The fiercest dance action in Donald Byrd’s “Prodigal” comes, surprisingly, not from the protagonists but from the five-man “congregation” observing and responding to them.
This nattily dressed chorus (costumes by Doris Black) kicks, claps, leaps and shouts in punchy unison as it comments on the action in Byrd’s visceral spin on the biblical tale of the Prodigal Son.
George Balanchine, of course, drew on the same story in his 1929 ballet, “The Prodigal Son,” and Byrd’s 1990 piece simultaneously sabotages and pays homage to the earlier work. In Spectrum Dance Theater’s revival of Byrd’s “Prodigal,” each movement and word is delivered with body-blow intensity. There’s a wild humor threaded through the piece, too, that lets it get away with most of its excesses.
“Prodigal” is paired with Seattle choreographer Cyrus Khambatta’s “Truth and Betrayal” in Spectrum’s “Studio Series 1.” Both works fit nicely with the theme of the contemporary dance troupe’s 2013-14 season, “America: Sex, Race, & Religion.”
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In “Prodigal,” Byrd hacks the story down to its bare-bones essence. Guest artist Jacob Jonas plays the younger of two sons of a stern reverend (played by Byrd himself). After this prodigal crawls back home literally crippled by his “riotous living,” he’s forgiven by his father but not by his older brother (guest artist and former Spectrum dancer Daniel Wilkins). The intricately choreographed faceoff between the two brothers is closer to brutal stage combat than dance.
Some passages of “Prodigal” are noisily overstated, but some feel like genius. A flashback summoning the “siren” (Kate Monthy) who corrupted the prodigal falls in the latter category. Monthy — garishly made up, with her hair in a towering vampish topknot and her lanky body minimally clad in a black-fringe microskirt and red top that leave plenty of midriff exposed — takes Jonas through a literal alphabet of erotic postures, letter by letter. The effect, as she turns to the audience to announce her acrobatically provocative positions, progressing from “A” through “Z,” is both titillating and hilarious. (Note: The equally talented Jade Solomon Curtis alternates with her in this demanding role.)
Byrd, Jonas and Wilkins aren’t quite as on the mark. Sometimes their “intensity” is mere shouting or heavy declamation. But the congregation tracking and shadowing them is amazing. Together, William Ernest Davis Burden, Derek Crescenti, Alex Crozier, Davione Gordon and Justin Reiter are a single powerhouse organism.
Khambatta’s “Truth and Betrayal” was performed impressively earlier this year by his own troupe, Khambatta Dance Company. But Spectrum’s hyperkinetic talents take it to another level. Five dancers — Monthy, Crescenti, Curtis, Crozier and Shadou Mintrone — engage in games of trust, mistrust, teasing offers and sharply withdrawn affections.
Floor-bound sways and torquing action give way to increasingly interdependent leaps, lifts, drops and perilous catches. Players come and go, ricocheting off fleeting “relationships” with an abruptness that’s both shocking and exhilarating.
The piece reaches a climax with a repetition with variations of its opening passages: a brutal duet by Monthy and Crescenti and a taffylike solo by the ever-astonishing Curtis. It loses some focus thereafter, but ends on a powerful image of parallel isolations and broken connections.
Lighting designer Rico Chiarelli deserves special notice for crafting the unstable shadowy territory of Khambatta’s piece while giving “Prodigal” exactly the bright bald look it needs. And all the performers deserve kudos for the way they suffuse their dance virtuosity with acting prowess.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org