The singer-songwriter Bill Withers grew up in Slab Fork, a coal-mining camp in West Virginia. He struggled with a stutter and served as a mechanic in the Navy. These biographical facts help illuminate some of the sources of his idiosyncratic songs, homespun and soulful, simple and often profound.
These facts are also heard, in recordings of Withers’s humble between-songs patter, in “Mr. Withers,” a tribute piece by David Parsons that had its premiere on Wednesday as part of Parsons Dance’s two-week run at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan. But the facts don’t have much to do with the dance.
It is, instead, typical Parsons: skillful, smooth, clever in spots, an enjoyable ride on an enjoyable surface. It starts with “Use Me” and ignores the lyrics in favor of group slinking to the serpentine groove. It ends, predictably, with “Lean on Me,” converting the lyrics into obvious movement ideas: leaning falls and jumps that end safely in catches, a line of dancers holding hands.
The rest falls in between: closely attentive to details of rhythm or words while revealing little overall insight into the subject. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is smarter. Rachel Harris stands unmoving while Croix Dilenno orbits her; it’s as if he’s stuck in the gravitational pull of her memory, spinning and spinning as Withers sings “I know” 26 times in a row. “Grandma’s Hands” is dumber, making a travesty of Withers’s affecting portrait of his grandmother with a Fosse-esque group grope. (Hands, get it?)
The one swerve from Withers’s greatest-hits catalog is “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” about a G.I. whose right arm was shot off during the Vietnam War. The elegiac mood is set with silhouette lighting, as in Paul Taylor’s (much more affecting) wartime piece “Company B,” and on the word “shot,” the dancers fall in relay. The unusual angle of Withers’s take on a protest song is missed entirely, but the choreography offers some independent pleasures.
The season’s second premiere is “The Ride Through,” by Rena Butler, a young choreographer who has recently become in-demand. All nine members of the company advance toward a light shining from the opposite wing. They never make it.
As they advance and retreat, collapse and rise again, they often cluster in a kind of cool simian strut, pulsating, shaking, flipping back, whipping around. Darryl J. Hoffman’s score is on the sinister side, mixing synths and beats with backward sounds, backward voices. Except for the Worm — haven’t seen that old move in a long time — the look is contemporary and contrasts effectively with Parsons’s pieces, though Butler shares with Parsons the habit of skillfully squeezing a single idea for too long.
At his best, that single-mindedness of Parsons can produce a perfect machine, like “Caught,” his signature and fail-safe 1982 solo piece, in which a strobe light and exactly timed jumps make a dancer appear to float. “Balance of Power,” a solo from 2020, has some of the stunt quality of “Caught” but none of the magic. It resembles a gymnastics routine set to the rim hits and cymbal crashes of a drum solo (played live by Giancarlo De Trizio). Zoey Anderson and Dilenno alternate in these solos, and on Wednesday, both were impressively adept: Anderson hard-edge and precise, Dilenno shirtless and a bit smarmy.
The current Parsons company is very young, most having joined in the last year or two. Anderson, who joined in 2015, is now the veteran. That freshness, the live music for “Balance of Power” and Parsons’s “Swing Shift” and the new voice of Butler bring a youthful energy to a company that is approaching 40 — one whose co-founder, the great lighting designer Howell Binkley, died in 2020. That’s comforting from a group that reliably provides comfort. The shared vision of Binkley and Parsons is still going strong.
Through March 26 at the Joyce Theater; joyce.org.