Under the artistic direction of Donald Byrd, Spectrum Dance Theater’s performances are always guaranteed to meld the talents of the dancers with Byrd’s highly intellectual choreography. 2014-15’s Studio Series performance of Transfigured Night delivered exactly that: beautifully skilled dancers in four works by Byrd, smartly tied together as social commentary. While the evening began with technical difficulties (a haze machine ran out of nitrous), the potential pitfall was deftly sidestepped by both Managing Director Jill Leininger’s opening commentary and Byrd’s soft humor. In a way, this graceful candor and professional informality broke down any barriers between audience and stage, serendipitously matching the studio theater setting.
Adding to the conceptual aspects of the evening were the snippets of recent newspaper articles decorating the program, verses from the music and poems used during the performance, and researched quotes on what is “cool.” Byrd’s thought process (via these program notes) invited the audience to delve just as deeply into the thematic material as he had. The intimacy of the setting, however, helped ensure that this process never felt elitist, merely accessible—a quality that Byrd often executes well.
Dancer Shadou Mintrone was featured heavily throughout the evening, beginning with a solo in Tap Dance. Her signature blond locks and fair skin contrasted with the black pinstriped jumper and oxford shoes, and her personality conveyed a restrained joyfulness. Set to music composed at a young age by Dick Kattenburg, Byrd staged this solo following directions within the score for the percussive tap sounds. Kattenburg died in Auschwitz, but only the program notes revealed the dark circumstances of the composer’s death. Tap Dance was an expression of potential and possibility, not only of the passage of time but also of Mintrone’s skill as a tap dancer (even though the floor surface muffled the tapped rhythms).
Interrupted Narrative/WAR (Study #1) premiered in 2006, a merging of musical lyrics, spoken word, and juxtaposed solos. Mintrone sat upstage, reading names of deceased soldiers as a student from Spectrum’s school lined up small American Flags in remembrance. Downstage, Davione Gordon and Jeremy Cline performed disparate solos in chaotic contrast. The obvious images of soldiers being shot were repeated to the point of desensitization. (Media coverage, anyone?) Frantic gestures of writing on the floor evoked impressions both of recording in blood and of erasing the names relentlessly read by Mintrone. Gordon and Cline danced together after their solos, each unable to contain the energy of the other. Of the four works, Interrupted Narrative needed multiple viewings to process, as Byrd deftly used chaos to describe chaos.
The titular Transfigured Night shone as the evening’s standout piece (and was enhanced by the successful use of the aforementioned hazer effect). The most classically modern of the works, Transfigured Night highlighted delicate partnering between Mintrone and Alex Crozier, an elegantly matched pair. Based on a poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel, the loose narrative followed a young couple walking through the woods. Byrd mirrored the moody and dramatic poem in form: the couple dancing together, the woman speaking, the man speaking, and the couple together again. The costumed palette of dark maroon and grey set a striking image against the black curtained walls and black flooring, framed eerily by the haze. Rico Chiarelli’s lighting amplified the Victorian sense of drama, both carving bodies out of the backdrop and softening edges with a gothic wistfulness. While the solo monologues matched the duration of the Schoenberg score, both felt overly long. Crozier’s perfectly buoyant leaps were breathtaking, though: sweeping and large in the small space. Transfigured Night gracefully harkened back to the interpersonal dramas of Antony Tudor and José Limon. In a company that often has a great deal of dancer turnover, Mintrone and Crozier, in their fourth and third seasons, respectively, exhibited the kind of comfortable and confident partnership that takes time to cultivate.
With Cool(ish), Byrd processed the esoteric notion of “cool,” using 1970s Afro-culture as a jumping-off point and through-line. In her only appearance of the night, Jade Solomon Curtis majestically strutted through the space, donning myriad wigs, earrings, high heels, and jumpsuits, unapologetically “cool” as she stared through the audience. The overdone, narcissistic “cool” of Curtis and Glover played well against the hard-edged nihilism of a punk rock set led by Mintrone. Overtly presentational, the idea of cool became performance art, whether through Curtis’s affected posing or the high-energy dancing of the group sections.
Byrd’s choreography swept through the space in most of the works (the exception understandably being the minimalist Tap Dance), showing off the brilliance of a company extremely comfortable in their “home” space. Although this run of performances is over for the 2014-15 season, Spectrum’s Studio Series was a worthwhile trip to their Madison Park studios: a rep show that was intellectual without being pretentious. Stay up to date on the rest of Spectrum Dance Theater’s performance calendar here.