Choreographer Donald Byrd is dead serious about addressing the biggest themes of the day, including war and peace in the Middle East.
Choreographer Donald Byrd | photo by Charles Peterson
The homework was to come up with common preconceived notions about Jews and Arabs.
“Who’s ready?” asks Donald Byrd, in a chair at the front of the room.
After a moment of silence a few hands are raised, tentatively. “Muslims are terrorists,” says one of the group. “Jews are cheap,” chimes in another. “Arabs work at 7-Eleven and drive taxis,” says a third.
It could be any classroom in America, save for the fact that just about everybody is wearing a leotard. Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, is rehearsing A Chekhovian Resolution, on which he’s collaborating with Israeli choreographers Nir Ben Gal and Liat Dror, and with Wissam Murad, a Palestinian composer.
The title of the new work refers to a comparison made by the Israeli writer Amos Oz. Shakespearean tragedy, Oz observed, leaves the stage strewn with dead bodies. Chekhovian tragedy, on the other hand, leaves everyone disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken. Absolutely shattered, but still alive.
Oz was expressing muted hope about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over land and the right to self-determination in the state of Israel. Byrd wants to make a dispute taking place thousands of miles away relevant to Seattle audiences by demonstrating that all change – large or small – begins with individuals overcoming their differences to work together. This project is the first in a four-year initiative recently launched by Byrd under the rubric “Beyond Dance: Promoting Awareness and Mutual Understanding.”
Byrd danced with Twyla Tharp, Karole Armitage and Gus Solomons Jr. before launching his own company, Donald Byrd/The Group, in Los Angeles in 1978. The company moved to New York in 1983, where Byrd earned accolades for creating dances that were smart, hard hitting and full of social commentary. His 1996 Harlem Nutcracker took place in a Harlem-era jazz club; Duke Ellington reigned as king and contemporary dance, jazz and hip-hop trumped ballet.
In Byrd’s world, sugar plum fairies give way to urban reality. Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, former artistic directors of Pacific Northwest Ballet, invited Byrd to choreograph a number of works, including Subtext Rage, for their company. Russell remembers rehearsals as challenging. “Byrd is relentless in working with the dancers, very demanding,” she says. “There were a few tears along the way but the results were wonderful.”
Julie Tobiason, former principal dancer with PNB and currently co-artistic director of Seattle Dance Project, was one of four dancers featured in Subtext Rage. “He focused on intention,” she recalls. “When I wrapped my arms around my partner’s shoulders, Donald would ask why. The answer for many dancers would be because you told me to.’ But he wanted to know that you understood the intent behind the action.”
In rehearsal for A Chekhovian Resolution, Byrd, tall, imposing and wearing an expression of utter seriousness, asks four dancers – Lara Seefeldt, Joel Myers, Geneva Jenkins and Patrick Pulkrabek – to stand in the center of the space. The rest of the dancers remain seated at opposite ends of the room, about twenty feet apart. “I want you to talk to the person facing you about the preconceived stereotypes we’ve just discussed,” says Byrd to those sitting.
His request is met with silence. “Talk!” he demands. The room begins to fill with sound and the dancers at the center come to life, rolling into and over one another on the ground before gracefully rising and breaking away.
Byrd took over Spectrum in 2002. It was then a small dance company producing family-friendly, jazz-influenced performances. When Anne Derieux, a former principal dancer with PNB, ran into Byrd at Spectrum she wondered what on earth he was doing there. “It wasn’t edgy,” she explains. “Not at all Donald’s style. In fact, it was the opposite.”
Donald Byrd/The Group had folded after twenty-four years and Francia Russell urged Byrd to consider taking the artistic director position at Spectrum. Byrd liked the school’s mission statement – “To make dance accessible, without limitations, to the community.” He was further encouraged by the existence of a scholarship fund that makes the program open to students who can’t otherwise afford to attend classes. Says Byrd, “I had always been an underdog myself and liked the idea of a place that was open to everybody.”
The Spectrum company and school are housed in a small brick building overlooking Lake Washington in the Madrona neighborhood. Inside, professional members of the company move through the halls alongside adult would-be dancers hoping to burn off a few calories and kids accompanied by their mothers. Classes are offered in capoeira, tap, ballet, hip-hop and jazz.
Byrd was raised in Florida and trained as a classical dancer. “I saw ballet as a field that had limitations,” he says. “When I began looking at modern and contemporary dance I saw how they encouraged individuality and personal voice. Many think of ballet as elite because on the face of it everyone is white and from a certain socioeconomic echelon. Artists need diversity in order to be good artists. This is a place where highly talented dancers of any color and creed can show up. You don’t have to be ninety-five pounds. You just have to be really talented.”
The transformation from small, semiprofessional company to major dance troupe wasn’t without bumps. “His vision was beyond what many then on the board had imagined,” explains Derieux, who is now Spectrum’s executive director. Byrd’s work has continued to challenge audiences, often by engaging them within contemporary contexts. His 2006 revision of Stravinsky’s Petrushka took place in a nightclub with a mosh pit. Interrupted Narratives/WAR in 2007 explored how society remembers those lost as a consequence of warfare.
Byrd isn’t interested in dance as light entertainment. “It’s not that I’m against performances that serve as a distraction,” he explains. “There is a place for that. It’s just not what I do. I want people to understand that dance is a profound art form and that it has a particular and unique way of fostering change. The arts are capable of engaging the public in a way that news and media can’t. They’re integral to what makes and sustains healthy communities.”
