Donald Byrd is staging an intervention. Seattle’s renowned contemporary dance choreographer is unsettled by America’s craving for the “mythologized,” candy-coated version of love portrayed in popular movies (see: the re-release of Titanic in 3-D this month) and he wants to help curb our addiction.
“I think it gets us into trouble in the real world,” Byrd explains. “People internalizing these romantic notions about love…they think that it’s something to be pursued above all things. It’s not.”
This bold new thesis—which he explores in three new pieces at Spectrum Dance Theater this spring—is just a whisper of the whirlwind of work that Byrd is up to this season. With a prodigious dance résumé that includes performing for modern dance giant Twyla Tharp and choreographing for the Alvin Ailey company; leading his own company Donald Byrd/The Group for more than 20 years in Los Angeles and New York City; and nabbing a Tony nomination for his choreography in Broadway’s The Color Purple, this year the 62-year-old artistic director of Spectrum (since 2002) has already choreographed The 5th Avenue Theatre’s controversial update of Oklahoma!, nabbed a $50,000 grant from the esteemed United States Artists organization and premiered a work at Dance Theatre of Harlem II. Still to go is a yet unnamed production at Intiman Theatre’s anticipated new summer festival and, presently, the spring lineup at Spectrum, which is based in Byrd’s newfound—and rather dark—take on romance.
His unflinching examination of love starts with Petruchska, an adaptation of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet about a “puppet” boy who is forced to perform shows to please his owner. Petruchska’s only solace? Falling in love with a fellow prisoner: a ballerina puppet who, tragically, has eyes for someone else. Next is Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s scandalous ballet Miraculous Mandarin (banned in its day for sexual content), which tells the story of a doomed man courting a prostitute who keeps very dangerous company. The season finale is Love, Byrd’s world-premiere work that will present an updated take on the subject: how he feels about love, now that he has finally let go of his “18-year-old’s way of thinking about it.”
Byrd is no stranger to tackling big topics in his choreography at Spectrum, but more often his pieces are social commentaries about hard-hitting issues, such as the Holocaust (Theatre of Needless Talents), the Iraq War (Interrupted Narratives/War), African-American stereotypes (The Minstrel Show) and even the suicide of Kurt Cobain (Nevermind).
In 2008, he launched Beyond Dance: Promoting Awareness and Mutual Understanding at Spectrum, an extended program for which he developed three original works in three years about Africa (Mother of Us All), China (Farewell) and the Middle East (A Chekhovian Resolution). He is still revising and building on a fourth, and last, work about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for which he collaborated with two Israeli choreographers and incorporated music by a Palestinian composer. He recently spent some time in Jerusalem as part of a fellowship, where he educated himself further on a topic he admits he was naïve about before—what it’s like to live through the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
In fact, one of Byrd’s most attractive qualities as an artist is his empathy, which leads him to jump into unfamiliar territory and start asking questions. This insistence on pushing, exploring and revising his perspective is part of what makes him a phenomenal choreographer. It also makes his blog (at spectrumdance.org) one of the best in town. His writing is compelling and honest (“I want a dance that wakes me screaming out of my dreams”), if sporadic; he’s armed with extensive historical knowledge about music, theater and dance, and an analytical muscle flexible enough to draw connections between his passion for choreography and his love of Stargate SG-1. The writing is entertaining, educational and, if you’re also an artist, personally reassuring. It’s much like Byrd’s choreography, which, he emphasizes, is intended to help audiences relate more to dance.
On top of his beautiful, intense, sometimes brutal choreography (performed by some of the most technically talented dancers in Seattle), Byrd often adds dialogue, props and overt narrative to excavate a piece’s theme. He can earn mixed reviews here, as this mode of storytelling can be a touch heavy-handed for advanced theatergoers. But if you consider his general artistic intent, his approach starts to make more sense: At the end of this season, for example, Byrd doesn’t want to convert us into romance atheists. He wants to remind us that the visceral experience of watching dance is useful because it makes us linger a little while on complex questions, while we’re not just intellectually, but emotionally present.
In his own words: “I want audiences to start to understand that dance has the ability to deal with things that perhaps they didn’t think it could—the work that people expect really wonderful literary artworks to do.”
GO SEE IT
Petruchska, April 13–21; Spectrum Dance Studio Theater; 800 Lake Washington Blvd.
Miraculous Mandarin, May 17–26; Hing Hay Park in the International District; South King Street at Maynard Avenue South.
Love, June 21–30; Daniels Recital Hall, 5th Ave. & Marion St.
Tickets 206.325.4161; spectrumdance.org