A doctor in a lab coat (actor Andrew McGinn) leads a colleague (pianist Judith Cohen) into a space arranged like an operating theater, with spectators on both sides. Then, as a beautiful Schumann tune unfolds from the piano courtesy of Cohen, McGinn starts reciting a Heine poem about “a silent, sad-souled knight” lured by a beautiful woman to a fantastical “crystal palace beneath the waves.”
Need we say this doesn’t end well?
Donald Byrd’s “Autopsy of Love” — given its world premiere by Spectrum Dance Theater on Thursday — ponders, in Byrd’s words, “why love, romantic love, fails more often than not.” It juxtaposes a classic 19th-century Romantic song cycle (Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” set to verses by Heine) with the raw, boozy tunes of Amy Winehouse (“Love Is a Losing Game” is one of them).
Between these musical poles, swift vignettes of happy coupledom, passive-aggressive coupledom, on-again-off-again coupledom and what you might call I’ll-be-right-back-after-I-have-this-hot-affair coupledom succeed one another. As each couple puts its specific spin on attraction and repulsion, actor McGinn prowls among them, taking notes.
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All these love affairs are doomed to die, if only through the intervention of death itself. But McGinn appears to think that if he can just study each case history closely enough, he can solve the problems they present.
While the overall concept can seem a little one-note, Spectrum’s dancing is, as always, spectacular. Jade Solomon Curtis is especially astounding, making jackknife leaps and switchblade-sharp turns in, under, around and on top of Donald Jones Jr., her rock-solid partner. She’ll cling to him, she’ll slap him away, she’ll hang from him — as he helps her hit heights no dancer could achieve alone. Together they catapult themselves into the realm of adrenaline thrill.
If Jones and Curtis are the evening’s dance stars, Ty Alexander Cheng and Shadou Mintrone are its star actors. Curtis and Jones are generally tempered in what they express. Cheng and Mintrone, on the other hand, have enough conflicts, complications and misfires going on between them to fill a whole season of “Mad Men.” They’re formidable dance technicians, of course, but it’s their fast-shifting, mercurial facial expression that energizes each moment of their performance.
Byrd includes comic touches along with erotic-emotional turmoil. There’s a group dance where the urge to pair up with more than one partner gets the better of most of the crowd. The result: not just a case of a “roaming eye,” but roaming hips, chests and groins.
Then there’s a swoony pair — Derek Crescenti and Stacie L. Williams — who get more giddily besotted every time they appear. They reach their truest bliss when Crescenti transforms himself into a dog eager to do whatever his mistress tells him. How Crescenti, in his canine excitement, so effortlessly makes repeated leaps into the air from on all fours is a mystery.
Kiss attacks, sexual coercions and cruel teasing are interlaced with a tango-flavored flash-and-slice of limbs and torsos, a foot-stomping soul revue, interludes of courtly delicacy and some serious acrobatics. The match between movement and music (especially in the Schumann, performed live by Cohen and bass-baritone Clayton Brainerd) is always incisive.
“Autopsy” only runs into trouble in its overlong coda, where the dance stops and McGinn recites extensively from Heine’s lyrics, addressed to his dead love. Some in the audience were moved by this, but to me it felt like the piece had hit a brick wall.
There are also some sound leakage problems during quieter interludes from the literal acrobat training going on next door in the Emerald City Trapeze Arts Building. But don’t let that stop you from seeing what these amazing dancers, scaling the seemingly impossible heights of Byrd’s choreography, can do.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com