Donald Byrd is the provocative choreographer at the helm of Spectrum Dance Theater whose decorated history includes work with legends such as Twyla Tharp and Alvin Ailey. Olivier Wevers is former principal ballet dancer for Pacific Northwest Ballet and the choreographer behind the breakout local company Whim W’Him. The two sat down to talk about mentorship, movement and the impossibility of perfection.
DONALD We met when I came to Seattle to do a work for Pacific Northwest Ballet. It was your first season with the company. It was in 1997, before it ever even occurred to me that I could live in Seattle.
OLIVIER That was the first time I ever came into contact with your work. Your work is so great—charged with a lot of ideas. I love that there’s always a message behind it. It says something. There’s a purpose, there’s research behind it.
DONALD Sometimes when I do all of this purposeful movement I get a little tired of it and I want to go create something just for the movement. That can be hard for me—to just do dance for dance’s sake. There’s always something underneath it.
I came to dance after a theatre background, actually. In college I studied theater history and theory and criticism. So that is a very important part of how I think of things. Intentionality in movement is very important.
OLIVIER What I find very inspiring in your work is that it’s not just movement for the sake of movement. The dancers are not just objects. Dance shouldn’t just be visual, pleasing and beautiful—it should have much more to it. Intention. That’s important to me. My dancers don’t just represent my work, they have to represent themselves out there. They are human. They have a soul. And that has to show through the work. They don’t need to be identical and perfect.
DONALD Neither of us will take any generic dancer. We take into consideration who is dancing, what they bring to the piece, and we utilize that. Even though you’ve spent most of your career in North America, your sensibility is not completely North American. It’s very much influenced by European sensibilities in dance, especially contemporary ballet and contemporary work in general. It’s very much influenced by a humanistic quality, not just an abstraction. These are human beings who are expressing themselves through a stylized movement language but it is a language that is designed to say or communicate something.
You and I both value dancers that are highly trained. Most of them come from a classically based place. And most of those dancers are from the ballet, and Spectrum has the same kind of dancers but with more of a contemporary slant. But the values in terms of the technical ability and expressiveness are similar. So in some ways the community of dancers we interact with is really a small group within what’s already a small group of dancers in Seattle.
OLIVIER I came here [from Brussels] to dance and then I fell in love with the city. I call it home now. There’s a great community behind the work here. I suspect you experience that, too. There are a lot of die-hard Spectrum supporters.
DONALD The thing I like about Seattle is that it’s kind of on the edge of the world a little bit. It’s isolated. I’m productive here because I don’t have the same kind of distractions that I had in New York. I was productive in New York, but I mostly felt more productive than actually being productive because I was always doing a lot. But about half of that energy was just me spinning my wheels. Here I find myself much more able to actually produce things.
OLIVIER There’s so much to learn from your work. You always reinvent yourself—it’s always different, always new.
DONALD You have to have an independence of thinking. Artists rarely talk to each other. You talk about each other, but—you’re trying to protect how you see the world. You want to know what’s going on, but you don’t want to be too influenced by other people’s perspectives. If somebody says something great, you say, “Thank you very much,” and you appreciate it. It has no effect on the work that I do. But that’s not something that comes instantly.
OLIVIER You’re talking about fragility. As artists we isolate ourselves because we’re so fragile and we put everything on the line. When you choreograph you have all those dancers who give themselves to the work, and then the work is out there and people are going to have an opinion.
DONALD I am going to be very honest—I have a lot of respect for your talent. I value your talent, so in some ways I feel like I am a protector of your talent and so what I want from you is to always be working at the highest levels where that talent is always on display at its most pure. In some ways I feel like a parent with you. You know how parents can be very supportive and also very disapproving? I go back and forth. Sometimes I say, “Yes I approve of that.” I get self-righteous. And other times I’m the same kind of self-righteousness, but the negative side of it. But the real point is that I support your talent and the possibility of what it holds as it develops, which is why I always support you.
There was a woman, Betty Walhberg, an associate of Jerome Robbins. When I first started choreographing, she was very kind and generous to me and put a lot of opportunities in front of me that sometimes I squandered. One day she took me out for a drink and she said to me, “You have been fucking up.” She was almost 70 at this point, and I was 28 or something. She said, “I don’t care about you, but I care about your talent, and you have a responsibility to your talent.” And that’s how I feel about you. You have a responsibility to your talent, and I want to support that. In some ways that’s what community really is. And I think that’s a role that I can play.
