Donald Byrd’s 10th season as Artistic Director at Spectrum Dance Theater opened this weekend with a stunning show that perfectly represents the brilliant choreographer’s career. The Theater of Needless Talents, originally premiered in 2008, is quintessential Byrd—complex, deeply meaningful and emotionally complicated. Many of dancers are new, to both the company and the piece, but they rise of the occasion, proving their ability to be labeled one of “Donald’s dancers,” and infuse Talents with the challenging skill and emotion required of the work.
The Theater of Needless Talents uses the Holocaust as a springboard from which to explore the idea of artists forced to perform or create under the constant threat of death. When we think of the Holocaust we don’t often think of the fact that the SS made prisoners entertain them—was their compliance only a means of survival, or did they use the opportunity to create art as an escape from the horrors around them? That question is left open to interpretation, and is part of what makes such a compelling show.
It begins and ends with the recitation of staggering genocide statistics, not just from WWII, but all the way up to the present. The dancers, clad in period clothing from the 1940’s, step loudly in unison, audibly emulating both the sounds of the parade march of the Nazis, and the forced death marches from the concentration camps. The middle section, entitled “In the Camps” is the emotionally profound and stunningly performed epicenter of the production. Composed of solos, duets and trios, the small sections mix horror and beauty—exquisite duets between Ty Alexander Cheng and Kate Monthy (as well as others) juxtaposed with dancers collapsing to the floor in death. They perform vaudeville pieces, tumble with acrobatics and dance in an upbeat Charlie Chaplin-esque routine. It catches us off guard—should we be laughing? If we do laugh, does that group us with the Nazis who sadistically used these performers for entertainment?
One particularly harrowing solo, performed by the strong and graceful Jade Solomon Curtis, is the most haunting piece of the show. She sits under a piano bench with her chin resting on the seat—she mimes crying, she points her fingers out to the audience, the grabs her head and rolls it around, a profound look of anguish on her face. She comes out from under the bench and crawls frantically backwards around the stage, eventually bumping into two dead bodies. Returning to the bench Solomon once again clutches her head and shakes, mouth agape in a scream. She is the physical embodiment of insanity and pain. Struggling to exist is unbearable. With a final gasp she dies.
All of the dancers show exceptional skill—stretching long limbs, executing difficult and fast footwork and throwing visible emotion into their performances. Byrd’s choreography is top-notch. He alludes to situations and emotions (loss, love, fear) without overdoing it—he’s not trying to hammer in a particular narrative. The work is visually stunning, but leaves room for personal interpretation.
According to the program, “The Theater of Needless Talents is a response to the Holocaust. It is not about The Holocaust.” It is a difficult statement to remember when watching the show, but the resounding genocide figures remind us the horrific crimes in dozens of countries around the world—these atrocities were committed not only against the ethnic and religious groups they targeted; they were committed against human beings, and thus against us as humanity at large.
If this stunner is the season opener, we can only hope that the rest of the productions follow step—a tough one after such a quintessential piece.
Jade Solomon Curtis and Stacie Williams in Theater of Needless Talents. Image by Nate Watters.