This year’s Black History Month has been a busy one nationwide, with conversations on the value of black lives happening in spaces ranging from presidential debates to courtrooms to the streets. Even reclamation of black identities in major events like the Super Bowl and the Grammy Awards spurred viral think pieces on historical contributions by black folks. Seattle is no different. Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, decided to put “(failed) race relations” on the hot spot for the company’s 2016 season. This February, Spectrum presents the “Making the Invisible Visible” dance festival. The first program, Rambunctious 2.0, ran February 18–21 at the Cornish Playhouse and featured four of Byrd’s works set to music by exclusively African-American composers.
When spaces like the arts are criticized for their lack of diversity and inclusiveness, often the go-to response is: “We couldn’t find artists who come from insert-minority-group-here.” Rambunctious partly tries to trump that notion by not only exposing these composers to wide audiences, but also by celebrating their creations through a marriage with dance. Byrd chose composers Wynston Marsalis, Pamela Z, and T.J. Anderson; the genres range from classical, jazz, hints of ragtime, and even layered texts. While most of the choreography followed a similar logic (providing a counterpoint with the music) and featured virtuosic, high-powered balletic ideas throughout the entire show, the musical and conceptual content of each piece was diverse enough to engage audiences throughout the more than two-hour production.
Octoroon Ball—a fantasy opened the program. Dancers Alexis “Tilly” Evans-Krueger and Alex Pham, clad in silver, began the work by establishing a playful what-you-can-do-I-can-do-better dynamic onto which two other dancers joined. This friendly camaraderie contrasted the dynamic in the second movement, which featured five dancers in colorful, stylized versions of late 19th century tops, skirts, and even headpieces for the women. The two men and three women danced in turn in duets and trios, evoking the romanticism and formality of the period as dancers from the previous movement watched.
Octoroon, based on a term historically used to characterize people with one-eighth African and seven-eighths European ancestry during the slave era, was a nod to an old practice of social dance in the South, in which slave masters would watch their slaves enact a cotillion. As Marsalis’ music wove together classical, jazz, and even ragtime influences, the dancers’ roles weaved in and out between witnessing and being witnessed. Sometimes, dancers from the two different worlds collided. Although each step was executed masterfully, continuously repeated images and phrases became tedious to watch when not coupled with new information.
The highlight of the evening, Geekspeak, followed the first intermission. The work was set to a sound score by Pamela Z that layered spoken text explaining the word “geek,” describing data processes, and detailing different computer operating systems and hacks. In the choreography, Byrd added yet another layer of structure by tying the movements to the rhythm of the speech. Dancers Pham, Blair Elliott, and Mary Sigward were electric—they embodied powerhouse mechanisms by entwining kicks, spins, and rhythmic sensibilities with alacrity.
Death Valley, the show’s closer, followed a similar logic to Geekspeak. Z’s score “And the Movement of the Tongue for String Quartet with Tape” combined string melodies with layered text on ideas of mother tongue, linguistic discrimination, and stereotypes. As a counterpoint, all of Spectrum’s company members shifted between duets, trios, and group patterns in space that combined balletic concepts with postmodern intuitiveness. Here, Evans-Krueger shone with her demanding presence and agile lines. A lively trio of her, Pham and Fausto Rivera stood out for its spontaneity and the genuineness of their relationships.
Another work created for the whole company, Black Man Weeping, featured music by T.J. Anderson. Dancer Davione Gordon, in a yellow unitard, interacted with a black-clad corps of eight dancers. While the movement vocabulary was reminiscent of old-school modern dance, Byrd put a twist on it with an inventive one-versus-many juxtaposition. Both Gordon and the corps took turns becoming catalysts for each other. In one segment, the corps became an intricate obstacle course that Gordon had to navigate through; in another, Gordon sparked a human domino-like effect with his ardent jumps, kicks, and even trembles, thus making a visually evocative and literal reference to the title.
Byrd and his company have long been known for producing works that challenge and provoke. Rambunctious was no different, but it did so in subtler ways. Instead of hitting audiences over the head with messages on “making the invisible visible,” the show gave prominence to the music without being overbearing. The masterful rendition of each score from the Simple Measures chamber group and the thrilling fervor of Spectrum’s company dancers exposed the true nature of the music: exquisite artworks not only capable of sparking further thought, but also undoubtedly worth preserving.
In his program notes, Byrd asks: “I wonder about the violence against black folks happening almost daily across our nation. … Wondering if these murderous acts would even be happening if the contributions of black people were known, acknowledged, and valued.” Let’s hope these acts of exposure and celebration can be one drop within the stream of the movement.
The next program in the festival, Dance, Dance, Dance, a celebration of Africanist aesthetics within dance and within Byrd’s works, ran this weekend, February 25–28 at The Moore Theatre. More info on Spectrum Dance Theater can be found on the company’s website.