Anniversaries are special, often marked by parties, public tributes and gift-giving. Spectrum Dance Theater opened its 40th-anniversary season with a gift to its audiences: an exhilarating program that showcased both the dancers’ talents and company artistic director and choreographer Donald Byrd’s mastery of his craft. “Occurrence #11” (through Oct. 23) was a joyous ode to dance, a celebration of both Spectrum’s four decades in Seattle, and the future that lies ahead.
Byrd, who marks his 20th season with Spectrum this fall, has garnered an international reputation and a long list of honors including the Doris Duke Artist Award, a Masters of Choreography Award from the Kennedy Center and an honorary doctorate from Cornish College of the Arts. In addition to the dances he makes for his own troupe, Byrd has choreographed for such renowned companies as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Joffrey Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Byrd may be best known for creating art that speaks to racial or social injustices, such as 2019’s “Strange Fruit,” which addressed lynching, or “Grief,” created last spring to examine the murders of Black men through one mother’s eyes. But his Occurrence series, initiated in 2016, provides Byrd a platform to explore the pure intersection of music and movement, without hewing to a particular theme.
“Occurrence #11,” which debuted Oct. 13 at Spectrum’s home studio in the Madrona beach bathhouse, is the latest addition to the series. In a preshow speech, Byrd told the sold-out opening-night audience that working on the Occurrence dances allows him to play with both his craft and his dancers — an experience he finds “thrilling.”
“Occurrence #11,” approximately an hour long, began with six performers walking out from the wings to a white floor. Dressed in an array of colorful but casual shorts, unitards, pants and T-shirts, they moved languidly to haunting string music. Sometimes they mirrored each other’s movements, but often the six dancers performed unique steps. It was like watching the visual equivalent of a stir fry, each body a tasty addition to the final dish.
As the piece progressed, the music (by seven different composers, mixed seamlessly by sound designer Rob Witmer) sped up, developing a propulsive and infectious beat. Five more dancers joined the original six; moving together, they echoed the music with body slaps, hand waves and finger snaps. They stomped their feet, windmilled their arms, filling the dance floor with a cyclone of moving bodies. Longtime Spectrum fans might have caught snippets from some of Byrd’s past work, even a section reminiscent of some of Jerome Robbins’ choreography for “West Side Story.”
Byrd has an eclectic dance background, and he incorporated everything from classical ballet technique to traditional African dance into “Occurrence #11.” This synthesis demanded a lot from the dancers, and they met the challenge, displaying technical virtuosity, precision and what looked like joy. From longtime company members Jaclyn Wheatley and Hutch Hagendorf, to new recruits, particularly the electrifying Jiamond Watson, the Spectrum dancers brought everything they had to the performance.
Spectrum Dance opened in 1982 with the mission of making great contemporary dance performance and training accessible to people of all backgrounds. Since Byrd’s arrival in 2002, Spectrum has evolved beyond that original mission, attracting accomplished dance artists to Seattle, and building a varied, and often critically acclaimed, repertoire. “Occurrence #11” is one of the company’s most successful offerings to date, a fitting launch for Spectrum’s 40th-anniversary season.
This story has been updated to reflect that Donald Byrd did not stage “West Side Story” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre but rather members of Spectrum performed in the 2019 production.