Seattle's Donald Byrd thrills with "Contested Space," his first piece for Dance Theatre of Harlem, in town at the Moore Theatre through Nov. 17, 2012.
Robert Garland’s “Gloria,” the opening work in Dance Theatre of Harlem’s two-night run at the Moore Theatre, is such dull stuff that you may be tempted to leave the theater at the first intermission.
John Alleyne’s “Far But Close,” which follows, is a great showcase for four superb dancers. And Donald Byrd’s “Contested Space,” which closes the evening, is downright thrilling in what it demands (and gets) from its 10 spectacularly gifted performers.
There’s little to say about “Gloria,” a prettily patterned and vaguely “spiritual” ballet set to music by Poulenc. So let’s move straight to “Far But Close,” which had its world premiere on Friday.
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Its four performers — Da’Von Doane, Jehbreal Jackson, Ashley Murphy and Stephanie Williams — move in time to an amplified chamber score by Daniel Bernard Roumain that alternates with a rhyming narrative by Daniel Beaty about a man on the subway, trying to pick up a “pretty little black girl, sitting there, looking so tough.” (Her first reaction: reaching for her mace.)
The story, spoken by Beaty and Qadriyyah Shabazz, is bald in outline and unpersuasively sweet in outcome. But the movement accompanying it is beautifully resourceful and subtle as it plays off the verbal rhythms of the text and tunes. Jackson has a lithe, mercurial quality, with troubles hinted at in his light-limbed charms, and Williams — paired most often with him — treats him with appropriate caution.
Doane (strapping and muscular) and Murphy (elastic and willowy) follow a different dynamic. She alights on him almost like a bird at times, or soars and slips in and around his shifting movement like silk on a breeze. They’re so perfect, they almost make you buy into Beaty’s happy ending.
Byrd’s “Contested Space,” his first piece for Dance Theatre of Harlem, is tougher stuff. (That will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work with Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater.) Set to a wild yet varied industrial score by Amon Tobin, it shows off Doane and Jackson to even better advantage.
Jackson opens it with an extraordinary shape-shifting solo that starts with him in prone position beneath harsh lights. He then tumbles and contorts himself with a smooth flexibility that seems to lure other dancers onto the stage.
One is Doane, whose slow action is as mesmerizing as the flashiest dance move. Two others are Samuel Wilson (a Bremerton native) and Alexandra Jacob, delivering an acrobatic-contortionist duet so masterful in its rigor, risk and seeming ease, that it won the biggest midperformance applause of the night.
“Contested Space” isn’t just about solos or duets, however. It’s a full, swift chamber symphony of movement, riffing on ways its 10 dancers can lay claim to the spotlight (or each other) as they pair, separate or compete for attention. There’s a sexual thread in it, and something sterner and chillier too.
Peter D. Leonard’s lighting heightens the cool effect, as he sculpts angular light beams around the dancers. Tobin’s roaring, rhythmic score also adds an edge to the dance.
Byrd, after exploring multimedia possibilities for a number of years, has reverted to basics of late: intense movement set to intense music, and that’s it. It worked for “Love,” his epic Spectrum piece set to Britten’s cello suites earlier this year. And it works for “Contested Space.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org