For decades, the music of Allen Toussaint has been making people move, but his recent collaboration with the New Orleans Ballet Association is taking that effect to new heights.
Renowned ballet choreographer and dancer David Parsons handpicked a selection of songs from Toussaint’s wide-ranging career for his Parsons Dance company to use in a new production with the Allen Toussaint Orchestra, premiering May 10 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater.
NOBA Executive Director Jenny Hamilton said the project grew out of the deep love Parsons has for New Orleans and his determination to help rebuild the city—both physically and culturally—after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
The Parsons Company was scheduled to be part of the 2005-2006 season, which was interrupted when Katrina destroyed the NOBA stage, displacing the ballet to Dixon Hall at Tulane University.
Regardless of the interruption, the company donated their time and services to get the show back up and running, Hamilton said.
“David Parsons was really the very first artist back on the stage in May of 2006,” she said. “There was a connection he felt with this extraordinary will to survive and also this optimism that we all had. It wasn’t an option for the city not to come back. We were all in this together and we were going to bring it all back together.”
As things started to return to normal, Hamilton said the idea of pairing New Orleans based jazz musicians with modern dance companies evolved. The smash success of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s collaboration with the Trey McIntyre Project in 2008 and Nicholas Payton’s 2012 work with Complexions Contemporary Ballet led to continuing the effort with the current Parsons and Toussaint project.
Hamilton said that when NOBA approached Parsons, he jumped at the chance. With no guidance as to which specific musician he should focus on, Hamilton said Parsons immediately started to hone in on Toussaint’s work.
“It really was this whole process, and he [Parsons] listened to a ton of music,” Hamilton said. “It was music that spoke to David as a choreographer and as a dance maker. It had to be music that was going to inspire him to go into the studio and create new work that he felt like was a celebration of this city and who we are.”
Toussaint said some of the selections were from so deep in his repertoire that he was pleasantly surprised the songs were chosen.
“The gentleman came, and he was so up on my music – not only the things that were popular, but things that were never made popular,” Toussaint said. “It was very interesting for him to have known so much about my music and to know that music and dance go together better than anything else.”
Toussaint said Parsons dug so deep that he found a section of music he used to play with Gary Brown during intermissions at live shows in the 1970s that had never even been recorded on an album.
“To see some of these songs being resurrected in such a fine light was quite a surprise,” he said. “It’s like they live again in the present day and on into the future…I was amazed at how much research this man does, but he’s quite a craftsman at his skill, and that’s the way giants are.”
At 76, Toussaint seems to have found a new avenue for his music. This is his second collaboration with a dance company after working on a similar project with Twyla Tharp earlier this year.
“I trust the choreographer more than I even trust myself,” Toussaint said. “Working with good people who are so up on what their role is makes mine a lot easier and more inviting.”
Although Toussaint has embraced the pairing of his music with contemporary dance, he wasn’t much of a dancer himself in his younger days.
“Only my heart dances,” he said. “I was such a shy kid that dancing always appeared to be a little overexposed for me, but I love to watch others dance and have a good time.”
Much like the first production of this kind with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Toussaint said his pairing with Parsons Dance will shine a light on the city’s recovery and show that beautiful art is still being produced in the Crescent City.
“This is a very fine day for New Orleans, and we’re moving on to a very bright future,” he said. “The spirit of it all is so good that the future looks brighter than ever.”Parsons Dance with Allen Toussaint & The Allen Toussaint Orchestra
A One Night Only World Premiere Event!
Saturday, May 10, 8 p.m.
Mahalia Jackson Theater
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