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spectrum: festival – weekend #3 – review

By Terra Leigh Bell

(photo courtesy of Spectrum Dance Theater)

I was born in Seattle, and I’m terribly defensive of Seattle culture. So in all honesty, when Donald Byrd first came to Seattle from NEW YORK (i.e., land of knowledge and culture, vicious art critics and uncomfortable, overpriced fashion), I was the teensiest bit irritated that I was expected to be excited. I have nothing against NEW YORK. Never been there; no interest. I do have something against all of the people who seem to think that we in Seattle—on another coast, with a different geography, a different local history, a different ethnic makeup—should take our cultural cues from a certain city because it’s, well, NEW YORK (note that this should be said with a tone of awe and incomprehension). I had never seen any of Byrd’s work, and the expectation seemed to be that I and all of my dance friends would fall all over ourselves only because of the city he was hailing from.

But I think I can at least tell when I should pay attention. Because whatever city he’s hailed from, Donald Byrd has given Seattle a contemporary dance company to be reckoned with. I am a great adorer of Pacific Northwest Ballet, but it is still a ballet company, and I for one would like it to remain so. Spectrum is modern. Spectrum, under Byrd, is edgy. And it’s strong. Byrd’s choreography is incredibly high-caliber work, so while he may have come here from New York, I for one am glad that he’s here to stay for awhile.

My only regret this past weekend was that four of the six pieces were only excerpts, one of which was a repeat from the previous weekend due to an injury. The company performed “Bhangra Fever,” which is an exhilarating piece set to incredibly danceable Indian-influenced music. And when I say it was exhilarating and danceable, I mean it was very hard not to join the dancers. What we saw was just the final section to a much longer dance which I was lucky enough to see in its entirety at PNB’s Northwest Dance Festival in 2007. Another very short piece, a solo from “Scorched,” disappointed only in how tantalizing it was. The performer—Kelly Ann Barton—was both flawless and slightly terrifying. Barton particularly impresses me because, while she is not a very tall dancer, she manages to grip the audience’s attention just as much as her taller fellows. Her energy is ravishing, but her technique is beyond impressive. Everything is precise, everything well-balanced when that is called for, and a barely-in-control off-kilter when appropriate. She is a very, very brave dancer, and that is always exciting to watch.

The company also performed “Quartet,” which was part of the lineup last weekend. You can check it out in the posting on October 21st. In all honesty, some of the dancers seemed a little tired, although Ty Alexander Cheng seemed to actually project even more energy this week. Emotionally this is a very challenging piece, as it demands both physical rigor and an expressiveness that can be difficult to balance. Cheng seemed much more involved with his partner this weekend (the lovely Ms. Barton again), which was a delight to see.

The second half of the evening was simply electric. Excerpts from “Tantric Voices” were a lovely combination of intellectual and gorgeous. This piece was choreographed for Spectrum in 2004 by Thaddeus Davis, a former dancer with Donald Byrd/The Group. Tantra, often over-simplified in the West to being about sex, is a philosophy which embraces physical existence as a way to reach higher levels of consciousness. All very woo-woo, I know, but the interpretation here was simple and clear: sensual, integrated movement that had the dancers actually smiling (goodness, is that allowed?). One by one the dancers disappear from the stage – but not by going “off-stage.” They exit by the same door the audience entered by. After dancing with each other, they run at top speed towards a light, and are gone. I don’t want to beat on interpretation’s drums too much, but one could hardly fail to notice that this was also the door that we would all leave by shortly.

“White Man Sleep,” choreographed by Byrd in 2002 in response to the September 11th attacks, was heartbreaking. Emotionally, of course, this is an already wrenching subject and I suppose elucidates the connection the rest of the country has to New York. The second witness’s solo felt more in response to the death and destruction itself, while the first witness seemed to be acting out the murderous sleep that most of the developed world suffers from.

And I know that one is inclined to remember the last thing seen most strongly, but the final piece was at the very least one of my favorites of the festival. Byrd’s “Klavierstücke” was choreographed in 2008 to Brahms’ eponymous music. The dancers’ costumes were a charming mix of 19th century frills and vests, lace and satin, and a simple but clear echo of the piano itself with their simply black and white palette. The movement as well seemed to at times take its cues from the Romanticism of the music, and at other times from the body of the piano.

“Klavierstücke,” both Byrd’s choreography and the Brahms music, is episodic in character and somehow manages to be both concrete and conceptual. There is much melancholy here – an almost wistful sadness. In fact, Byrd has integrated the movement with the music so well that I think it would be difficult to discuss them separately.

And can I really offer a choreographer a higher compliment than that? Even if he is from NEW YORK…