“It’s not that I’m against performances that serve as a distraction,” Byrd explains. “There is a place for that. It’s just not what I do.”
Spectrum is now the second-largest dance company in Washington, after Pacific Northwest Ballet. But there are substantial differences. PNB has an eighteen-million-dollar budget, while Spectrum’s is just under one million. “Seattle is regarded as having a rich dance community,” says Derieux, “but oftentimes when people say dance, they mean ballet. We’re creating a professional company that broadens the definition of what dance can offer.”
Peter Boal, PNB’s artistic director, sees plenty of room for Spectrum in Seattle. “Donald is willing to push the envelope farther than we are,” he says. “He’s edgy, progressive and provocative and challenges the audience every chance he gets. In any city you want a range of great dance makers. Our two organizations are complementary; having both benefits Seattle.”
Chekhovian Resolution was sparked by Byrd’s reaction to 9/11. “The world had shifted to a global way of thinking,” he says, “but the United States wasn’t considering our role in relation to the rest of the world.
“Political analysts have said that there can be no peace in the Middle East until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. This project is a personal investigation and reflection on these matters. It’s an opportunity to consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s relation to people in Seattle. I hope it encourages people to really think about the conflict on a broader scale.”
Byrd is as much an educator as a choreographer: video logs, accessible on the production’s Web site (zebravisual.com/chkv), are integral to his process. “By the time people get to the theatre they’re already engaged,” he explains. “The background material helps to create a dance-literate audience – an audience that knows how to read dance and its unique way of communicating.”
He initially contacted Israeli husband-and-wife choreographers Ben Gal and Dror via e-mail. Within months they were ready to begin rehearsals in Seattle.
Finding a composer wasn’t so easy. When Byrd had little success locating via long distance Palestinian artists wishing to collaborate, he hopped a flight to Israel. He hoped to interest Tamer Lafer, lead rapper of the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, in the project. Byrd managed to meet with Lafer, but the rapper was reluctant to participate. Lafer claimed that his involvement would be seen as condoning Israeli politics, maybe even collaborating with the enemy.
Byrd was not to be dissuaded. He pursued other avenues, eventually contacting Stacy Barrios, cultural affairs officer in the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. “She was the linchpin,” Byrd says. Barrios helped him locate Wissam Murad, lead vocalist of the Palestinian ensemble Sabreen. Murad was expected to arrive in Seattle in October.
At one of their first rehearsals, Dror and Ben Gal instructed the Spectrum dancers to randomly break off into pairs to physically explore the dynamics of power. Dror sat cross-legged in the corner while Ben Gal stood off to the side, arms folded across his chest. Many of the dancers – typically lithe and confident individuals – suddenly looked a little unsure of themselves. “It was exactly what we wanted,” Ben Gal said. “To have them struggle with that feeling of not knowing, of something uncomfortable. They have to learn to work in different ways, for example to work with a partner they might not like very much. You don’t get to choose your enemies. And you don’t get to choose your partner either.”
“This training in Seattle is really an exercise in how to deal with things we don’t really like,” Dror says. “It’s also the problem between Israelis and Palestinians. And the problem with the world in general. Sometimes the differences between Israel and Palestine seem so deep and so big that we despair of ever finding a solution. I think we can find a solution to any problem, but we have to solve our own resistance to difference first.”
There are not only political differences being addressed in A Chekhovian Resolution, but technical ones, too. In 1999 Dror and Ben Gal left Tel Aviv and founded Adama (Hebrew for “earth”), a dance center on the edge of the Israeli desert. The style of movement taught there is designed to heal and relax the body, a far cry from what is generally taught in the U.S. The performance practice of companies like Spectrum exalts virtuosity, speed and power. “Spectrum dancers have been trained classically,” says Ben Gal. “Some of our dancers have never danced on pointe. We’re struggling to find a common language.”
“It’s a negotiation,” Dror acknowledges, “each of us building on what the other has done.” Byrd stresses dialogue in his work: “The musician can weigh in on the choreography. The dancers can weigh in on the music. Everybody has a voice.”
Seefeldt, a particularly expressive dancer with dark blond hair, has been a principal artist with Spectrum since 2002. Working with Byrd, she says, “can get pretty emotional. He knows exactly what he wants and asks for it right away.”
Byrd has been rehearsing the dancers separately from Dror and Ben Gal while waiting for Murad to arrive. “But recently,” explains Seefeldt, “their choreography has begun to meld.” When Byrd takes over the rehearsal he stands stock still and unblinking at the front of the room. Spectrum dancers fall into one another before rolling over and pushing off and away. Byrd is keenly aware of the proximity of one dancer to another. “Give her space to move,” he says to the dancer to the right of Seefeldt, who flawlessly turns on the ball of her foot and raises her arms towards the heavens.
In many ways A Chekhovian Resolution is about space in both its concrete and its abstract manifestations. It is about cultural, geographical and personal boundaries. In September Murad had yet to be granted a travel visa to the U.S. Byrd realizes there’s the possibility that the Palestinian will not be allowed into this country at all. It doesn’t seem to faze him. “This is not about translating the Israeli-Palestinian crisis into aesthetic terms,” he says. “It’s about the process.”
By the time A Chekhovian Resolution opens this month at the Moore Theatre, in addition to buckets of sweat, the process will have involved international travel and diplomacy, political dialogue and creative compromise. In short, if Byrd achieves his goals on this project, he will have pulled off a small miracle using art to bring home a message of mutual understanding among peoples and nations.