Sitting across from Donald Byrd for the first time evokes senses both foreign and familiar. His face is a wall. His eyes are warm but don’t bother to hide that he’s assessing whether or not you’re someone he can let in. His body occupies space in a way that reveals his background in dance and theatre. With chestnut brown skin, gray hair and spectacles that slide down his face professorially, Byrd’s presence and cadence in speech confer immediately that he’s a man who holds himself in high esteem.
It’s late February and we’re nestled inside a booth at the Virginia Inn just after the opening night of DANCE, DANCE, DANCE, a trio of works presented at the Moore Theatre as part of Spectrum Dance Theater’s two-week festival Making the Invisible Visible. Byrd drinks coffee (cream, no sugar) despite the clock nearing 11 p.m. When he’s in the process of creating he gets very little sleep.
DANCE, DANCE, DANCE, the second show of Spectrum’s 2015/2016 season, showcased three pieces of Byrd’s choreography: 1992’s frantic, high-energy “Drastic Cuts Pt. 1”; a new work called “Geekspeak” with movement and music matched to the disjointedness brought on by hyper-connectivity; and 1997’s “Jazz 1,” with original music by late jazz drummer Max Roach, Byrd’s longtime friend.
Before the performance, Byrd sat alone near the front of a dimly lit room and engaged a small group of spectators in a pre-show discussion. He illuminated his notes with his Blackberry and explained to the older, predominantly white audience how the iconic choreographer George Balanchine’s ballets were often influenced by the African aesthetic. The raison d’être behind the Making the Invisible Visible festival is to explore the unacknowledged contributions African Americans have made to this country’s artistic landscape.
There aren’t many choreographers who can call on Roach, Vernon Reid (of Living Colour), Wynton Marsalis and Geri Allen to create music specifically for a dance piece but Byrd has that pull. It’s part of what makes him the rare and intriguing arts persona in Seattle, one whose national reputation is at times larger than the organization he represents.
Byrd has spent the past 13 years as Spectrum’s much celebrated and occasionally maligned artistic director—and he has more on the line this year than perhaps ever before. Under his creative vision, Spectrum named this season #RACEish, “an exploration of America’s 240 years of (failed) race relations.” It’s a bold undertaking for a contemporary dance company. But if anyone in this city—or arguably the country—considers himself up to the task, it’s Donald Byrd.
This month at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Spectrum debuts A Rap on Race, a dance-theatre piece based on a highly charged two-day conversation that took place in 1970 between African American novelist James Baldwin and anthropologist Margaret Mead. It’s designed to show the different ways blacks and whites discuss race in America. Byrd himself plays Baldwin.
Given the poignancy of racism in Baldwin’s essays and novels, Byrd’s upbringing makes him a solid choice to portray the prolific writer. He grew up in the Deep South. Born in North Carolina and raised in Clearwater, Fla., he remembers segregation vividly. Colored drinking fountains, colored buses, he remembers. He didn’t attend his first integrated school until college. Thus like Baldwin, his blackness and his toughness are intertwined.
“James Baldwin in A Rap on Race is every thinking black person,” he says. “Every thinking black person is in pain.”
The season closer for #RACEish in July is The Minstrel Show Revisited, a remount of the seminal 1991 work that earned Byrd a Bessie Award. It features characters in blackface and is intended to shock, confront and disrupt audiences while examining historical racism and examining the present day murders of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Last fall, Byrd took The Minstrel Show Revisited to New York University for a performance and the school’s Black Student Union protested, lobbying the university to cancel the show after learning characters would appear in blackface. In a conference call between Byrd and the school’s BSU, Byrd laid bare his intentions to put American racism on display—and the students relented, agreeing to lead the talk-back after the show.
“We’re using this season to take audiences on a journey,” Byrd, 66, says in between sips of coffee. “The idea is to talk about race in a vastly different way. The way we talk about race in this country is entirely too safe.” He pauses and smiles to himself. “I do confrontation really well.”
None of Byrd’s work is for entertainment’s sake only. He appears innately wired to educate audiences, subtly or provocatively, every chance he gets.
