November 1, 2011
Several years ago I began to revive for Spectrum some of my older works that had been created for Donald Byrd/The Group, my former company and my primary creative laboratory for twenty-four years. The purpose of the practice was at first simply to give the Spectrum dancers the opportunity to dance and Seattle audiences to see the older works in order to have a context and better understanding of how the current work had evolved. More recently it has developed into a way to self-interrogate the old work and my artistic practice.
Last season with the “Peering Into The Ballroom” program my intent was to draw attention to how we perceived the older works by literally reframing them inside a false proscenium, “to highlight, push or force the viewer to confront that which is most unnatural and ‘inauthentic’ about them”. This grew out of my interest in what I began to call ‘authentic structures’ – “structures that mimic or attempt to replicate the complexity and the unknowable (ness) of the subject of the pieces or even of life itself.” However, with The Beast my interest was different.
The Beast is a troubling work. Its implied physical, emotional, and psychological violence is not easy to sit with. Perhaps what are most disturbing about the piece are its misogynist elements. For American dance audiences, who seem to want their dance abstract, free of narrative, and not to troubling, The Beast is particularly hard to take.
In the early to mid-20th Century a number of theatre practitioners, most famously Bertolt Brecht, theories and practices gave rise to a theatrical movement called ‘epic theatre’ which Brecht later call “dialectical theatre.” The epic form describes both a type of written drama and a methodological approach to production. It is characterized by montage like fragmentation, music hall turns, simplified scenic elements offset against a selective realism in costuming and props, as well as announcements that summarize the action. In The Beast, it is this approach that I have utilized to document a tale of repeated acts of unmotivated violence and cruelty against a trusting woman by her brutish husband.
Recently, I have found myself not only in the role of choreographer on productions but also in that of stage director – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the musical White Noise, Monteverdi’s Il Ballo Delle Ingati. In this new ‘part’ where my job is to read and make clear through my staging and instructions to actors or singers the author’s text for audiences, I began to wonder how I might utilize this approach for my older works. Again taking Brecht as a model, who not only wrote his plays but directed them as well, I began work on The Beast from this perspective. Because the work had already been ‘authored’ (choreographed) my objective as director was to shape the author’s text (not re-choreograph) in order make clear what I believed was intended originally.
This schizophrenic, bifurcated identity, allowed me not only the distance of a more objective perspective to the piece but also permitted me to shape it in ways that conform to my current aesthetic interests and maturity. So the recently closed production of The Beast was not the old production revived with new clothes, new lights and new scenic elements but rather ‘new’ in how it was brought back into existence.