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spectrum: farewell – a dramaturgical preview

Promo Pix for “Farewell” 
(photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, Zebra Visual)

 By Leslie Holleran

A Dramaturgical Look Inside “Farewell”
Farewell: A Fantastical Contemplation on America’s Relationship with China
The Moore Theatre
Thursday, February 18–Saturday, February 20
This week, Seattle Theatre Group presents “Farewell: A Fantastical Contemplation on America’s Relationship with China”—Spectrum Dance Theater’s latest work in its multi-year initiative, Beyond Dance: Promoting Awareness and Mutual Understanding (PAMU). Those who share the view that art can and should re-interpret familiar political and historical events (thereby offering a unique perspective on them) should not miss this show.
In “Farewell,” Spectrum’s artistic director and choreographer, Donald Byrd, takes the pivotal events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 as the starting point for examining commonalities between China’s and America’s recent histories.

Byrd uses the writing of exiled Chinese author Ma Jian as inspiration for Part I of “Farewell.” Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, published in 2008, tells the story of a young man who was shot in the head and paralyzed while leaving Tiananmen Square. He has lain in a waking coma ever since. One of the male dancers in “Farewell” plays a version of this character. He is often the only person lying down during a sequence or being led by another dancer.

Byrd’s choreography, evoking the student-led, anti-government resistance that occurred at Tiananmen Square more than 20 years ago, is accompanied by an original composition by second-generation Chinese-American composer Byron Au Yong. Byrd purposely chose to work with a composer with personal ties to the subject matter of the piece. However, Au Yong does not intend his work to be activism per se. In a videotaped interview posted on Spectrum’s web site, Au Yong says, “I’m a composer, not a politician. I’m a musician, not an activist.”
The instruments Au Yong incorporates include Chinese percussion—drums, symbols and gong; Chinese fiddle; cello; and a bicycle wheel whose spokes are plucked and strummed. According to Yong, live musicians will play the percussion parts of the score. However, due to technical difficulties involving the sound system at the Moore, the strings will be recorded. Overlaid on top of the music is another layer of sound as the dancers, representing the students, recite their grievances, such as, “Tell the world our demand is for greater democracy.”
At an open rehearsal on Tuesday, February 2, during which several sequences were shown, Byrd told the audience that the piece does not have a linear progression. In that way, it is more like a dream in which sequences randomly follow one another. He also said, “What I’m after is to give it a memory-scape. Some things pop out; some things recede.” And because so much information is presented simultaneously (both visually and aurally), Byrd pointed out that “what you see and what you get is dependent on where you are sitting.” For this production, the audience will be at close range to the performers: a specially constructed arena-type seating configuration will surround the stage on three sides, accommodating up to 375 people. The set will include large photojournalistic images. A portrait of Mao Zedong, China’s communist leader for almost 30 years (1949 to 1976), will hang at the back of the stage.
Byrd, who had played a prominent role in the first PAMU work as its narrator, plans a minor role for himself in “Farewell.” He intends to sit at the back of the stage and will provide simple directions to the dancers from there, such as “go” when they should start their next movements. This may serve to remind the audience that “Farewell” is not meant to be a factual account of previous events and the strong ties between two world powers, but rather a fantastical contemplation of them.