Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, pulls out every possible stop as he fills the stage with multiple layers of action and sound in a dance version of geopolitical commentary.

Share story

Dance review |

Can dance do politics?

Choreographer Donald Byrd, the artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, certainly tries in “Farewell: A Fantastical Contemplation on America’s Relationship with China.” Over the course of 90 minutes, he pulls out every possible stop as he fills the stage with multiple layers of action and sound.

His dancers, at a furious pace, master intricacies of pattern that are complex beyond belief. His composer, Byron Au Yong, delivers not just a score but a bedlam-filled sound collage in which news reports, static-filled emergency communications and recorded eyewitness accounts of conflict and catastrophe vie to drown out one another.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Additional tiers of sound are provided by the dancers, who deliver classic Mao-era propaganda through megaphones that continually change hands, and the intrepid Jessica Markiewicz who, from a platform overlooking the stage, reads what could well be a whole issue of Foreign Affairs or The Economist dedicated to parsing the connections between economic freedoms and human rights in the context of U.S.-China interdependency.

The result: “Farewell” accurately re-creates a world in which so much information comes at you so fast that it almost numbs you.

Seen in excerpt in an open rehearsal a couple of weeks ago, “Farewell” had crazy vigor, some striking solos, duets, trios and group passages, and at least one gentle musical interlude in which Au Yong drew on Chinese folk melodies to spare, seductive effect. If that interlude is still there, it’s been overwhelmed by one of the torrents of words that mark long stretches of “Farewell.”

There are some ebbs and flows in Byrd’s sound-and-movement assault, but the overall shape of the piece needs sharper sculpting. The dancers give their all, with Geneva Jenkins/Vincent Lopez, Catherine Cabeen/Joel Myers and Kelly Ann Barton/Ty Alexander Cheng delivering especially fine one-on-one moments. (Cabeen, a beautifully angular, icy-edged dancer, deserves particular praise for substituting at the last minute for the injured Kylie Lewallen).

Byrd is onto something, too, with the destabilizing games of musical chairs he puts his dancers through, evoking the constant, baffling changes of position imposed by unanswerable authoritarian regimes on their populaces. Au Yong’s percussive live music, performed by two ensembles on opposite sides of the stage, provides an energetic kick.

Sometimes the palimpsest of rhythms going on — live speech, recordings, percussion and more — verges on potent frenzy. At other times, as brilliant as some of the ideas and performances are, it’s hard to find the drama in all the noise.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.