Donald Byrd takes the road that art is all about tension—the theme for Spectrum Dance Theater’s 2013-2014 season is nothing less than “America: Sex, Race, and Religion.” Such a title promises to break open topics traditionally inappropriate at the dinner table, putting them up on stage where there is more room to show, and experiment with, the tensions and controversies surrounding these themes. Studio Series 1 premiered October 4, 2013 (October 5 performance reviewed) at their home performance space on Lake Washington, and the company presented a show that connected all four parts of the year’s theme. Cyrus Khambatta’s Truth and Betrayal and Donald Byrd’s restaging of 1990’s Prodigal fit nicely together as the two works on the bill.
Khambatta’s Truth and Betrayal opened the show with a tightly choreographed look at the darker side of human relationships—an embittered psychology of intimacy writ large on the body. The five performers (Derek Crescenti, Jade Solomon Curtis, Alex Crozier, Shadou Mintrone, and Kate Monthy) wove through various groupings, overlapping and cutting one or another out of the choreography. Khambatta’s partnering formed the thematic core of Truth and Betrayal, and its afterimages are what resonate with the viewer. Full of daring falls, catches, and kicks that nearly made contact, the movement involved a great deal of trust on the part of the performers—and their abstract characters, too. The intimacy of their relationships gave way to an insidious sense of violence and hostility in the choreography that was paired with quieter, but equally fraught, moments of twisting and untwisting the body.
It was evident that the choreography was developed on a different, more floor-loving kind of modern dancer—the work premiered earlier this year with Khambatta’s own company—but this hardly detracted from the performance. The Spectrum dancers showed off the shapes, the heights of jumps, the acrobatics and near-danger of the partnering, and the tightly-wound dramatic tension of the atmosphere in a way that is characteristic of the company’s strengths. While Truth and Betrayal went on a bit long, with a little too much insistence on revisiting earlier movement motifs, the dancing was always compelling, and the piece made a fine companion to Prodigal.
After intermission, it was time for some religion. Told through riveting performances from the principal actors, Byrd’s Prodigal breaks open the parable of the Prodigal Son and delves into its psychology—something not present in either the Bible or the 1929 ballet by George Balanchine. Byrd’s version fills in the experience of the elder brother’s arguably justifiable anger at seeing his younger brother, the Prodigal, debauch and debase himself only to be welcome back into the fold by their father (or Father, if we’re talking about the parable) without question. It also puts Balanchine on trial—more or less literally—for the questionable gender politics of his ballet’s portrayal of a Siren seductress who is to blame for a naïve Prodigal’s moral undoing.
Full of allusions to both Bible and Balanchine, Prodigal is as much theater as it is dance. It opens with Byrd as the Reverend/Father telling the Prodigal Son parable in a preacherly manner before the Congregation, a suit-wearing male ensemble (William Ernest Davis Burden, Crescenti, Davione Gordon, Crozier, and Justin Reiter). The atmosphere brings to mind the African American Church traditions born in the American South. Pious yet slightly jazzy organ music plays softly in the background as Byrd speaks, and the Congregation alternates testifying cries of “Yes!” with wiping their sweaty brows with handkerchiefs. The Youngest Son, the Prodigal (guest artist Jacob Jonas), prostrates himself before Byrd, and he uses a wheelchair, having been lamed physically, morally, or spiritually—the precise connection between his actions and his new disability is unclear. Totally broken down, Jonas’ repeated cries of “Shame!” counter the Congregation’s exhortation to “Be merry.” (This comes from the biblical text that Byrd speaks and later repeats: “It is meet that we should be merry and glad; for my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”) In flashback style, the Siren enters the story. Danced by a cool, domineering Monthy (who shares the role with Curtis), the Siren essentially dominates the Prodigal, and her choreography, costume, and music (bits of the Prokofiev score) alluded back to Balanchine. Up to this point in the piece, much of the action is merely stressful to experience, without clear sight of where the commentary of the piece was going. However, in a quick and surreal transition, the stage transformed into a court room, and the Eldest Son (guest artist Daniel Wilkins, who directs DASSdance) started a case against George Balanchine for misrepresenting both the Siren and the Prodigal.
Here is where Byrd’s vision becomes clear, and Prodigal becomes a fascinating, poignant, and even funny deconstruction of itself. In Monthy’s testimony, she described in detail some of the more sensual, erotic parts of the Balanchine choreography and decried that she did any of it. Hearing the dance described in words made it seem particularly surreal and absurd—“I did not sit on the head of the Prodigal!” she insisted. The trial led to a lengthy physical and verbal confrontation between brothers. Wilkins filled the theater with a rage that bordered on truly frightening and encompassed all his character’s anger, jealousy, and confusion. As the Father, Byrd unsuccessfully tried to resolve the dispute between brothers and unwittingly provided the catalyst for their reconciliation. The father’s argument that “thou [Eldest Son] art with me always, and all that I have is thine” and that it was right to celebrate the Prodigal’s return seems more and more powerless through each repetition. At the same time, it increases the power behind the brothers’ bond to each other, and marks their separation from their father. For all his good intentions, the Father is left alone on stage without either of his sons.
Byrd’s Prodigal peels away layers in an attempt to bring new depth to a well-known narrative. Together with Khambatta’s Truth and Betrayal, it makes a strong opener for Spectrum’s 2013-2014 season. Studio Series 1 continues October 11-13 and 18-20 at Spectrum Dance Studio Theater. More information and tickets are available here.