The Seattle dance artist is one of the nation's most daring modern-dance choreographers.
THE FLOOR of the upstairs studio at Spectrum Dance Theater quakes as the men in choreographer Donald Byrd’s company run through a pulse-pounding section of his homage to Jewish artists during the Holocaust, “The Theater of Needless Talents.”
Byrd has them spinning, gesticulating and jumping so fast that you can hardly take in one movement before they’re on to the next. It is a sequence filled with desperate dancing, which perfectly captures the wretchedness of the experience “Needless Talents” is meant to evoke.
After about a minute of dancing and watching themselves in the studio’s wall-length mirror, the men collapse on their backs in one final movement, their chests heaving with fatigue.
“Somebody scrape them off the floor,” Byrd says with wicked glee as he walks past them to turn off the music.
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“Needless Talents” — crowded with imagery and subtext, startlingly physical and sometimes hard to digest, even for the dancers — is reflective of Byrd’s work over four decades as one of the nation’s most daring modern-dance choreographers.
Since closing his own highly regarded company in New York and taking the reins at Spectrum 10 years ago, Byrd has totally revamped the artistic direction at Spectrum, which was founded in 1982 as a professional troupe focusing on jazz dance, but offering lessons to the public as well. Adults and children can still take classes at the converted lakefront bathhouse in the Madrona neighborhood that Spectrum calls home.
In capturing the company’s evolution over the years, The Seattle Times’ Moira Macdonald once described Spectrum’s productions pre-Byrd as “peppy, jazz-hands movement; angular poses; exuberant arms flung to the sky.”
“Exuberant” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Byrd’s choreography for Spectrum, or the work he’s done for companies such as New York’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Under the 62-year-old Byrd’s leadership, the professional side of the organization has become known for an edgier, contemporary style and for fearless explorations of everything from violence and power dynamics to Sept. 11 and the Mideast conflict to love and relationships.
If jazz hands do pop up in Byrd’s work, it’s probably meant to convey a more complicated feeling than pure joy.
Even so, Byrd may be more well-known to the public for his mainstream work. He earned a Tony nomination in 2006 for choreographing the Broadway production of “The Color Purple.”
As he prepared for his 10th season at Spectrum this past summer, Byrd reflected on his career and Seattle, a city he moved to in part because he wanted time to focus on his art rather than keep up with the rat race of New York’s arts scene.
Far from resting on his laurels, Byrd keeps pushing the threshold — a theme that comes through in his life story as well as his life’s work.
BYRD REMEMBERS the day he fell in love with dance.
Growing up in Clearwater, Florida’s black middle class, he was a studious teenager already mastering classical flute. Then he went to see George Balanchine’s legendary New York City Ballet dancers Patricia McBride and Edward Villella perform at a public event near his hometown.
“It was ballet, but it wasn’t ballet in the way you think of it — the 19th-century kind,” Byrd says. “It was very urbane. I thought they were, like, the most amazing-looking people I’d ever seen in my life, and I wanted to be like that.”
Byrd went on to study philosophy for a year at Yale, where he’s said he first encountered overt, verbal racism. The experience left him so disenchanted that he transferred to Tufts University in Boston.
There, he flitted between studying dance and drama, throwing himself wholeheartedly into both, he writes on his blog at Spectrum.org. He also befriended fellow acting and dancing classmates William Hurt (“Altered States,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) and Harry Streep, Meryl’s brother.
He says it was actually Hurt who showed him the transformative power of the art form when he recommended that Byrd see Alvin Ailey’s gospel-inspired tour de force “Revelation.”
At the time, Byrd, who was taught by his family that nothing, not even racism, could stand between him and his goals, felt ambivalent about art dealing with African-American hardship. Black spirituals, so steeped in struggle, made him feel shame more than anything else. But he took his white friend’s advice and went to see the Ailey production.
For the first time, through Ailey’s powerful choreography and the sheer transcendent fervor of the dancers, he saw that black history is a tale of cunning perseverance and beauty, not woeful suffering and surrender.
