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Spectrum Explores Struggle for Justice, Freedom

Spectrum dancer Cara May Marcus
Photo by Nate Watters


Contained for an entire evening behind a barbed-wire fence, Spectrum Dance Theater performed Artistic Director Donald Byrd’s A Cruel New World/the new normal at Emerald City Trapeze on April 11–13, 2013. The first piece that Byrd set on the company when he became director ten years ago, this performance is choreographically the same as the original, but updated in “context, focus and shape.”
The trapeze studio’s massive wooden-warehouse created a perfect setting for the prison state of Byrd’s creation. In this  “new world” displaced Americans live in vast refugee camps as a result of ongoing terrorist attacks. As the lights (designed by Rico Chiarelli) came up on the space, the dancers rose eerily from crouched positions. Dressed in orange prison uniforms designed by Doris Black, they looked outward with steely gazes. Meanwhile, the booming strains of the American National anthem rang out, glorious and strong. The program also included music by cornetist, trumpeter, and composer, Graham Haynes.
Watching from the other side of the chain-link, the audience saw the work unfold like a scene from a movie. Using words, pedestrian gestures, and highly-technical movement, the work required the performers to not only be dancers, but actors, as well. As no one ever left the stage, the show rolled on like one continuous take with little scenes and vignettes that often occurred simultaneously. The audience truly felt as if they were part of the dancers’ struggle, desperation, and quest for freedom.

Spectrum dancers
Photo by Nate Watters
In between dancing, threats and cuss words were thrown across the room. Choreography was used to create raucous fights and steamy inmate sex scenes, all typical activities in this 24/7 dystopian world. Particularly innovative was the way Byrd wove gesture, as well as krumping and hip-hop movements, into vignettes of group dancing. His use of repetition also proved effective. In the beginning, the dancers ran laps in a military fashion. The running appeared again at the end, but, instead of looking straight-ahead, they looked up above themarms raised and flapping, as if asking God himself for salvation.

The inspiration for Cruel New World is complex: it’s part post-9/11 dystopia, and part Byrd’s reaction to his new surroundings when he first came to Spectrum. The piece comes across largely as a commentary on the hypocrisy, hidden evils, and irony of living in “the land of the free.” The audience tasted much of this in the dancers’ speaking throughout the show. “Why should my chromosomes determine my marriage license or my salary?” asked Shadou Mintrone. Grasping the chain-link fence, she leered out at the audience, speaking directly to those watching. “Hey, I’m talking to you,” dancer Kate Monthy barked at the audience, saying she wasn’t an anarchist or a socialist. With a fiendish look in her eyes she rang out, “I’m an American!”
Byrd explained his personal inspiration for the piece in his director’s note:
Surprisingly, on my arrival at Spectrum and in Seattle, I had been greeted with unexpected hostilities from various camps at Spectrum and around town that stunned and dismayed me. This ‘new world’ I had entered seemed hostile and often cruel. I felt isolated and alone. I responded with not only focused determination to survive and to succeed but also with anger. This became my norm –to meet the hostilities of this new world with aggressive anger and rage.
Regardless of Byrd’s own views and experiences, watching Cruel New World is undeniably stirring and poignant. The work feels relevant, in an age where too often, status quo and protocol seem to trump personal freedom. Yet the piece is non-specific enough that it allows each audience member to reflect on the facets of justice that resonated with him or her.
Donald Jones, Jr. and Jade Solomon Curtis
Photo by Nate Watters
Byrd’s dancers (especially this show’s standouts: Mintrone, Cara-May Marcus, and Jade Solomon Curtis), provide more than enough physical capabilities and emotional depth to cater to all of Byrd’s creative genius. Yet, at times, he showcases the dancers’ exceptional facilities to a fault. Battement and athletic leg extensions are central to his contemporary movement style, even by ballet standards. While this piece contained many of the same acrobatics, the work was nuanced, provocative, and full of dynamic changes. Exceptional artists who bared their souls on stage combined with a choreographer willing to share his inner-demons made it a triumphant night for Spectrum. The audience truly felt as if they were experiencing, rather than watching.  
Spectrum’s next show,the world premiere of An Autopsy of Love, opens June 20, 2013.  To learn more visit