Byrd studied theatre in college, starting out at Yale before transferring to Tufts in Boston. In his 20s he became an accomplished actor and dancer, training under both Alvin Ailey and Merce Cunningham. He ran his own heralded company, Donald Byrd/The Group, from 1978–2002, based predominantly in New York City. The company was known for re-envisioning classical 19th century ballets and performing imaginative tributes to jazz legends while remixing modern and street dance. Reviews from that era were mixed but Byrd’s unabashed desire to create daring work was unwavering.
To date, he’s choreographed more than 100 works, including several for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In 2006 his choreography for the Broadway musical The Color Purple earned him a Tony nomination and his Harlem Nutcracker, which toured nationally, transformed the traditional ballet into a story of black excellence. He is one of the biggest names in contemporary dance to call Seattle home over the past 25 years.
In some regards Byrd fits within the pantheon of August Wilson, Octavia Butler and Jacob Lawrence— highly accomplished black artists with a well-established pedigree for excellence in their work who, for one reason or another, chose to call Seattle home after moving here in their 50s. Byrd is aiming to do the best work of his career here, but his temperament and creative genius haven’t always been an easy fit in this city.
“Seattle was not willing to embrace me,” Byrd admits a bit reluctantly. “There are people here that did, but it’s not completely unconditional. Not as a community.”
Vivian Phillips, director of marketing and communications for STG and a longtime community arts advocate, says that when Byrd first moved to Seattle, people didn’t know what to expect. “There was this schizophrenia about being ecstatic that he was here and then fearing that Seattle wouldn’t meet his expectations, and he wouldn’t stay, and that led to a kind of indifference,” she says.
When he accepted the contract to join Spectrum in 2002, Byrd himself didn’t know if he’d stay; he chose to live out of a hotel room for the first six months he was in Seattle.
Moving from New York City shortly after the September 11th attacks was jarring. Byrd lived only four blocks from Ground Zero and watched as a hijacked plane slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. In 2003 he created A CRUEL NEW WORLD/the new normal as a response to landing in Seattle as a bit of an uncategorized refugee. Arriving as a big fish in a vibrant but at times insular dance community was more of a challenge than he anticipated.
“He’s brilliant and he won’t compromise his brilliance or expectations to be accepted,” Phillips says.
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Spectrum, which was founded in1982, is experiencing its highest visibility to date under Byrd’s tutelage, gaining recognition nationally and internationally. Roughly two-thirds of all grant funding for contemporary dance goes to groups located in New York, yet among U.S. contemporary dance organizations with a resident company, a school and outreach programs, Spectrum ranks inside the top 20 based on its budget size. There are currently 11 dancers in the company.
Spectrum’s dance school, which enrolls some 600 kids annually, accepts dancers of all body types, which is vastly different than standard ballet. Spectrum is currently shifting its focus to reach more underserved youth throughout the city. They’ve also helped form a Seattle Equity in Arts Coalition with other organizations around town with similar budgets—NAAM, Town Hall, Intiman Theatre, the Wing Luke Museum and Earshot Jazz—working to turn verbal commitment into action.
Spectrum’s board of directors went through a slight upheaval two years ago because Byrd’s artistic vision and the organization’s need to fill seats were at odds. New voices joined the board, including longtime art and philanthropy figure Sue Coliton, formerly the vice president of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
“I’ve been profoundly moved by the quality of [Byrd’s] work, not just the formal quality, the muscularity of his forms, which are incredible, but also the rich content embedded in his choreography,” Coliton says. “I first saw his work in the late ’90s when I was working for the National Endowment for the Arts and I’ve followed it ever since because of the power of the topics that he explores, from domestic violence to political issues to racism. Those beautiful artistic forms coupled with powerful, timely content make his work unique.”
High intelligence and brusque communication often go hand in hand. Byrd knows what he wants—from his dancers and from Spectrum’s staff and board—and he’s unapologetically committed to his vision for dance that challenges audiences to think harder.
“Donald is nothing compared to, say, Jeff Bezos or [Bill] Gates or Steve Jobs,” says Spectrum board president Russel Stromberg II. “We accept their behavior. Donald’s gruffness is held to a different standard.”