OLIVIER I can feel it.
DONALD You feel it?
OLIVIER Yes, I feel it. You were also the person who gave me an opportunity early on when I hadn’t done much, and you nominated me for the Princess Grace [a $10,000 grant Wevers received in 2011.] So I have that sense of a mentor from you. And I have that fear—when I do something and you’re there, I really hope you approve.
DONALD Feedback is interesting. You have to wait until it’s the right time to say things to an artist. I think because a lot of dancers are so young they don’t have the skill set to know when to say things. I’m one of the older choreographers in Seattle and my hope is that you’re still doing this in 20 years.
OLIVIER I hope so too!
DONALD The first couple times you came in—and you tell me if you think this is true—I think there was an affinity for contemporary movement that you didn’t know you had until you worked with dancers who are not ballet dancers all the time, and you saw that these dancers move differently, so it kind of opened up possibilities. I’ve found that you use these opportunities not only to explore things for yourself, but also to give something to the dancers as well.
OLIVIER Yes, I agree. To me it’s important that it’s a collaboration, working with the artists. The experience they’re getting—sometimes I upset the dancers and if they feel disappointed in the process, I feel that I’ve failed them.
DONALD I was drawn to dancing because as a young person I was very verbal and I could talk my way in and out of anything. In dance, even more so than classical music, either you did the double pirouette or you didn’t. There was no “I didn’t do it because I didn’t eat this morning.” It had an absoluteness about it that I loved. Dancing taught me to shut up.
DONALD I’m serious! It taught me to just shut up and do the tendu for God’s sake. Just be quiet and do the work. The transition to choreography was where all the interests I’ve had in my life came together. There were ideas, there was physical beauty and expressiveness. I started choreographing at the age of 27. Before that I had no interest in choreographing and then one day I woke up and I just did.
OLIVIER I am the total opposite. I’m very internal and so as a child I had two brothers and I was the one who was isolated.
OLIVIER No, middle. And so that was my escape, my way of being able to express myself. And getting into choreography was about realizing that as a dancer I was not perfect. I never thought I was able to create something beautiful and perfect. Now I have this outside role, which is to look at someone and guide them about how they can look a certain way. Some of my choreography—like the sickle feet—comes from the way I felt I was held back in ballet. I love doing that. With the right intention, there’s something beautiful and human about it, and you can’t do that in ballet. Now I come to this outside role in which I can accomplish something without being in that body. I never trusted myself and I never felt like I was perfect and accomplished. I think I trust myself more as a choreographer. As a dancer, the older I got the less I trusted myself, the more horrible I felt I was as I grew older. And now it’s more free. I feel so much happier with myself and comfortable with myself.
DONALD Yes. A lot of dancing is about focusing on imperfection. Because perfect is always there in the background and you look in the mirror and all you see are the imperfections. No matter what people say to you, you go, “Thank you,” but what you really want to say is, “There’s this and this wrong…”
OLIVIER I messed up my pirouette.
DONALD Exactly. I messed up my pirouette, so-and-so has a better arabesque than I do, their legs go higher.
OLIVIER And then all you get is correction.
OLIVIER They tell you, “You need to go faster, slow down” and you get all the negative.
DONALD I think that’s true for everybody. But some people thrive on it. Some people don’t ever want to stop dancing because once they get on stage something happens that’s pretty remarkable. Some people don’t want to confront that imperfection. Not in a way you can’t do something about. I can’t change my feet.
OLIVIER It’s been a huge learning experience.
DONALD For a vibrant dance community you need a combination of things. You need people who maybe only work once a year but there are other things they do. Then you have people who aspire to institutionalize things, and then you have the big organizations like PNB. There is support, but I wish there was more support. One of the things I think of often here: There is the ballet community and there is the dance community.
OLIVIER It’s funny because each community has their devil word. For example, some dancers see ballet as a bad word, and it’s the same thing for some ballet dancers who will never go and see modern contemporary dance here. And that’s hard for me to understand. People always ask me, too, “Do you do ballet?” and I say, “I just do dance.” I’m still using pointe shoes but I’m also using bare feet and socks. It’s just a label that people are putting on something.
Photo by Steven Miller.