“I cried and cried and cried,” Byrd says of seeing “Revelation.” “That was life-changing. I finally got what those songs were about.”
THROUGHOUT HIS 20s, Byrd worked to hone his dancing, learning how “to live inside my body.” But he initially had trouble holding down jobs. He lasted only a few months at Twyla Tharp’s company.
His time dancing with Gus Solomons Jr.’s company in Los Angeles and his work as choreographer at his own troupe won him notice, but by the mid-1980s, drugs and alcohol had taken their toll. He went into alcohol rehab in 1985 and has been sober ever since. Afterward, he dived back into his work.
What has remained consistent is his view that no topic, or source material, is off-limits.
He used Duke Ellington’s music to put his own urban spin on gospel tradition with “Harlem Nutcracker.” He explored domestic violence with “The Beast” and invited audiences to tell racist jokes in “The Minstrel Show.”
If much of Byrd’s work seems preoccupied with the notion of troubled souls laid bare, maybe it’s because he has been forced to do a lot of his own soul-searching.
Often abstract in the vein of Merce Cunningham, at whose company he studied in the 1980s, his work possesses a probing, interrogational intensity.
“That’s what’s powerful about dance,” he says. “Dance speaks to you subliminally. There’s another message coming through, but you may not be able to articulate it.”
This summer during “Theater of Needless Talents” rehearsal, Byrd leaves no physical detail unattended. At one point, he repeatedly prods a female dancer until she turns and sticks out her hips just so.
As the dancers repeat a cabaret-style series of jazzy shuffles, claps, hip swivels and spins, a cacophony of minstrel-like gestures set to quick, discordant music, they look alternately determined and dazed.
“This movement is about people taking themselves out of reality,” Byrd tells them. “That’s the thing that you’re looking for. What do you need to do to take yourself out of the difficulty of a situation?”
In essence, he’s asking the dancers to reach inside themselves and figure out the right way to execute the moves.
There’s a madness to his method.
One of his current dancers told me that Byrd’s approach in the studio up until a few years ago was a kind of psychological intrusion, a poking at the ego that goes on and on until you’re at the breaking point. Over the years, some dancers have recoiled and refused to work with him any longer.
One of them was choreographer Olivier Wevers, founder of Seattle’s Whim W’Him dance company and formerly a principal dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Wevers met Byrd about 15 years ago when the latter visited Seattle to do his “Capricious Nights” piece for PNB with Wevers in the production. Byrd came back in 2002 to do the demanding “Subtext/Rage,” a dance that involves “rage disguised as sex” and evokes a world in which “connections are missed, and quests for intimacy spurned,” according to a review in The Seattle Times. Wevers performed in the premiere in London.
“I felt rage; I felt upset; I felt violated; I felt all of that,” Wevers says of his mindset during the show. “But that’s what he wanted.”
Problem was, much of his rage was aimed at Byrd for pulling those emotions out of him. When Byrd came back to do a third piece at PNB, Wevers says he asked Byrd not to be cast in the production.
“His process,” says Wevers, “really pushes the dancer into a defensive mode, and it pushes them to feel things that they don’t really want to feel.”
Still, when Wevers saw that third show, “Seven Deadly Sins,” he could finally appreciate why Byrd put his dancers through so much hell: “It definitely engages something in you.”
Today Wevers counts Byrd as a mentor and sounding board for his own choreographic work.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal, who first met Byrd in New York’s arts and social scene when he was dancing with the New York City Ballet and Byrd was running his own company, says he sometimes wonders how Spectrum’s dancers can hold up against the “extreme, marathon-level physicality” required by Byrd’s choreography.
“It’s a bit like the psychiatrist stripping away the layers of a patient,” Boal says. “Then you get to see the raw truth.”
Byrd acknowledges that dancing for him is all-consuming, a “lifestyle” rather than a job. He tells every prospective new member of the company at Spectrum that they’ll need to think of the studio as a laboratory.
