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spectrum: festival – weekend #1 – review

By Terra Leigh Bell

Wevers’ “Fragments” (photo courtesy of
Spectrum Dance Theater)

This past weekend (October 9–11) was the first of three celebrating Donald Byrd’s 60th birthday and 6th year as artistic director of Spectrum. It is called the “Byrd Retrospective Festival,” but Byrd pointed out beforehand that part of its intent was to allow audiences to get a feel for where Spectrum is at and the path they’ve traveled in these past few years—in other words, a little history lesson. To that end, it wasn’t exclusively Byrd’s work (nor will it be the next two weekends). On this program there was also a piece by Gus Solomons, Jr. and Olivier Wevers, which means the history already extends past Seattle or even Spectrum. And as a surprise we got to see a piece that had its world premiere just the evening before and wasn’t even supposed to be on the bill. Readers considering going should keep this in mind: each weekend, the Friday performance only will contain one “Surprise” piece. I was there on Saturday, but due to an injury one of the originally scheduled pieces was undoable, so we were treated to something special.

The first piece, Solomons’ “Statements of nameless root II,” was strongly reminiscent of the experiments in movement and sound from the sixties and seventies. The piece was created in 1976, which perhaps heightened the sense of seeing some of the history of dance in this country. The sound accompaniment was feedback, static, and silence, and much of the movement was in keeping with that idea: experimental, “why not?” dance. The most interesting moments to me were when groups of dancers moved in unison. Obviously this happens all the time in dance, and I don’t know how Solomons achieved this effect, but somehow the dancers actually seemed one connected organism. And then, a nod to tradition: a pas de deux at the very end. A very modern pas de deux, but unmistakable all the same.

The second piece was yet another exquisite piece of beauty and humor by Olivier Wevers, whose new company Whim W’him premieres in January at On the Boards. The piece is called simply “Fragments,” and that is what it is: five brief vignettes set to Mozart arias. There are just two dancers, in this case a man and a woman. I learned beforehand, though, that Wevers originally set the piece for two women and it was interesting to see the ways the piece would be completely transformed by that decision, and the ways in which it would be exactly the same. Often playful and joyous, and at times deliciously silly—why not have your dancers occasionally scratch their armpits? Maybe they itch—a moment later gut-wrenching. The fourth piece, which was actually set to a very somber choral piece rather than an individual’s aria, was breath-taking, and I mean that literally. At one point I realized that I had slid to the edge of my seat and stopped breathing. Suddenly, after carelessly skipping around with the woman in his billowy pink pantaloons, the man stands alone before the audience with just one sharp footlight directed at him. He is now wearing only underwear and proceeds to perform the most tortuous movement I have ever seen a non-contortionist manage. The sense is clear: we are witnessing a soul in solitude and you feel both riveted and ashamed in the face of such brutal honesty. “Fragments” is beautifully Mozartian: this is art at its most spiritually cathartic and challenging, entirely classic and entirely now.

The third piece was the Surprise: the first half of “Le Sacre,” set to Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” or “Le Sacre du Printemps.” The completed piece will be performed next year, and I think I can safely say that it will be well worth seeing. It is set (so far) for six dancers. It is as difficult and unadvisable as ever to try to say what a piece of art is “about.” At the very least, “Le Sacre” portrays knowingly the bizarre mix of unwilled compulsion and emotional violence of sexual relationships. There is a main couple—a man and a woman—another woman who seems intent on pulling the first out of this very sexual encounter, and then three dancers who seem a kind of chorus. All of this to a two-piano version of Stravinsky’s percussive and sensual score. The sexuality was overt and, well, quite thrilling. But as much fun as sex is, the piece seems to say, there is always a frightening underlay to it. The second woman and the chorus echo this sense: they seem both to propel the young woman towards the sexual encounter, and to mourn and rage at it.

Byrd’s “MIA” (photo courtesy of
Spectrum Dance Theater)

The final two pieces were also by Byrd and they contrasted deliciously. “MIA,” set to music by the artist of the same name, is hilariously funny. If, like me, you adore classical and romantic ballet, you may find yourself averse to those who make fun of it. But if you ever, ever have the opportunity to see this piece, go, see it, laugh yourself silly, and admit that he has a point. And remember that there is absolutely everything to love about a pas de deux/dance-off between a prima ballerina in a travesty of a white ballet costume and a premier danseur in grass skirt tutu and ridiculous wig.

And though this may not have been the original order for the evening, “and their souls will understand…” was a spectacular finale. The dancers sit in, spring out of, and dance within a semi-circle of chairs facing the audience. Set to fado music, the dancers stomp, spin, perform solos for their seated companions, and then gather again to perform as a group the emotions of the individual stories being told. This is the history of a community lived out in body, sweat, and breath. It feels almost like community worship, but the worshipped here seems to be the stories of the various members of the community. The piece is both exhilarating and heart-breaking. Allison Keppel in particular performed superbly a solo that can only be described as the saddest memory in the world.

Overall this festival really is a unique opportunity. American cultural memory tends to veer from one extreme to another—either we can’t be bothered to remember what happened last year, or we’re obsessed with things created hundreds of years ago. This coming weekend has pieces stretching over more than thirty years: a Merce Cunningham piece from 1973, as well as four Byrd pieces choreographed anywhere from 1993 to 2005. Both Friday and Saturday night this past weekend were almost sold out, so if you’re interested I would act sooner rather than later.