Donald Byrd's "Farewell: A Fantastical Contemplation on America's Relationship with China" leads Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theater into a high-energy contemplation of politics, history and the nature of complex movement.
The movement — dozens of fast-moving miniatures within a continually changing group setting — is high energy incarnate.
The sound — with its Chinese melodies, radio newscasts, Maoist propaganda and snippets of Beethoven — is all-enveloping.
At the center of it all is a man well aware of what’s going on, but unable to react to it — because he’s in a coma.
Spectrum Dance Theater’s new evening-length piece, judging from excerpts seen in an open rehearsal earlier this month, should be spectacular. And it marks some notable firsts for artistic director Donald Byrd’s dance-making efforts in Seattle.
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“Farewell: A Fantastical Contemplation on America’s Relationship with China” isn’t a literary adaptation exactly, but it does use a novel — Chinese author Ma Jian’s “Beijing Coma” — as its springboard. The last time Byrd drew on a book in a similar way was back in 1978, with Samuel R. Delaney’s science-fiction classic, “Dhalgren.”
Byrd came across “Beijing Coma” in 2008 and was fascinated by the idea of a historical novel narrated by someone in a waking coma. “It gives a lot of freedom in terms of the storytelling,” he noted.
The pivotal event of the book is the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, a confrontation in which Ma’s narrator, a student protester, is shot. Reduced to an outwardly vegetative state, he’s beset inwardly by flashbacks that soon take on the qualities of an epic hallucination.
Byrd likes to “marinate” in the research he does. But he makes no claim to being an expert on Chinese political affairs: “The process is not about being more knowledgeable, but about being less ignorant.”
“Farewell” will also be the first time Byrd has commissioned an original score in Seattle. In New York, as director of Donald Byrd/The Group, he worked with composer Mio Morales, whose electro-percussive scores animated “Sentimental Cannibalism” and other Byrd classics.
In “Farewell,” Byrd has teamed up with local composer Byron Au Yong, who just supplied the alternate live “soundtrack” to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” for Olivier Wevers’ Whim W’Him in “3Seasons” at On the Boards.
Byrd relishes having a score created from scratch. “The advantage of it is that everything is new. There’s more back-and-forth and give-and-take, rather than the dance trying to conform to what already exists. So the music adjusts just as the dance adjusts.”
Au Yong, from the sound of it, is in a state of creative ferment.”He was in rehearsal today,” Byrd chuckles, “and he said, ‘Oh, I have some ideas! I’m gonna leave. Is that OK?’ “
“Farewell” will make the same unusual use of the Moore Theatre that Byrd’s “A Chekhovian Resolution” did. Instead of using the theater’s installed seating with its sometimes poor sightlines for dance, Seattle Theatre Group (STG) is building three bleachers immediately adjacent to the stage. The arrangement brings a startling, studiolike intimacy to the performance. It also blurs the distinction between performers and audience, since the three-sided audience arrangement means your sightlines take in fellow viewers along with the dancers.
How did Byrd talk STG into reconfiguring the Moore? He says it wasn’t that difficult. The expense wasn’t as great as originally anticipated — and the results, in terms of experiencing the dance, were terrific.
In “Farewell,” the fourth wall — the backdrop of the stage — will be dominated by a portrait of Mao, with Byrd sitting beneath it. He’ll be providing another “authoritarian presence in the piece” — an in-joke, he says, about the choreographer as autocrat.
While solos, duets and trios are highlighted in “Farewell,” many passages have so much going on in them that viewing them is a bit like shooting down a sequence of rapids and catching only snippets of sight and sound en route. The elaborate action is obviously disciplined and tightly orchestrated — but there’s no way you can absorb it all in a single sitting.
This isn’t just a ploy to get the audience to come to all three performances of “Farewell,” Byrd says. Instead, it’s a way of tapping into the experience of life under an elaborately efficient, hard-to-parse totalitarian regime. It reflects, as well, a recent development in Byrd’s choreography away from linear neatness and into the “unruly.”
The many strands of action, he adds, are also “a metaphor for life. You have to negotiate what you’re experiencing — what your relationship is with the piece. In life, you decide what it is that’s important to you, and what it is that you will watch.”
From any single point in the three bleachers, audience members are seeing something very complex from a single perspective. And even within that single perspective, it’s up to them to decide what they’ll focus on.
“It’s kind of like the world — the multiple voices that make up the diverse opinions in the world,” Byrd says. “We choose to listen to whoever’s speaking the loudest, or whoever we agree with, or who is charismatic.”
Au Yong’s score is similarly multistranded, ranging from melodies of ravishing beauty on traditional Chinese instruments to sound collages akin to the Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9.”
Byrd hopes the issues raised in “Farewell” will spur audiences into making investigations of their own into our relations with China.
But keep in mind this is Spectrum Dance Theater, one of the most intensely physical troupes in town. Any show of theirs is going to be adrenaline-pumping first — and thought-inducing later.