“Being at Spectrum is a way of examining your life,” Byrd says. His words may come off as grandiose, but he truly believes in the potential of this approach.
The hot light of self-interrogation, he hopes, will spawn a higher level of understanding about the material as well as the dancers’ capabilities.
Just maybe, when dancers bump against the glass wall of their own physical and emotional inhibitions, there will be a breakthrough. Like a detective on the other side of a two-way mirror, Byrd is there waiting for the big reveal, something they can use to add nuance to the dancing.
There are obstacles to this exhaustive, high-concept approach, Boal says, such as high dancer turnover in a field where musical chairs is already common.
Some critics consider the resulting work to be overbearing, too in-your-face.
There’s so much happening on stage that viewers have to pick and choose what to focus on. Byrd says that’s the way he likes it. You walk away pondering whatever snippet from the whole made the greatest impression on you.
“He’s not gonna work for Hallmark,” Boal jokes. “He pushes the boundaries, but not just for the sake of pushing boundaries. He does it in a really artistic, high-quality way.”
This approach may limit Spectrum’s ability to attract a broader audience.
In May, the city-run Storefronts Seattle project, which provides low-rent studio and show space in empty buildings for local artists and arts organizations, pulled its sponsorship of Spectrum’s “The Miraculous Mandarin,” performed in a window at the Bush Hotel in the Chinatown International District and viewable from a nearby park, because it was too racy.
Ever the provocateur, Byrd says he’s working on a new piece that will incorporate the courtroom transcript of the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse trial as well as elements from a classic he’s mined before, “The Nutcracker.”
BYRD, WHO wrote that he always wanted to be “a fiery John the Baptist for The Dance,” seems intent on forging something that sticks in the consciousness from an art form that he himself has described as “ephemeral, transitory and temporary.”
“The kind of dance I desire to see and to create pairs a kinetic punch with mind-engaging rigor leading to big themes or questions; dance that can express love, death, obsession, joy, fate, desire, revenge, hate, war and peace,” he wrote in his blog last year. “I want more than the allure and enchantment of abstraction; I want a dance that wakes me screaming out of my dreams.”
Pieces like his recent, brilliant “Love,” with moves that are oddly both gymnastic and sculptural, pleading and seductive, do read like crazily erotic dreams.
Spectrum dancers Vincent Michael Lopez and Shadou Mintrone performed a mesmerizing section from “Love” at Velocity Dance Center’s Fall Kick-Off event this year, giving viewers a taste of what Byrd’s process leads to.
They look tormented, afraid, insecure, lonely. Their tension is so great that it appears they are shuddering.
At the end of the sequence, the dancers sit side-by-side but don’t look at each other. Instead, they peer into the distance as if they are trying to find someone in the dark. The searching, anguished look in Lopez and Mintrone’s eyes seems to whisper a wrenching question: “Are you the right one?”
Is this really “love”? It is in Byrd’s hands.
In his “Euclidean Space,” which debuted last year, life’s algorithms unfold in equally confounding and breathtaking fashion.
Original cast members Lopez, Mintrone, Ty Alexander Cheng, Donald Jones Jr., Jade Solomon Curtis, Kate Monthy and Amber Mayberry recently performed the piece at the Free-for-All arts and cultural weekend in Tacoma.
As skittering, thumping electronica plays, dancers in bodysuits march out like freaky physicists. They kneel and sketch imaginary diagrams around themselves on the floor with their fingertips while carrying out a series of astonishingly precise twists, turns, stretches, leaps and groupings.
At one point, Cheng leaps in the air and lands horizontally against the torso of a waiting Jones, whose back is to the audience. For a split second, Cheng just hangs there, as if he’s made of Velcro.
Even in these android-like movements, there is Byrd’s fascination with different forms of seduction, with a pelvic thrust here, a sweet arabesque there — shout-outs to street dance and echoes of Balanchine.
In this case it’s not the dancers who shudder.
By the end of this fantastically kinetic and soulful display, it’s the audience.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider the magazine’s staff photographer.