Mayor’s Arts Awards: Donald Byrd

Photo by Jennifer Richard.

For a reason why Donald Byrd is receiving a Mayor’s Arts Award this year, one need only to look at the fall arts calendar.

Not only is the artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater staging a performance of The Beast, a piece created by the choreographer and praised in The New York Times as “powerful” and “meaningful”; Byrd is also largely responsible for bringing the Merce Cunningham Legacy Tour to Seattle this October. The organizers had originally planned on skipping Seattle but had a change of heart after Byrd petitioned them to visit the late Cornish School dance student’s artistic birthplace. A noble gesture, especially for an artist who isn’t even from Seattle.

Byrd move to the city nine years ago to take over the artistic directorship of Spectrum after spending the previous 25 years working in New York, where he had his own company, Donald Byrd/The Group.

“Seattle drove me crazy at first,” he recalls, “but I’ve stuck it out. Either I’ve figured out how to maneuver inside whatever the driving you crazy thing is, or I’ve become immune or I’m in denial.”

Since the move he has turned the former jazz-dance group into an adventurous modern dance troupe and raised the company’s profile, all while helping continue the 29-year-old institution’s mission to bring dance to the larger community through classes that attract more than 500 students every week.

Between his work in Spectrum, major dance companies including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Spectrum, he has created more than 80 works. He continues to work with arts organizations around the world, but always brings his work, and the lessons it teaches him about his art, back to Seattle. This October, Byrd will travel to Jerusalem where he will take part in a newly created arts fellowship. He plans to return with a work-in-progress about the struggles for peace in the Middle East, as well as some wisdom regarding the struggles for artist in the Pacific Northwest.

“In terms of art and culture activity, Jerusalem has kind of the same dilemma Seattle often has,” he says. “Very interesting artists will leave Jerusalem and move to Tel Aviv to do their work because they feel the environment is more supportive of what they do and it’s not so hostile. So, I’m really interested in the people there who are attempting to create an environment in Jerusalem so artists will stay, and come to, and generate more artistic activity, because I think that something could be learned from that that could be applied here. Because here in Seattle, we lose people to New York all the time, especially performing artists. “

Spectrum performs M.I.A. and Euclidean Space as part of Bumbershoot, Saturday Sept. 3 at 2:30 p.m.