Theater legend Anna Deavere Smith joins Spectrum Dance Theater for its 2016 season “#RACEish,” which promises to “boldly disrupt the current conversation around race.”
“The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger.”
Those words have a discouragingly contemporary ring to them. But they were spoken in 1970 by novelist James Baldwin in “A Rap on Race,” a marathon conversation he conducted with anthropologist Margaret Mead.
Has so little changed in 46 years?
Spectrum Dance Theater: ‘Making the Invisible Visible’ Festival
“Rambunctious 2.0,” Feb. 18-21, Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, 201 Mercer St., Seattle; “Dance, Dance, Dance,” Feb. 25-28, Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $17.50-$40 for single tickets, $60 for both shows (206-325-4161 or spectrumdance.org).
Spectrum Dance Theater will reflect on that question with its 2016 season, “#RACEish: An Exploration of America’s 240 Years of (Failed) Race Relations.”
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Its centerpiece, “A Rap on Race” — coming in May — is a collaboration between Spectrum artistic director Donald Byrd and theater legend Anna Deavere Smith (“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992”). “Rap” will feature dance duets set to spoken excerpts from Baldwin and Mead’s discussion. Byrd will play Baldwin; a to-be-announced actor will play Mead.
Things get started, however, with “Making the Invisible Visible,” a Black History Month dance festival. “Rambunctious 2.0” (Feb. 18-21) premieres Byrd works set to scores by African-American classical composers. “Dance, Dance, Dance” revives two “Africanist” Byrd pieces from the 1990s, when he was the director of Donald Byrd/The Group in New York.
At a recent rehearsal, Byrd said he wants to address two major questions in “Rambunctious 2.0.” First: “What’s the range of African-American classical music, and what are the possibilities for dance with it?” Second: “Why are African-American composers less visible than their white counterparts?”
To Byrd’s way of thinking, it’s not about the quality of the music, which, he said, subverts some of “the notions of what African Americans write.”
That was evident during the rehearsal. Both Pamela Z’s “And the Movement of the Tongue” for string quartet and prerecorded tape (originally commissioned by Kronos Quartet), and Wynton Marsalis’ seven-movement “At the Octoroon Balls” for string quartet, have an immediate, intricate appeal. The Marsalis piece features a maverick blend of forlorn country notes, ragtime zigzags and pulsing motor energy; Pamela Z parlays spliced-and-diced vocal rhythms into melodic motifs deftly woven into her string score. (Also on the program: T.J. Anderson’s “Spirit Songs” for cello and piano, commissioned by Yo-Yo Ma. Seattle string quartet Simple Measures and pianist Judith Cohen will provide live musical accompaniment for the performances.)
Later this month, Spectrum will perform two Byrd revivals in “Dance, Dance, Dance” — “Drastic Cuts, Part I” and “Jazz 1” — which date from the early 1990s, the same era when Byrd choreographed his thrilling, percussive “Sentimental Cannibalism.”
Both pieces, Byrd said, highlight “characteristics that exist in almost all African art.” Some dance theorists, he added, believe that all American dance is influenced by this “Africanist aesthetic,” even if the ballet world is reluctant to acknowledge it. You can see it in the ballet of George Balanchine, Byrd explained: “Broken down, it is speed, angularity, coolness, pelvis thrusting and jutting and rhythm.”
Classical elements are also present in “Drastic” and “Jazz” — but with a twist. In rehearsal, Byrd nailed it when he told his dancers: “It needs to feel like the vernacular invades the academic.”
The two February programs, Byrd said, ask the audience to engage “in a soft way with the issues of race.” But after that, he said with a grin, “we can get down to business.”
Anna Deavere Smith won’t appear in “A Rap on Race” (May 5-22), but she’s collaborating with Byrd on the concept and script for the show.
“We are using the methodologies that Anna developed to do her work,” Byrd says. He calls it “a kind of documentary theater,” in which Smith conducts extensive interviews with her subjects, then uncannily “becomes” them in performance as she portrays two dozen or more characters.
The season closer, a revival of “The Minstrel Show Revisited” (June 16-19), was deliberately placed last, Byrd said, “because it’s so tough for audiences.” Its challenges, including use of blackface, are eloquently addressed by Byrd on Spectrum’s website.
“It is difficult,” he writes, “because in it the past and present collide and often look the same.”
Byrd said Spectrum’s seasonlong focus on race is a necessary response to a national conversation that can’t be avoided.
“In my opinion,” he explained, “the days are over where you can just do art for art’s sake all the time. You can sometimes — but that’s not the art of the 21st century. … We are in a time where we have all these disparities, whether it’s wealth or whether it’s position in our society. They have to be addressed one way or another.”
In highlighting the cultural contributions of black artists, he said, he’s hoping to emphasize “the pleasures and variety that those encounters can bring to our lives. … Regardless of all the messaging around race, the programs are ultimately about making and presenting interesting, beautiful and engaging art.”