Spend enough time around Byrd and you’ll notice he’s also charming and playful, with a wry way of evoking laughter with his frankness. Given his age, Byrd’s grumpiness is just that. This is also Seattle, where common black patterns of speech are sometimes mislabeled as rude that would be received with more understanding elsewhere. As long as the dancers in his company are doing what he expects there isn’t a problem. Conflicts only arise when that’s not happening.
“I think probably the thing that’s the hardest for me—I don’t understand people that don’t focus the same way I did,” Byrd says. “So I have to practice being compassionate in terms of, everybody’s not like me. They don’t think the way I do.”
Byrd’s relationship to his dancers is itself a delicate dance. During the pre-show discussion in February, a guest asked what Byrd’s dancers need to understand in his work. Byrd’s answer spoke volumes: “I often ask things of dancers who, if they are faint of heart, wouldn’t work for them.”
Spectrum dancer Tilly Evans-Krueger says working with Byrd is intense. “He pushes us in every way he can,” she says during a talk-back. “Emotionally, physically, his expectations are high.” Jamal Story, formerly a dancer with Donald Byrd/The Group, tells tales of dancers falling out at times and crying, from exhaustion and Byrd’s critiques. Former Spectrum dancer Jade Solomon-Curtis worked with the company for four seasons until September of 2015 and knows firsthand how challenging it can be.
“Donald’s work is extremely difficult,” she tells me by phone. “He has to go in and train each dancer in a way that truly captures his voice. You don’t just walk in the door and get his work. It took me six months to a year to understand.”
His approach works. Spectrum’s reputation is world-class.
In March, Byrd and his company were invited by the U.S. State Department to spend two weeks in Argentina as cultural ambassadors. He’s previously taken the company on trips to Bangladesh and Israel to bridge with other global communities while delivering needed social commentary. He’s elevating Spectrum’s presence and creating opportunities for his dancers—but that’s not the only impact he’s having.
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On a sunny afternoon in March, seven spry teenagers stand at attention inside Spectrum’s main dance studio, awaiting instruction from Byrd. Byrd sits wearing Adidas track pants, a blue hoodie, an olive-colored beanie and Nike shoes with the backs folded down into slippers. During the 90-minute class Byrd rarely smiles, forgoing pleasantries and demanding the best of these high school students. He eases tension by making his students laugh at his subtle jokes even as he’s correcting their mistakes.
It’s rare for a choreographer of Byrd’s caliber to spend evenings teaching 14-year-olds the fundamentals of ballet. For 35 years, he’s been an in-demand dance instructor at major universities around the world. But working with young people has softened him.
“I know they’re not professionals yet,” he says. “I know they aren’t at that level. The thing is to push them but not to discourage them. I think they know where I’m coming from in wanting them to succeed. I have a lot of affection for them. I also have really high expectations.”
He’s cerebral and vocal with his instruction, as age no longer allows him to assemblé, plié and pirouette with the precision he expects. “Sometimes it’s kind of hilarious when I go, ‘That’s not it, let me show you what it is,’ then go ‘Ooh, I can’t do it!’ But I haven’t minded so much. I mean, I miss being able to do things. I still dream about dancing. In my dreams I’m better than I actually was in real life. I don’t know. I like aging. I’m at ease with myself.”
Right now Byrd’s highest priority is A Rap on Race, which he originally conceived more than a decade ago with celebrated American playwright/performer Anna Deavere Smith. Smith is crafting the play’s dialogue from transcripts of the conversation between Mead and Baldwin, and Byrd is honing Baldwin’s distinct speech patterns and mannerisms in order to portray him on stage. Seattle-based actress Julie Briskman will play Margaret Mead. Although the real conversation involved only Baldwin and Mead, all 11 Spectrum dancers perform in the work. Jazz also plays a central role; Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is the musical backdrop.
“The piece attempts to disrupt this distinction that dance is like this and theatre is like this,” Byrd says, using his hands to separate the disciplines. “So I’m gonna smash ’em together until we come up with something that’s a new kind of dance-theatre. And who knows how successful that will be? But that’s what the effort is.”
Byrd’s brazen willingness to force audiences to confront what hurts and come through it is nothing short of courageous. “Black people turn shit into gold,” he says. “We turn pain and suffering into something that’s absolutely remarkable and beautiful. We are alchemists that way.”