Big Dance Theater: Antigonick

Friday, Jan. 24–Sunday, Jan. 26, 7:30 & 8:30 p.m., $27

CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio, Chapel Hill

This isn’t the first time that the Canadian poet and translator Anne Carson has trained her inimitable mind on Antigone. With her signature brevity, brawn, and philosophical wit, Carson took Sophocles’s 2,500-year-old tragedy and made it sing to the present day in a lucid dream of a production by Ivo van Hove, which we saw at Carolina Performing Arts in 2015

Nor is this the first time that Annie-B Parson, the choreographer-director of New York’s Big Dance Theater (which premiered 17c at UNC in 2017), has staged the play about a woman who chooses fealty to the gods—or perhaps to her own morals and agency—over oppressive aspects of state and family, welded together in the person of Kreon. Antigone’s civil disobedience detonates a mushroom cloud of doom.

This is, however, the first time that Carson’s and Parson’s visions of Antigone have merged. Big Dance Theater’s Antigonick is based on Carson’s book of that title, a freer poetic adaptation than her van Hove translation. It plunges the audience into a particularly spare, feminist, and abbreviated dance-theater rendition of the tale. It’s so abbreviated, in fact, that the half-hour run time needed a “Dionysian Libation”—a party, which you’ll experience before or after the show, depending on when you attend—to make it evening-length.

The INDY recently spoke with Parson, who also staged a version of Antigone by Mac Wellman in the early 2000s, about why she wanted to return to the source now, why the play is inherently feminist and permanently relevant, and what it’s like to severely edit a genius poet known for not wasting a word. 

INDY: This is Big Dance Theater’s second run at Antigone, after one almost twenty years ago with Mac Wellman. Why go back to the same source material?

ANNIE-B PARSON: Oh, I love that question, and actually it’s my third time, believe it or not. The first wasn’t Big Dance. 

It does beg the question, why has this play endured? Besides the fact that she’s, could we say, the first female resistor? The first woman who spoke truth to power? Sophocles—was he the first writer who put a woman in that role? We’ll never know, I guess, because so much of theater history has disintegrated. But her story and the way she responds to Kreon continues to be inspiring. 

I came back to the story, first, because Anne suggested it. She asked me at lunch one day if I had read her version—not her translation for Ivo van Hove, but her Antigonick, which is more of an adaptation. I said no, and she said, you guys should do it. 

I read it, and I’m sorry to use the word, but it’s just so relevant. It became more and more relevant as the #MeToo movement happened, and the way she hears and writes Antigone spoke to me more than any version I’ve ever read. I thought it was the most feminist, and I liked that she sort of tips the balance away from the traditional agon between Kreon and Antigone. 

The way we usually hear that argument translated is that there’s this perfect balance between them. But in her version, there’s no balance, really. Antigone is always on top of the argument. She’s also very literary; she seems to have studied philosophy, which I totally love—the idea that she’s armed with the philosophers. 

So that’s what drew me to it, and also the brevity. Anne asked me to be very brief.

Are you friends with Anne Carson?

No, but I’m professional friends with her, meaning we’ve worked together a number of times and spent time together. When I’m working on her stuff, I’m very careful to only contact her a few times through the process with questions. She’s not like other playwrights, where they’re in constant contact with me. I will wait until I just cannot go forward without asking her this question. In this case, my question to her was, why “nick?” Why is there a character named Nick, and why is it Antigonick?

“Anything I felt wasn’t necessary or incredibly beautiful, I cut.” 

Did you get an answer? 

So these are my words, not hers, but her response was quite beautiful, and I think I had to lie down afterwards because I was verklempt. She said the difference between the mortals and gods is time. Mortals, our tragedy is that we live in time. The gods don’t. 

You know the part of the play where Kreon changes his mind, because Tiresias says, you know what? You’re fucked. And he runs back to the cell he’s put Antigone in, but she’s already died. Then the consequences of his decision unfold, which are horrendous beyond belief. 

So he was the victim of time. He was late. In Antigonick, he says often at the end, “Too late, too late to learn, too late to learn.” That’s the nick of time. 

Wow. Mind blown.

Right? I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of genius artists, but I think the word really actually applies to her. Every time I’ve encountered a question with her, it’s been that level of a response. 

You’re known for weaving literary texts with a lot of different strands. How direct of a staging of Carson’s text is this?

It’s completely direct in that it only uses her words. She said, theater’s too long, make it short. So I did. I edited it severely, and I sent her the edited version, and she said fine. So it’s like half as long as the book. It’s very skeletal, you could put it that way. I didn’t cut anything that would change the narrative or make it hard to follow. But anything I felt wasn’t necessary or incredibly beautiful, I cut. 

The other sources of material are nonverbal. You will hear things and see dance material that comes from other worlds, that’s more from my own interests and imagination.

Could you say more about doing Antigone after #MeToo and centering it in radical feminism?

[The Mac Wellman] production is also highly feminist. The difference is not just time, but of course, it’s the writers. Mac was really interested in issues around argument and justice. I mentioned the word “agon” before. That’s a really important idea in his version, that equality of their argument and the beauty of the symmetry of those two sides. 

It would be really relevant to his production now also, because what we’re missing in our contemporary governmental reality is the symmetry of the two arguments. We’re in a deadlock, and it’s not like we’re locked in two amazing arguments. We’re just stuck. It’s also super feminist the way we staged it, meaning the women are in the center, which is really easy to do with Antigone. It’s also not always done. 

All my work is radically feminist, and some of it, which was more what is now called “devised,” was more overtly feminist. My early pieces had text from Andrea Dworkin and things like that. This play is 100 percent women, everything. Designers, creators, directors, cast. And I did that because it’s Antigone, and I feel like it should always be 100 percent women. 

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