Donald Byrd has a dance career to would make anyone envious. For more than four decades, he has been living his dream of creating, performing, and educating. Oh, and he cut his teeth working for Twyla Tharp. His impressive career started in 1978 and includes prestigious credits like The Joffrey Ballet, and Alvin Ailey, to name a few.
But when he took over Seattle-based Spectrum Dance Theater in 2002, heads turned and jaws dropped. He had been known as one of the world's leading contemporary choreographers, but with this new position, he had the chance to breathe new life into a company entering a brand-new stage themselves, one that found them with the responsibility bringing awareness to dance in a city that didn't know about the gem in their own backyard. With Byrd's leadership, Spectrum Dance Theater has embarked on a transformation that has attracted world-class dancers and produced some of the most avant-garde works in contemporary dance. And they're bringing that magic to Dallas for the first time at 8 p.m. Saturday, with a performance at the Winspear Opera House, thanks to TITAS.
But how did Byrd find himself in dance? It all started with the theatre. He studied drama and philosophy while in college, and he studied dance as a part of the curriculum, but he questioned whether or not dance was a manly thing to do--a question that plagues most young male performers.
But Byrd couldn't help himself, he fell in love with dance. The more he studied it, the more he realized that the perception of dance as "unmanly" was someone else's problem, not his. "As I allowed myself the freedom to be a dancer, and as I gave myself permission to embrace dancing, the other stuff just disappeared," says Byrd by phone.
He brings that sentiment into the studio when working with male dancers now, who are generally praised and revered, as they are few and far between. Even though we have made great strides as a dance community, the number of male dancers is significantly less than those of female dancers, and the mindset in many companies, at many schools, and at many studios is to put the male dancer on a pedestal, give him special treatment, and treat him like a prince (and of course, the company needs someone to play the prince).
"It can be a challenge, but I don't treat them [male dancers] any differently than I do female dancers. I don't give them any privilege. Dance...is about being an artist," says Byrd. "You are driven to do this, and if you are doing this, it's because you have to. Dance is an honorable profession."
Since taking over Spectrum Dance Theater, Byrd is making good on that promise of promoting his honorable profession, and has pushed the company into a new era of notoriety as one of the top-rated and go-to companies for edgy, contemporary work. The driving force: his understanding and integration of theatrical elements and training. Before, Spectrum was known as a primarily jazz-based dance company, but with Byrd at the helm, it has moved more into the realm of dance theatre.
"I work with dancers the same way I work with actors. We begin with text, or I approach the movement as text...and I ask a lot of questions. Why are you walking here or there? Why do you do that movement instead of something else? Why are you doing what you are doing? I'm interested in behavior...human behavior. I want the dancers to find a realness to their behavior instead of it being staged," says Byrd.
Though the resulting movement might be seen as abstract, and at many times has been critically noted as such, there really is no such thing as abstraction, especially in dance. When you see two bodies moving in space together, our brains naturally search for a connection and begin to make a story, and that's an element that Byrd embraces. "I push the dancers to create a relationship with each other and with the audience," says Byrd. "Because even though some audience say they don't understand dance, they do understand what it's like to be human and how to feel. If we can tap into that, then any piece will make sense."
What Byrd is discussing here is a crucial element of theatre: intentionality. It is at the crux of his works, and it is the motivation behind his creative process.
"It's an important part of what I do and it's been resonating more recently since dance is a way of expressing our humanity. I train the dancers in the language of the theatre," says Byrd.
Influenced by Bertolt Brecht's overarching intentionality in his directing and writing style, Byrd tries to keep it as simple as his predecessor. Brecht knew what he wanted to say in his scripts, knew how he wanted his performers to play their roles, and he knew how he wanted his plays directed. He also developed a particular form of interacting with the audience, known as the distancing effect, or verfremdungseffekt. With this distancing effect, the audience is prevented from losing itself completely in the narrative; instead, they become a conscious critical observer. They are viewing another version of themselves on stage, seeing fractions of their lives play out. They are bearing witness to a performer transforming from a character into a real person.
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Reaching that level of commitment as a performer is a struggle that many choreographers deal with. How do you turn these trained performers back into "real people?" How do you help them rediscover themselves, or they characters they are playing, as human beings? For Byrd, it's imperative. For what they are doing should be illuminating about human behavior.
"It's not enough to be beautiful people or beautiful movers," he says, "they need to make the experience more...make it worth the audience's while...make them feel...we all should remember that this [the performance] should help us remember our shared humanity."
With their Dallas debut this Saturday at the Winspear Opera House, Spectrum will be displaying the traits that Byrd has instilled in them. Love, a three-act work, appears on the surface to be an abstract dance performance, but as the work unfolds interlocking narratives will begin to emerge, and "there are a few surprises in store," Byrd promises. It's not about changing our perception of love, it's about finding your own story and connecting as humans. One way that will definitely help: the music, Benjamin Britten's Cello Suites, will be played live by cellist Wendy Sutter.
TITAS presents Love, by Spectrum Dance Theater at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St., Dallas. There will be three acts, each 25 minutes in length, with two intermissions. $12-$135. More at attpac.org.