Spectrum dancers Donald Jones, Jr. and Jade Solomon Curtis in Autopsy of Love
Photo by Nate Watters
“You only autopsy things you think are dead,” said Spectrum Dance Theater’s Artistic Director Donald Byrd in a brief, but illuminating Q & A after the June 20 world premiere of Autopsy of Love. Staged at the performance space at SODO’s Emerald City Trapeze Arts, Byrd’s rapturous new evening-length work centers on love and death and puts thirteen dancers, an actor, a pianist, and a singer on stage in the artistic company of Heinrich Heine, Robert Schumann, and Amy Winehouse. Autopsy of Love explores love, its pains and its ecstasies, through dancers who carry out different romantic love relationships under the clinically observant eye of actor Andrew McGinn. Death, too, is always close at hand: the stage is set with a covered autopsy table (quickly wheeled away in the opening moments until much later), so death, rather than love, is the audience’s first impression. The audience, seated on two sides of a long and fairly narrow white Marley, become active participants—McGinn’s cohorts, or perhaps his students—as they observe the autopsy, the self-exploration, in front of them. As the work unfolds, it entertains the question of whether romantic love is dead and extrapolates it into a beautiful, and at times beautifully unsettling, meditation on love and sex and being human.
The choreography, largely technical and performatively dazzling partner dancing, was juxtaposed with the clinical detachment of McGinn and the musicians (pianist Judith Cohen and bass/baritone Clayton Brainerd). Everyone was very human, but there were two different worlds at work: the dancers were subjects in an anthropological or psychological study, while McGinn, Cohen, and Brainerd played the scientists in white coats, whispering to each other and solemnly shaking hands upon entering and exiting the stage. Sometimes this barrier broke down, as dancers traded black dresses and pants for white lab coats, and, crucially, as McGinn traveled between worlds when he was alone and speaking the text, taken from Heine. He became tender and caressed the woman in front of him (a blissfully unaware Jade Solomon Curtis at the piece’s opening, and a clearly dead, Shadou Mintrone on the autopsy table at the end) as he pined for his love.
Spectrum dancers and actor Andrew McGinn
Photo by Nate Watters
Every dancer in the company performed with astounding commitment, expressing specific kinds of love and desire, rather than generalities. Their bodies, their eyes, even their breath were all fully integrated into their personae. Especially memorable were Stacie L. Williams and Derek Crescenti’s sweetness (with literal puppy-love moments from a tongue-wagging Crescenti); Mintrone’s cool domination over Ty Alexander Cheng, who found a vulnerable side after proving cruel and domineering with Cara-May Marcus; and the alternating hot and cold of Curtis and Donald Jones Jr.’s sensual, sometimes explicit partnering. As captivating as their performances were, it would be unfair to go without praising the group’s considerable technical prowess. Byrd’s choreography demands both a fine artist and an elite dancer, and the entire troupe performed the physically rigorous and intricate choreography with apparent ease. Winehouse’s recordings paired well with stepping-influenced social dances, where crisp, understated coolness created a courting ritual. On the other end of the spectrum, Schumann’s Dichterliebe (“The Poet’s Love”), a song cycle set to Heine’s poetry, provided a moving auditory setting for the dancers’ passion-infused tumbles, jumps, and leg extensions.
Byrd’s choice to use Heine and Schumann, both paragons of nineteenth-century Romanticism, along with Winehouse’s soulful songs tinged with sadness, gave Autopsy of Love a thematic backbone that perfectly supported the uncomfortably close yet familiar relationship between sex and death. Schumann tried to commit suicide, Winehouse died at twenty-seven, and Heine’s poetry evoked the themes explicitly. This all came to a head as Mintrone lay on the autopsy table, and McGinn abandoned clinical professionalism for a poet’s tenderness. Holding her limp body in his arms, his words scorned her, but it became apparent that he was grieving—he had lost a person, perhaps, but really he had lost the love that he once shared with another. His passionate words of the death of love belied his appearance. In this section more than any other, being in the audience felt voyeuristic, as though the interaction between McGinn and Mintrone were too private, even taboo considering its nod toward light necrophilia. Yet the implied tragedy lent the scene an aching sort of beauty. Just before the end, all the dancers except Mintrone were in lab coats, and, under their gaze, McGinn seemed to struggle with his identity as the scientist. As the piece drew to its close, Mintrone was covered and wheeled away, and McGinn left the stage. He was composed once more, and it was left open whether he were satisfied and felt closure after this metaphorical (and/or possibly literal) death, or whether he were steeling himself to proceed into an unknown, undesirable world bereft of love.
Spectrum dancers Kate Monthy and Cara May Marcus, and actor Andrew McGinn
Photo by Nate Watters
Byrd’s Autopsy of Love does not need to answer any particular question about the tense relationship between love, sex, and death. It exquisitely teases out a mostly true-to-life depiction of what love is like, but not entirely: many of the dancers’ characters, particularly the women’s, seem rooted in stereotype. This is forgivable, however, because the work defines itself by more than just the individual dancers and their characters. Each element works in concert, so that Heine, Schumann, Winehouse, Byrd, and every single performer (as well as Costume Designer Doris Black and Scenic and Lighting Designer Rico Chiarelli) form a total work of art that delves deep into what the human experience of love means. Autopsy of Love is tender, chilling, aesthetically stunning, and thematically rich. It is well worth the trip to SODO or anywhere the company might perform it in the future.
Spectrum Dance Theater’s Autopsy of Love continues June 27-29 at Emerald City Trapeze Arts. Tickets are available here.