Spectrum and the Africanist Aesthetic

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Donald Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater, the self-billed “foremost contemporary modern dance organization in the Pacific Northwest,” presented DANCE, DANCE, DANCE at The Moore Theatre on February 27, as the second program in their two-weekend Black History Month dance festival entitled Making the Invisible Visible. In the fascinating program notes, Byrd discusses at length the “Africanist Aesthetic” which he explores through his choreography. This review engages with the Africanist Aesthetic in its relationship to the three works presented. Drastic Cuts, Pt. 1 and Jazz 1 were created in 1992 and 1997, respectively, while Geekspeek, sandwiched between the two others, premiered this year.

Dancers in Donald Byrd's Dance, Dance, Dance  Photo by Tino Tran
Spectrum dancers in Drastic Cuts
Photo by Tino Tran

According to the notes, Byrd’s intention in Making the Invisible Visible is to “illuminate the often ‘invisible persons’ status” of African American artists, in an effort to raise awareness of their contributions to and accomplishments in American society. In order to trace the influence of African American composers, dancers, and choreographers, Byrd provides a specific lens, which consists of the following “aesthetic values or principles that characterize the Africanist Aesthetic: embracing the conflict; polycentrism/polyrhythm (sometimes counted as two attributes); high affect juxtaposition; ephebism; and the aesthetic of the cool.” Byrd posits that the Africanist Aesthetic can be seen in the works of other choreographers as well, namely George Balanchine, and in other “mainstream” American dance forms such as jazz, social dance, and Broadway shows. Although Spectrum calls itself a “contemporary modern” dance company, the three works presented this evening show the influence of ballet and jazz, lending to Byrd’s reputation for eclecticism and the difficulty of classifying his work into a clear genre.

All three of the works contained Byrd’s signature hard-hitting, dance-as-if-your-life-depends-on-it movement vocabulary, featuring high kicks, jumps, intricate footwork, and unexpected movement patterns designed to baffle the body. Perhaps Byrd’s stylistic consistency through the decades factored into his decision to present three works created nearly a quarter-century apart. The movement phrasing alternated between working in conjunction or at odds with the percussive music, revealing Byrd’s masterful understanding and effective usage of polyrhythm, or “multiple rhythms in the body.”

Dancers in Donald Byrd's Dance, Dance, Dance Photo by Tino Tran
Spectrum dancers in Drastic Cuts
Photo by Tino Tran

Drastic Cuts, set to a booming electronic composition by Mio Morales, featured lines of starkly-attired dancers marching in formation and beginning movement phrases using audible breath cues. They transitioned sleekly in and out of virtuosic movement phrases performed in unison, as solos, and in counterpoint. Created during the drastic funding cuts of the 1990s, Drastic Cuts reflects a sense of urgency engendered by the fragility of jobs and health during the dot-com boom and bust, and the AIDS epidemic. Viewing Drastic Cuts in 2016, this urgency translated into forceful duets. In one, a man grabbed a woman’s leg and hoisted it into the splits; in another, the women grabbed their own legs and fell crotch-first onto a group of men, after which they all smiled and sensually petted one another. These images brought to mind sexual violence, reflecting the aesthetic of “embracing the conflict,” which values “contrariety…difference, and the pairing of opposites.” In both Drastic Cuts and Jazz 1, the men manipulated the female dancers in the hierarchical structures of classical balletic partnering. Byrd showed that there are four or five ways to do the splits (e.g., in a penché, on the floor, in the air, or with a partner assisting) and all of these occurred over and over throughout the evening. The emphasis on the splits and the straddle as constantly repeating motifs soon became wearying. While perhaps intended to showcase the dancers’ virtuosity, the accentuation of spreading female legs made me yearn for some variation in movement vocabulary.

The inclusion of two works from the ‘90s alongside 2016’s Geekspeek, exemplified the kind of high affect juxtaposition and jarring contrasts that Byrd refers to in his reflections on the Africanist Aesthetic. Geekspeek, a trio, also stood out from the two ensemble works in its self-awareness. It seemed to be an ironic wink to audience-members in the know about the kinds of contemporary dance being produced in the recent past. In the work, which was subtitled (or just another dance with dancers wearing socks for no apparent reason), the three sock-clad performers executed frenetic movement and walked around smugly underneath hanging LED lights designed by Jack Mehler. The subtitle, along with the deliberate inclusion of popular contemporary elements, admitted its own arbitrariness and even commented on the predictability of other works formulated in similar ways.

Dancers in Donald Byrd's Dance, Dance, Dance Photo by Tino Tran
Spectrum dancers in Jazz 1
Photo by Tino Tran

Ephebism—defined in the program as “youth, power, vitality, flexibility, drive and attack; attack implies speed, force, and sharpness”—aptly describes Byrd’s movement vocabulary, with its emphasis on kicks and tricks. While common wisdom complains that there is nothing new under the sun, Byrd is clearly not interested in the search for authenticity or for organic movement that feels natural in the body. Rather, he seems to explore the opposite, as seen by the dancers tearing into daunting movement phrases. A thrilling moment in the deluge of feats came when Emily Pihlaja performed an acrobatic flip over the knees of her male partner who was laying in a shoulder bridge—authentically awe-inspiring because I had never seen this movement before, nor was it repeated during the evening. All of Byrd’s dancers look young, reflecting his aesthetic value of youth, and perhaps reflecting the theory that dancers must be in their early twenties in order to perform at Byrd’s intense speed. Noticeably, only two of Spectrum’s dancers, both of whom are male, have been with the company for more than two seasons.

A Spectrum newcomer, Alexis “Tilly” Evans-Krueger, soared in Jazz 1, which closed the evening. Her aloof expression epitomized the aesthetic of the cool, or, as the program put it, the “luminosity, or brilliance; and facial composure, or the ‘mask of the cool.”’ She, along with Davione Gordon, understood what Byrd was getting at as she calmly balanced in arabesque and at the last minute turned her head to the audience with a slight smile as if to say, “I know you just saw me nail that.” Gordon, on the other hand, lithely snapped and weaved his way around the stage, performed a brilliant sequence of jumps, and then sauntered off again, snapping down low, as if it were no big deal.

Dancers in Donald Byrd's Dance, Dance, Dance Photo by Tino Tran
Spectrum dancers in Drastic Cuts
Photo by Tino Tran

The program notes on the Africanist Aesthetic provided a valuable entry point into Dance, Dance, Dance. As Byrd urges the audience to recognize the influence of this aesthetic on other artworks, this evening will likely remain a memorable and relevant experience in the ongoing journey to make visible the invisible.

For more information on Spectrum Dance Theater, please visit HERE.

One comment

  1. What a well-written review! I almost feel as though I were there with the audience, gasping at the athletic dancers performing the unexpected. Even though there were aspects the reviewer didn’t necessarily like, it still makes me want to rush off to buy tickets!

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