Donald Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater ends its season on a high note with Rambunctious: A Celebration of American Composers and Dance—two weekends of performances at two different venues with seven new works to live chamber music. The title evokes another –tious word that perhaps more accurately describes the scope of this venture for a single artistic director/choreographer, ten dancers, and thirteen days of rehearsal. In the intimate settings of the Fremont Abbey (last weekend) and Washington Hall (this coming weekend), audiences are treated to an immediately accessible performance that choreographically weaves layers of historical and artistic context against a backdrop of American chamber music.
Although American music and its potential for dance inspired Byrd’s creation of Rambunctious, each work was most compelling in its tribute to major American choreographers. Quotations and references—some nuanced, some brash—ran through each of the five pieces on display. Phrases, poses, and patterns became like a guessing game to match choreography with choreographer: Byrd’s Solo/Duo showed an easily identifiable Martha Graham during Kate Monthy’s emotive, pleading solo and Derek Crescenti and Shadou Mintrone were definitively Twyla Tharp-esque in their white tennis shoes and rapid fire, pedestrian pas de bourées. Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, and George Balanchine also made conspicuous appearances in an evening where the “Guess Who?” aspect often overshadowed the choreography itself and the powerfully executed performances by the dancers.
Byrd is known for choosing dancers with a high level of classical modern and ballet training and an ability to create exquisite lines. Byrd is also known for over-accentuating these extensions in his choreography. In Rambunctious, however, this frequent choreographic signature was fortunately lacking, possibly because Byrd was echoing other choregraphers. While each of Spectrum’s ten well-trained dancers could have held the stage alone, Crescenti was especially notable in his duets with Mintrone (Solo/Duo) and with Justin Reiter in the neo-Edwardian Serenade (ironically not the Balanchinian offering of the night). Whether buoyantly energetic or vulnerably posturing, Crescenti moved through space precisely, elegantly, and without wasted energy.
Spectrum transformed the Fremont Abbey’s Great Hall, using bleacher seating, white European-style dance floor, fluorescent lighting fixtures for front lights along the floor, and even homemade light boxes for side lighting (although the gels on these lights did not project much color.) Transitions between pieces became confusing, however, as the lights never dimmed; startlingly loud whistles from behind the audience signaled dancers in orange prison jumpsuits to trace squares around the stage, and the dancers changed lighting gels while the musicians created tuning background noise. Costuming was also slightly confusing, as many costumes appeared unappealingly homemade, especially the cut-off white bellyshirts worn over black biketards in Septet.
A highlight of the program was the musical ensemble Simple Measures, led by Rajan Krishnaswami, seated just offstage in full view of the audience. This string quartet cavorted through a century of American musical styles, evoking subtle distinctions between each work (Ives, Gershwin, Copland, Wuorinen, Persichetti.) Live versus canned performance always underscores the relationship between music and dance. The artists of both media—and therefore the audience—mutually benefit from concurrent performance rather than the more isolating process of taped recordings. In this way, Byrd has constructed a show designed to appeal to a wide range of experience and preference.
Ever-loquacious and highly intellectual, Byrd summarized his vision for the program as “a rowdy and lively engagement with the aesthetic range and the dance potential of string quartet music by American composers over the past 100 years.” Although the performance never quite reached “rowdy” status, Rambunctious certainly showed off the scope of Spectrum’s talented dancers and its director’s ambitious vision. Byrd is known for revisiting and revising his works (this season’s Minstrel Show Revisited is the most recent example); one hopes that Rambunctious gets the revisiting treatment one day. In the meantime, audiences can treat themselves to the closing weekend of Rambunctious, May 22-24 at Washington Hall.