Clearly, Donald Byrd will have his say about classical ballet and story ballets in general. Last weekend, I saw “M.I.A.,” which is a hilarious spoof on the classics and some of their more arbitrary norms. This weekend (October 16–18), Program II featured excerpts from his pieces “I’ve got the Wilis: Daydreams on Giselle” and “The Sleeping Beauty Notebook.”
Interestingly though, and to Byrd’s credit, he doesn’t confine himself to mocking the silliness in classical ballet. The Giselle-inspired piece, while it did have its funny moments, was absolutely the creepiest take on the social hierarchies and power struggles of women I think I’ve ever seen. These ladies are the REAL Wilis: vicious, vengeful, and not quite so much blood-thirsty as just entirely, amorally amused by the suffering of humans. Also, the audience should take note that Byrd does not allow Giselle to save Albrecht which, given what a jerk Albrecht is in the story, I actually found quite satisfying.
“The Sleeping Beauty Notebook,” however, is hysterically funny. I particularly enjoyed how Byrd dealt with one often-overlooked detail of ballet history. Audiences who have come to regard ballet as a bastion of conservativism often don’t realize that the tutu—which we now happily dress our little girls in—was considered scandalous when it was introduced because it gave male members of the audience a clearer view of—ahem—the dancers’ bodies. “Tutu” is actually a children’s word for “butt” in French, so you get the idea. Byrd has his dancers in nude-colored leotards, little white tutus, and no tights. He then has them constantly wiggling their butts directly in the faces of the audience. So often in fact does the choreography draw attention to the dancers’ hind-quarters that it ceases to shock so much as it begins to seem immensely comical. This, combined with the gasping and jerky movements of the dancers who have just woken up from their hundred years’ sleep and Aurora’s attempted sexual assault on an unconscious Prince Charming, rendered…well, if you know anyone who thinks that ballet is ponderous, the next time this piece is revived, go.
Those were just two of the pieces presented, though. The first was from a Merce Cunningham dance called “Landrover.” Choreographed in 1972, and set to music by John Cage, Gordon Mumma, and David Tudor, this is an excellent piece to see how movement artists in the sixties and seventies were exploring new ways of relating dancers to each other, new ways of managing repetition and variation. Cunningham did use turnout, which may not sound like a big deal these days but when modern dance was getting going there was a distinct rebellion against any and all balletic associations. Cunningham’s movement, while completely modern and at times quite angular, still possesses a great deal of fluidity and an almost ethereal lightness to it. This was perfectly embodied by Tory Peil in the solo she performed. Peil managed with ease the Cunningham gestures that can seem choppy, and shaped everything from her hands to her feet with graceful deliberation.
The other two pieces explored another theme I’m seeing emerging from this festival as being a slight preoccupation of Byrd’s, and that would be sex. Arguably, all dance is obsessed with sex because, after all, what is our favorite thing to do with our bodies? The truth is, though, that as in all art forms it is difficult to handle sex overtly and subtly at the same time.
The first of these two pieces was a single duet from “Short Dances/little stories,” choreographed in 2004. Set to music by Mystical, this is a cross between an angry pas de deux and a dance battle—the man and woman seem to be dancing as much against as with one another. The second was from a piece called “Bristle.” Two couples; two studies in wildly different relationships. Byrd’s ability to use non-mimetic movement to develop character was well-displayed here. In one couple, the woman seems almost angry to be pursued, and angrier still that she returns some of the romantic attraction. In the other, it is the man who seems pulled away from a devoted woman and who clearly has to consciously choose to stay with her. Throughout both couples’ interactions, Byrd’s choreography deftly intertwines the blatantly erotic with the more delicate and heart-stopping details of human love.
This next weekend, October 23–25, is the third and final weekend of the Byrd Retrospective Festival. It includes excerpts from “Bhangra Fever,” “White Man Sleep,” which was inspired by the events of September 11, and stretches back to 1992 with Byrd’s “Drastic Cuts.” Remember: this is your third and final warning…