After six years, Donald Byrd has the strong, fearless Spectrum Dance Theater under his command, doing blisteringly intense work on volatile subjects ranging from psychosexual battle to international politics and war. Byrd and the group present the regionally inspired "Icono-Clan" production next weekend at the Moore Theatre.
To call the career of choreographer Donald Byrd “turbulent” is a bit of an understatement. In the 1980s, he battled and overcame drug and alcohol addictions that threatened his creativity. Through it all, he kept Donald Byrd/The Group, his New York-based company, going for 24 years — only to see it founder in the months after 9/11.
When he came to Seattle in late 2002 to start over again with Spectrum Dance Theater, he took a jazz-dance company and turned it into a very different animal indeed — a process that triggered large turnover in Spectrum’s board and its lineup of dancers.
Now, six-plus years later, he has a strong, fearless modern dance company under his command, doing blisteringly intense work on volatile subjects ranging from psychosexual battle to international politics and war.
Byrd will turn 60 in July: a good moment to take measure of what he has accomplished here. In interview, he feels his way slowly and carefully to answers. But when he’s direct, he’s very direct.
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Asked what attracted him to the gig at Spectrum, he laughs and says, “At first I was not attracted.”
He had other options in play — but those didn’t work out. And while he could have made a go of it as freelance choreographer, that wasn’t what he wanted.
“I believe in dance companies,” he says with passion.
He inquired a little more closely into Spectrum and began to see its possibilities.
“One of the things that attracted me to it was the mission,” he says. “And the mission was — is — to make dance accessible, without limitation, to the community.”
Still, he saw some drawbacks: “It was a jazz company — and I knew I was not going to do jazz dance.”
The fact that Spectrum had so little money was, surprisingly, not a deterrent. His New York troupe foundered, in part, due to money issues. A $1 million production of “The Harlem Nutcracker” had won high praise and a big audience. But it couldn’t recoup its costs — and was far from the cash-cow it was intended to be.
“It became not about artistic integrity, but what you could sell,” Byrd recalls. “In order to refind or rediscover my integrity as an artist, it needed to end.”
Spectrum, by contrast, is a chamber ensemble that keeps expenses to a minimum.
Cost constraints during Byrd’s first years there meant that paying for guest choreographers and non-Spectrum danceworks was prohibitively expensive. So all the work was Byrd’s: “That was fine, because it was a way of getting to know the dancers.”
What wasn’t fine was the meager performance schedule: one production a year.
“I didn’t think that was enough,” Byrd says, “because people forget about you. So I needed to come up with another way to increase our presence.”
By the 2006-2007 season, the pieces were falling into place. Spectrum became the resident dance company at the Moore Theatre, doing two “mainstage” productions there each year. That year also saw the start-up of the studio series: small-scale shows at Spectrum’s lakeside rehearsal studio in Madrona. These were, Byrd says, a cheap way do more performances. And they were a major audience development tool as well.
In the past few years, Spectrum has found money to showcase guest choreographers’ work. Byrd’s agenda here is twofold. “I really want to support the development of local talent,” he says. His other priority is acquiring work by “significant” choreographers with Pacific Northwest ties.
That includes Centralia native Merce Cunningham, whose 1972 work, “Landrover,” will be part of next weekend’s mixed bill, “Icono-Clan.” “Icono-Clan” also features work by Gus Solomons Jr., whose company Byrd danced with in the 1970s, and Byrd’s own “Sentimental Cannibalism,” a sort of techno-driven square dance that escalates into a highly invigorating war of the sexes.
With a dozen strong dancers in his fold and the company on even keel financially, Byrd feels he’s doing things right this time. Spectrum, he says, is benefiting from what he learned with Donald Byrd/The Group: “What things to do. What things not to do.”
He misses New York less than you might expect: “I’m not tethered to New York the way I used to be. I’m in New York often — but I don’t feel diminished or minimized in some way because people in New York don’t know what I’m doing.”
To be sure, he keeps his hand in as a freelance choreographer in New York, notably on Broadway, where he’s working on a musical, “White Noise,” scheduled to open in October. But his big commitment, he says, is to “this community here.”
“Here in Seattle,” he says with pride, “I’m the most productive I’ve ever been. I don’t allow myself personal distractions. I’m extremely disciplined here.”
Byrd’s satisfaction with Spectrum’s present lineup of dancers is palpable, too.
“There were some really rough patches that I didn’t think I would survive, or the organization and company would survive,” he says. “But the artistic trajectory — I’m really thrilled by it. … And I’m really clear about where I want this company to go.”
His aim: “To make it so intrinsically a part of the community that it’s impossible for people to imagine its absence.”
A few days after we talked, he proposed something even grander in a speech he gave at the Rainier Club. Clearly hoping to plant seeds in the minds of the city’s movers and shakers, he spoke of building a new theater for contemporary dance in Seattle, with multiple stages where Spectrum, other local troupes and touring dance companies could perform — a theater that, once built, would seem so essential to the artistic life of the city that its absence, too, would be unimaginable.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org