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Editorial: Spectrum’s Miraculous Mandarin Controversy

Written by Sandra Kurtz

Spectrum dancers in Donald Byrd’s Miraculous MandarinPhoto by Nate Watters 
I never met the dance critic Walter Terry—his tenure at the New York Herald Tribune and the Saturday Review predates my time—but I’ve always loved the anthology of his criticism, as much for its title, “I Was There,” as for any of its individual reviews.  Bottom line, that’s what critics do—they are there, witnesses to whatever is happening in the theater at that moment. 

Last Thursday, I wasn’t there. 

I’d planned to see Spectrum Dance Theater’s production of The Miraculous Mandarin on Saturday night, combining it with the lecture at the Wing Luke and a collection of personal errands.  Thursday night I was elsewhere, and so when I got the notice on Friday that the rest of the run of Mandarin was being cancelled I was dismayed.

There’s another one I’m not going to see.

I spend a significant part of my dance life thinking about, speculating about, dreaming about works I’m never going to see.  Louis XIV in Le Ballet de la Nuit, Martha Graham in her Letter to the World, opening night of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps,  Isadora Duncan in anything.  Likewise Doris Humphrey, Kurt Jooss, and Tamara Karsavina, not to mention a whole catalog of indigenous dances that I can only see in tourist versions.  So I get frustrated when I can’t see something that I really had a chance at, like this production of Mandarin.

I suppose we should have expected as much—Bartok’s original score for the work was barely performed in his lifetime, having been banned by various government and social authorities because they considered it offensive or degenerate.  For a tiny moment on Friday I thought perhaps this was all part of some meta-theatrical event, and the cancellation was a deliberate attempt to echo the past.  But as much as Spectrum artistic director, Donald Byrd, loves to push the edge of every project, this was not a carefully planned device—this was just a mess.  Someone in the hierarchy of sponsors and supporters had a big enough objection to the work that the presenter pulled the plug.

This is where everything gets complicated, and it’s important to remember that we don’t know all the details.  The best thing we can do is assume good intentions from everyone involved. 

Although Spectrum often presents itself in its MadronaDanceCenter home, for this show they were working with Storefront Seattle, a group that puts art in empty storefronts and other commercial spaces.  Spectrum first performed Byrd’s choreography for Mandarin in 2006 at the Moore Theatre, but for this staging they were looking for a more adventurous setting, one that could reinforce some of the voyeuristic aspects of the work.  Storefront Seattlehad spaces that needed artwork and Spectrum had a dance that needed a home—it would seem like a perfect fit.

The original scenario for Mandarin was full of violence and seduction—a pair of highway robbers use a prostitute to lure their victims, but are stymied by an “Oriental mystic” (the Mandarin of the title) who can withstand any abuse until he earns the love of the whore, and then dies.  Byrd’s staging is set in the contemporary world of prostitution and drug dealing, but the fundamentals of death and redemption are the same.  His characters live in a harsh environment, and he shows it to us pretty directly.

By putting the performers in a store window, and having the audience watch them from outside on the sidewalk, this version of Mandarin sits much closer to the real world it emulates, but it also puts those harsh realities on display for anyone walking by.  And since some of those bystanders might be small children, according to Storefront Seattle’s policies, any work they present must be appropriate for kids as young as 5. 

At this point there are several different interpretations of the situation.  Since Mandarinwas an existing work, and had a lengthy rehearsal process for this staging, should Storefront Seattle have known what they were getting long before the opening night?  And since Storefront Seattle apparently makes its content restrictions clear from the outset, should Spectrum have realized that their work wasn’t necessarily “family friendly?”  Or is the actual truth somewhere in between these competing claims?

However they got to that place, it seems like there should be some other solution to the difficulty than just saying “no.”  Again, we don’t know what negotiations may have happened, but it’s hard to believe that cancellation was the best option everyone could find.  Dance has often made people uncomfortable, sex has often made people uncomfortable, and dances about sex have often made people really uncomfortable, but that’s the job of art. 

In the infinitely revisable world of the Internet, both organizations have made initial statements, and are currently (that is, as of Thursday night) revising them to re-publish soon.  And if we’re lucky they will have found some way to cooperate on a revised performance structure as well, so that those of us who were not there for the opening/closing night might have a chance to see what all the fuss was about.

In the meantime, writer Brendan Kiley, who—like Walter Terry—was there, has been posting in The Stranger’s Slog about the work, and its penumbra of controversy.  Hopefully, he won’t have seen the only performance.

Spectrum link

Storefront Seattle link

The Slog