Dorothy” is the culmination. A group of seniors, juniors and graduate students will take part in the performance.
The second piece, “Friends Of Dorothy,” showcases the film’s most famous song, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” — although not the version sung in the movie by Judy Garland, but rather a rendition by another 1940s-era actress, Jane Powell. The performance will feature two guest dancers from the all-male dance company Ten Hairy Legs: Alex Biegelson and Tyner Dumortier. Both happen to be Rutgers alums.
The Mason Gross Summer Series is now in its eighth year. Kenniff, its artistic director, said the goal is to “introduce world-class artist to the New Brunswick community that may not otherwise have concerts there, during a time of year when not much is going on.”
After The Bang Group’s show, a performance of Yiddish operetta “Di Goldene Kale” wraps up this year’s series on Aug. 5.
“Rutgers is so big and so present all of the time. But in a weird sort of way, it’s easy to look past,” Kennitff says. “You can forget what’s going on here is really, really good. It’s kind of like being in Denver and you only get used to looking at the mountains. The summer series is a great opportunity to share with people the quality of what we do and what goes on year-round.”
The Bang Group, presenting work by David Parker and featuring Rutgers dancers, will perform a large sample of their repertory on Wednesday, July 29 at 7 p.m. in the Victoria J. Mastrobuono Theater, 85 George Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 (on the Rutgers University Douglass Campus). No tickets are required for free events. Wristbands will be distributed upon entry to free performances. Limited seating available. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information about the 2015 Mason Gross Summer Series, click here.