Q&A: Choreographer Donald Byrd

Spectrum Dance Theater's Donald Byrd. Photo: DL Artists
Spectrum Dance Theater’s Donald Byrd. Photo: DL Artists

Dallas — With a dance career spanning more than four decades, half of which he spent running Donald Byrd/The Group, as well as receiving international frame for the Harlem Nutcracker (1996) and a Tony nomination for his choreography in Broadway’s The Color Purple (2005), it’s no wonder Donald Byrd is hailed as one of today’s leading contemporary choreographers.

Byrd’s extensive résumé also includes performing with modern dance great Twyla Tharp and creating more than 100 modern and contemporary works for his own group as well as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Philadanco, Pacific Northwest Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem. Outside the dance sphere he has worked with some of the most well-known theater and opera companies in the U.S., including The New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera.

Byrd ran Donald Byrd/The Group from 1978-2002 before taking over as artistic director for Seattle-based Spectrum Dance Theater in 2002. Under Byrd’s leadership, Spectrum Dance Theater has embarked on an exhilarating transformation that has attracted world class dancers and has produced some of the most avant-garde works in contemporary dance today, according to the organization’s website.

Spectrum Dance Theater + Donald Byrd will make its Dallas debut Sept. 27 at the Winspear Opera House as part of TITAS’ 2014-15 season. The company will present Byrd’s piece LOVE (2012), an evening-length work that studies the complex landscapes of intimate relationships set to Benjamin Britten’sCello Suites and performed by world-renowned cellist Wendy Sutter.

TheaterJones asks Donald Byrd about the Seattle dance scene, the challenges facing young choreographers today and what audiences can expect when Spectrum Dance Theater takes the stage in Dallas this weekend.

TheaterJones: How are you feeling about Spectrum Dance Theater’s upcoming Dallas debut?

Donald Byrd: I am more excited than anything else. I’m curious to see how audiences in other places respond to the work. I think the only nervousness I may have about it is that because the community may not have any history with the company previously the work might challenge them in ways that are unexpected. However, with that being said I have to rely on the expertise and knowledge of the presenter which is TITAS and Charles Santos. He knows the audience and he believes that what we are bringing will be something that audiences there will respond too.

The company will be performing your evening-length work LOVE. The public’s view on love has been largely influenced by television and movies. How do you wish to change our perspective with this piece?

This piece in particular is not so much about changing our perception of love. The piece is very abstract in a lot of ways. So, it is evocative in terms of the way it expresses ideas about love and is not provocative in that way. It’s really about the audience being able to construct, in a very subtle way for themselves, a narrative based on the abstraction of movement and the visual relationships of the people on stage.

Watching your work you have this way of pushing your dancers to new emotional depths. How do you help them accomplish this during the rehearsal process?

Photo: Natt Watters
Photo: Natt Watters

I work with dancers the same way I would with an actor. I think of the movement as being text and so often my comments and directions to the dancers would be similar to what I might say to an actor. For example, I might say I don’t understand why you are doing what you’re doing. Why are you putting your arms around her? Why do you move away from her? Even though the movement is abstract in some cases there are kind of gestural elements that ground the movement. I push the dancers to create a relationship with the people that they are onstage with given what the context of the piece is. With a piece like LOVE I might ask a dancer, alright, how much are you in love with this person or do they love you more than you love them? So, when they reach for you, are you welcoming that reach or are you indifferent to it? Or, do you move away, and why are you moving away? I think those kinds of human behavioral things communicate to the audience. And even though some audiences say they don’t understand dance, I think they can understand these human behaviors and so the piece makes sense to them.

Do you keep up with the New York dance scene and what your colleagues are doing?

Because of my schedule I have to be selective about what I see. Usually I try to see the work of my friends or somebody’s work that I haven’t seen in a long time and I want to catch up on what they are doing. It’s just the challenges of the day-to-day of operating a dance company that makes it almost prohibitive to have time to go see anything else. And that’s true even in Seattle.

Whose work has you seen recently?

This summer the Ailey Company was performing a new work by Robert Moses, and I hadn’t seen his work in at least 10 years so, I flew to New York and went straight to the theater from the airport to catch his piece. When Kyle Abraham was here in Seattle I made a point of going to see his work. I saw his work a couple of years ago in New York and I was really impressed with him so, I wanted to check in on his development and where he was going. There are also a couple of people working at New York City Ballet right now that I am really curious about, but I am not in New York enough to be able to see them.

Did you have a previous relationship with Spectrum before you took over as artistic director?

No, I didn’t. I had a relationship with Pacific Northwest Ballet and I was actually here in Seattle 12 years ago when the former artistic director, Dale Merrill, announced that he was resigning. I was setting a piece for Pacific Northwest Ballet when another choreographer, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, approached me and said I should think about applying for the job. I was planning on closing my company in New York, but I still liked the idea of running a dance company and she encouraged me to talk to Spectrum about it. Part of the appeal here in Seattle for me was I wanted to see how I could contribute to the building of an audience for contemporary dance in Seattle. I was also interested in the education programs attached to Spectrum. There are a lot a thing I have learned over the years of running my company in New York in terms of things you can do in the community and the impact you can have on the community that I wanted to share with Spectrum. For example, part of Spectrum’s mission is to educate the community about dance as an art form, but also as a social civic instrument. Those kinds of ideas are thrilling to me.

You did an interview with the Seattle Times in 2005 in which you had this to say about the Seattle dance sphere: ‘Seattle presents a lot of challenges for me. The biggest one is the nature of the dance scene, the fact that there is no real modern dance audience per se. And it is very frustrating that we’ve received national funding to build up the company but have been unable to develop a solid local donor base.’

Do you still view the Seattle dance community in this way?

I do not! Since that time I know I have been able to create a donor base here that’s really good and actually we have been very dependent on them this past week. We now have major donors that we can count on who make multiple gifts to us each year. That has taken a lot of work and I think part of that was helping people understand the new identity and brand of Spectrum as it transitioned from what it was before I came and after. So, as people began to understand that and got excited about it they started to come on and give donations. And thank you reminding me about that because that reminds me to be grateful and also that the work we have been doing has been paying off.

What’s the biggest challenge young choreographers’ face today?

I think there are several big challenges for them. The first one being, and this is an old song, there is increasingly more competition for fewer dollars. Another challenge, and I think this is always true, is creating infrastructures and mechanisms that can support them for the long term to be able to do their work. I would like to see more young artists become lifers in the art form and not stop when things start getting hard. Another challenge, and this one is more internal, is remembering that they are artists and being engaged and not question what that means to be an artist. In the not-for profit and dance art world there are two parts: the business part (figuring out how to make a living) and then there’s the career part (figuring out how to sustain yourself over time). But ultimately it is about the art. There are some young makers of dance that are very good at the business side of it and others who are good at the career, but I would like to stress that they all should know themselves and create for themselves a way of looking at it that says, is my work getting better? Am I becoming on a daily basis the artist that I desire to be? I think that question is sometimes difficult for young artists to ask because they are so overwhelmed by the economic challenges in the world today.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.


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