Donald Byrd’s year-long tussle with Eros
The 2011-2012 season is thematically interwoven by the theme “love:subject/object” and is comprised of an inquest through movement into the affairs of the heart from the perspective of the iconoclastic choreographer Donald Byrd. The season is inspired by Byrd’s recent question to himself:
“Is my view of love as dark as it has been?”
MIT professor and theater director Thomas F. DeFrantz takes *a stab* at answering the question in his overview of the 2011-2012 season at Spectrum Dance Theater, “Breaking Love Bad.”
“Breaking Love Bad”
Choreographer Donald Byrd has often explored the reciprocal impulses of attraction and repulsion. In many ways, the 2011-2012 Spectrum Dance Theater season gets to the heart of it – the traumatic wages of love broken bad, to paraphrase the popular television show. This season’s offerings of The Beast, Petruschka, The Miraculous Mandarin, new choreography for Oklahoma, and the world premiere Love each wonder at the violent terms of attraction that seem to haunt relationships rent with conflict derived from class difference, economic hardship, misogyny, racism, or homophobia. In each of these works, the subject and object of love intertwine, casting shadows on their actors, and our shared understanding of good and bad at the edges of love.
The wages of domestic violence haunt Byrd’s The Beast (1996), presented by Spectrum this year in a new production. The Beast concerns a newly-minted husband and wife bound in a dysfunctional relationship thick with unwarranted domination and unchecked physical force. Created by Byrd with composer Andy Teirstein and original dramaturgy by Mona Heinze-Barreca, the uncompromising work demonstrates misogyny as an everyday course at the family table. Staged with musical interludes that conjure the theatrical creations of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, The Beast suggests that a masculine violence permeating matrimony can be tied to the originary marriage vow, to spread, from that private space, into multiple public settings.
We all might know something about the tragic triangle of desire and force tying together Jud, Curly, and Laurey in Oklahoma (originally produced on Broadway in 1943) that Byrd and Spectrum will re-imagine this season in collaboration with the 5th Avenue Theatre. The early twentieth-century ballet scenarios of Petruschka and The Miraculous Mandarin (revived by Spectrum from Byrd productions from 2006) deserve consideration together, as their historical legacies intertwine. In the decade after Freud popularized the “talking cure” – a method of relieving trauma by reliving past events in dialogue with a therapist – many ballet scenarios veered toward tales of violence. Stories of traumatic love relationships that ended in violence and death gained popularity in the ‘teens and ‘twenties. Staged as titillating cautionary tales, these works portrayed violence and misogyny that demonstrated the wages of lurid romance and unchecked passion. These works reminded audiences that lustful hysterias could only end badly for all. Presumably, they also honored the theater’s roots as social ritual that produced cathartic release and healing. The stage violence offered a cure of its own after the curtain descended, when social catharsis emerged from a consideration of the emotional carnage presented in these ballets.
Béla Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” both offer scenarios of inappropriate passions and unspeakable violence. The Bartók work – created as a “pantomime ballet in one act” – premiered in Cologne in 1926, but lasted only a single, controversial performance before being banned by the city. A second production in Prague fared slightly better among critics and audiences, but the work never achieved lasting success during the composer’s lifetime. What had taken Bartók six years to create – from 1918 – 1924 – became best known as the Mandarin Ballet Suite, later arranged by the composer himself when the dance versions of his work faltered. The work’s story of three tramps who lure victims to their lair using a young girl as bait shocked audiences with its depiction of exploitation and seduction. When the girl attracts and seduces a mysterious “Mandarin” – an Other in the ultimate sense of that term – the tramps descend on him and murder him violently. The story ends strangely, with the Mandarin unable to die until he has consummated his passion with the girl. She complies, and he succumbs. Curtain.
Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” may be more familiar to contemporary audiences with its tale of a puppet who comes to life for a time and discovers he has the capacity to love. Like his literary cousin Pinocchio, the passion of Petrushka’s love for a ballerina puppet runs deep, and his tragedy is that he can attain neither real human life nor the affection of his beloved. Created as a “Tableaux in Four Scenes” on commission for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1911, the work has remained in repertory as an orchestral suite and a ballet in several productions. Its story of an impossible love triangle – again featuring an Other in the guise of the brutish Moor who also loves the Ballerina – ends with the violent death of the puppet clown. But again, a strange coda allows Petrushka’s spirit to endure and dance after his body has been rent by the Moor.
These two works in particular offer up generous doses of misogyny and nihilism in their plots, amplified by tinges of racism and homophobia. And they are explicitly erotic, titillating, and dangerous.
And yet, there may be an antidote to the wages of desire and force ill-aligned: Love. The achingly personal choreographies of love, seldom offered up for audiences by Donald Byrd, will be the theme of the Spectrum season’s final work. This we must see, to imagine how desire and force might be enmeshed towards theatrical ends that may be brutal in their intensity, but also tender, unblinking, determined, and provocative. But can love conquer all? Maybe that shouldn’t be the goal. It could be that the rhetorical act of “conquering” indicates the potentially brutal path toward Byrd’s and Spectrum’s new work. As with the leading character of the television program, once broken bad, love can have a hard time finding its way home.
—Thomas F. DeFrantz
Thomas F. DeFrantz is Professor of Music, Theater Arts, Comparative Media Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies at MIT. He is the director of SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, Technology, a research group that explores emerging technology in live performance applications, in residence at MIT. His books include the edited volume Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (2002) and Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture (2004). For many years, he organized the dance history program at the Alvin Ailey School in New York. A director and writer, his creative works include Queer Theory! An Academic Travesty commissioned by the Theater Offensive of Boston and the Flynn Center for the Arts. In 2005 he worked with DonnaFaye Burchfield to design the American Dance Festival/Hollins University MFA Program in dance. He convenes the Black Performance Theory working group and the Choreography and Corporeality working group. He has recently been elected President of the Society of Dance History Scholars.