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Visitors crowd along the walls of a gallery in the Frye Art Museum, sitting and standing around a raised platform stage in the center. They filter in from the other galleries of the exhibit The America That Is To Be, which contain performance clips, interviews, and costumes from the course of Donald Byrd’s 40-year career as an award-winning international choreographer. This retrospective showcases the complex political and social problems to which Byrd has responded through movement, highlighting the versatility of his use of multiple techniques and vocabularies to reflect the diversity of the country.

The four short dances performed in the gallery, however, are oriented towards personal relationships and emotions, rather than overtly connected to social issues. Performed by strong, technical dancers from Spectrum Dance Theater, where Byrd has been Artistic Director since 2002, the dances’ power instead lies in how deceptively simple they are; gorgeous lines and technical partner work belie complex relationships, concepts, and compositions that thrum under the beautiful surface of the work. The selection of Byrd works starts with a poetic, lovely duet and ends with a dance brimming with restless energy.

One might be lulled into easy, passive viewing by the gentleness of the first piece; it feels like a traditional pas de deux with modern influences, set to a jazz piano piece. But the two dancers are equal partners, sharing partnering roles as they push and pull each other and share weight. There is a lovely moment when one dancer has her head pressed to the other’s back so that neither can really see each other; they slowly move their legs and feet in sync, having to feel the other’s intention to stay together. The movement through this dance has both a softness and an intention to it, strength without intensity, that reveals a sense of mutual trust between dancers. The second dance feels very symmetrical, with another pair of dancers pulling towards and away from each other like magnets. Their shapes wrap around each other in space, the follow-through of hands and arms light and airy, and the dancers exude joy as they circle one another.

In-gallery performance as part of Donald Byrd: The America That Is To Be , October 12, 2019— January
26, 2020 at the Frye Art Museum. Performers: Mikhail Calliste, Blair Jolly Elliot. © Marcia Davis.

Byrd progressively ups the ante with each dance, though, requiring more and more attentiveness from the audience as the compositions become more complex. The third dance is a duet featuring the dancers from the first piece, consisting of a central movement phrase which repeats over the course of the dance. In each pass through the phrase, they pick up the pace and add in layers of detail, combining slow, wringing movements with quick flicks and flourishes of the hands, feet, and hips. One dancer reacts more and more agitatedly and abruptly to the other’s touch, creating a sense of anxiety and irritability, and grudging obligation to a relationship.

The last dance is a trio, with one dancer wriggling, full of floppy arms and bouncing shoulders; another dancer migrates between partnering each of the other two, activating two relationships that progressively become more intertwined. The piano music in this is full of riffs and trills, mirrored by the wild lightness of the movement, and the piece comes to a close with a grounding exhale. The personal, intimate nature of these four live dances is a welcome, if somewhat surprising, change from the intensely political themes of the works featured in the rest of the exhibit. These second two pieces brim with a tension and restlessness that demonstrate Byrd’s understanding that the personal is as vital as the political.  

 In-gallery performance as part of Donald Byrd: The America That Is To Be , October 12, 2019— January
26, 2020 at the Frye Art Museum. Performers: Leo Rose Reich,  Nathanaël Santiago, Jaclyn Wheatley. ©
Marcia Davis.

In the rest of the exhibit, short snippets of work from the course of Byrd’s career play on loop on screens throughout the galleries, but it’s difficult to stick around to watch them all play out. In comparison, it’s refreshing in a museum setting to be invited to sit down and watch a live performance all the way through. To be able to notice the details, to hear breath cues, to feel dancers’ energy and emotions, and to not necessarily have all the contextual information. The performance had no program, just the experience of watching dancers move. I’m usually underwhelmed by displays of archival dance footage in museums—they’re just not as engaging as authentic objects. Engaging, dimensional performances tend to become flat on screen, even those enriched by the Frye’s descriptive explanatory text. Dance-centric exhibits are incredibly rare, and the Frye has done a fantastic job of curating and contextualizing Byrd’s career, showcasing the breadth of his work, and making it accessible to visitors who may not be as familiar with his import and impact in the dance world. Dance is so personal, so physical, though, that nothing beats this kind of performance, which gathers visitors together and presents them with real dancers, up close, living, breathing, taking up the same space as the viewer. The subtle, lyrical complexity that Byrd weaves into these four dances would be lost, or at least harder to pick out, onscreen; in-person, live, onstage, they demand our attention, and I’m glad to give it.

Donald Byrd/The Group. The Harlem Nutcracker, 1997. Performers: Brian Harlan Brooks, Elizabeth Parkinson, Raymell Jamison, Wendy Sasser. Photo © Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. 

The America That Is To Be is on view at the Frye Art Museum through January 26; performances run Tuesdays/Fridays at 12 p.m. and Saturdays/Sundays at 3 p.m.