spectrum: farewell – a preview – byrd and bell on movement

Promo Pix for “Farewell”
(photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, Zebra Visual)

Spectrum Dance Theater’s “Farewell” runs February 18–20 at the Moore Theater. Tix are $25 (plus a fee online).

By Terra Leigh Bell

Watch several pieces of Donald Byrd’s choreography, and—with any knowledge of the breadth of dance training available out there—and the question of ballet and its relationship to the dance of the latter twentieth century has to come up. From the hilarity of “The Sleeping Beauty Notebook” to the downright creepiness of “I’ve got the Wilis,” Byrd’s work is simultaneously steeped in, and in complete rebellion against, classical ballet.

Byrd’s newest piece, “Farewell,” opens this very evening at The Moore Theatre, and your assignment is to go and figure out why seeing this piece in rehearsal brought up more of these questions about Byrd’s choreographic decisions and how on earth an artist maintains a truly alive relationship to the past. The key here is of course that it be alive. I don’t mean to imply that you’ll even think about ballet while watching “Farewell;” probably many wouldn’t. But Byrd’s work does maintain an almost constant tension between the precision and long lines of ballet and far more modern and rhythmic impetuses for movement.

As it turns out, Byrd did have a good deal of ballet training (along with Cunningham technique) when he was studying dance.

“Ballet is very systematic. It’s like sports training in some ways,” Byrd says. He also points out that in many ways it holds a strong appeal for young men simply for its virtuosic challenges; when a young man’s body is developing, ballet presents an almost constant stream of intensely difficult physical feats for him to master.

But of course, ballet is more than virtuosity. It is also, among other things, a document of European cultural history. While dancing in New York, Byrd saw a lot of New York City Ballet’s performances. One lecture that had particular importance for him was given by Patricia McBride and Edward Villella. Byrd says, “It led me to ask questions about what classicism is and what our relationship to the European classics is.”

But while Byrd acknowledges that he wants to create a sense of lineage, his work is also quite clearly in and of the current moment.

“I’m not trying to do something like in ballet where the movement visualizes the music,” Byrd says. “The music and the dance have parallel trajectories.”

The music is, in the case of “Farewell,” composed by Byron Au Yong.

“It’s a kind of soundscape that Byron has created,” Byrd says. It incorporates a good deal of spoken word as well. This seemed particularly interesting to me, since I remembered Byrd having previously mentioned that he noticed that spoken language tends to distract an audience from the dance.

“If someone is speaking live, then the audience’s attention will go to the words,” he replied when I asked him about this. What it comes down to is making a choice. “Why do people resist having to sort through? A simple entertainment makes those decisions for you. But to simplify things does them a disservice.”

The subtitle of “Farewell” is “A fantastical contemplation on America’s relationship with China.” A complicated topic, to say the least, and in rehearsal Byrd was careful to point out the distinction between a contemplation and a narrative. There’s a lot going on, and all of these refracting movement sources and Byrd’s unique creative vision seem well suited to tackling such a complex relationship.

“Farewell” is the second of three pieces that are part of PAMU (see Leslie Holleran’s posting yesterday to learn more about this), and Byrd has said that the third piece will be done next year. It will take Africa as its subject, and Byrd said in interview that its tentative title is “The Mother of Us All.” I for one am glad to have an artist in Seattle with both immodest ambitions and a thorough grasp of the complex relationship between classicism and modernism.