Archive for December, 2009


Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Around this time during the past several years, I find myself thinking that my work is out of fashion, out moded. Usually, I don’t know what causes it – a slowing down of activity, seasonal depression (this is Seattle after all). What triggered it this time, however, was an invitation from Zoë Scofield and Juniper Shuey to attend their APAP showing at The American Realness Festival. The details are unimportant in many ways but what struck me about the invitation and set me off was how aware I was of a shift in aesthetic tastes as evidenced by the artists that are the “real Americans”, those included in the Festival, Miguel Gutierrez, Ann Liv Young, Luciana Achugar, Layard Thompson, Jack Ferver and Jeremy Wade. Some of it is generational of course and of course I am not only another generation but also fall into another set of aesthetic values category as well… Wow, I think to myself — this is what old feels like!

The problem is that there is a tendency to think of these aesthetic shifts as absolutes; that generational shifts in perspectives are truths and not just a truth but permanent and absolute truths. Yes, these shifts are indeed real but just like dance they are ephemeral, transitory, and temporary. And like fashion or trends, well, even life itself, they will again shift, change and be different…

Last week in the New York Times Roslyn Sulcas and to some degree an unaccredited author in the Financial Times while writing on the Judith Jamison 20th anniversary celebration as artistic director of the Ailey Company, repeatedly vomiting out and regurgitated the same half digested stale old rhetoric about the mediocrity of the works commissioned and revived by the company under Ms Jamison tenure. What they both failed to recognize is that those works in many ways represent the dance fashion of the time that they were created, pieces from the “ready to wear collections” of the choreographers, if you will. And like padded shoulders and thick eyebrows they were meant to be no more than what they were, popular and the look of the time. They help to sell the company; they brought audiences in to the theaters and put butts in the seats. And like the perennial Nutcrackers that populate our stages at this time of year, they delighted some and perhaps help to whet the appetites of a few for something more substantial. If these choreographies did not meet the “classic” test, well most things don’t, but they served their purpose – they made the Ailey Company the most well-known and successful modern dance company in the world!

Ms Sulcas concludes,” But the depressing conclusion to be drawn here is that, in the main, the choreography challenges neither the dancers nor the audiences. It’s even more depressing that everyone seems to like it that way.” I say – Who said that fashion or entertainment was about challenges? What Ms Sulcas and other like-minded critics might value might be of no value to Ms Jamison and the supporters of the Ailey Company and the opinions of such critics might be like people deliberately and continuously farting and fouling the air during a birthday celebration of a beloved relative.

Now back to my original thought. If my work or aesthetic values are outdated, do my past work and my current work have value? Do I need to dress-up what I do differently in order for its worth or content to be gotten or appreciated? Another set of questions might be: Is much of the American dance works currently in fashion today devoid of “content”? But rather the aesthetic packaging is the content? Its stylishness, its construction, its cleverness, how it’s accessorized (video, text, celebrity artists collaborator), its intellectual conceits, and its total visual appeal might be “the point”?

Perhaps what is most valuable for me in all of this thinking and wondering is – none of this has anything to do with why I do the work I do or whether I will continue to do it. I get value from what I do and the dances I create and there appears to be others that get value as well. During my 33 years of making dances I have found myself many times, to paraphrase Heidi Klum the host of Project Runway, being out one minute and in the next minute. But it has never been auf Wiedersehen.

Why I Do It

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

I just finished what my friends call a “donaldbyrdtrip”.

I departed Newark to Seattle, airport codes EWR and SEA (I’ve taken to memorizing the codes) at 8:20 am on Sunday 13 December. At 6:00 am on Monday December 14, less than 24 hours later, like a vampire retreating from the advancing sunrise hoping to avoid being fried to a crisp by the sun’s impending rays, I find myself walking, no, lurching through the same Newark airport … My mind reels and my body screams for sleep. A week earlier I had flown Gothenburg, Sweden (GOT) to Amsterdam (AMS), two days later Amsterdam (AMS) to Seattle (SEA) via Los Angeles (LAX), then the next day off to New York (JFK) and now this. I desperately need to lay down and close my eyes for a bit before I have to be at a 10:00 am rehearsal in mid-town Manhattan….

Ok, so the question is why? Why do I do things like take a 6 hour transcontinental trip to sit in a theater to watch an hour-long dance program, then turn around and make the reverse trip back all on the same day? Or fly to Sweden to perform a 15 min solo when the financial don’t really work? Why do I say YES to things when NO might be the more sensible response?

I used to think I made wacky choices because I was ambitious, driven, and being strategic (I am), or I had a deeply rooted need to people please (maybe), or “The est Standard Training” indoctrination of keeping my word (possible). … Those may all be true but I don’t think those are the only reasons. I accept that I am not always a sensible person and that I am driven by a need to succeed, but I am also a person who wants and has a need to serve and be fulfilled by what I do.

When I was in my late 20’s my friends would howl with laughter because I used to say I wanted to be a “modern dance giant”. “You mean like Martha Graham?” Convulsive, rafter-shaking guffaws followed. Inexorably, I was ridiculed into silence and I stopped saying it. But I still believed it…

Now I know that what I desired then was not to be a “modern dance giant” in an egocentric sense or in a public acknowledgment way (both which may also be true) but rather in the sense that I loved dance so much I wanted to not only be a part of it but wanted to make a contribution to it as well. How could I serve IT, The Dance? How could I give back to the one thing that had so transformed me? With The Dance I had found an identity (dancer, choreographer), a voice (a way of expressing how I saw the world), and my Calling. And I wanted to share my enthusiasm. My fervor would be evangelical in its intensity and passion. I would be a fiery John the Baptist for The Dance. I would serve that which had awakened and transform me. And the results would be monumental!

Some have said to me that Spectrum is such a small platform to do the things that I aspire to doing – but I don’t believe that. What might be true is that I have not always articulated the scale of the vision I have for Spectrum. Perhaps what has kept me quiet is I am still listening to my friends from 30 plus years ago shrieking with amusement at my big dream; that I have allowed myself to be silenced out of fear, seeming grandiose, egomaniacal, or just being told that it is impossible. But those donaldbyrdtrips are an indication of something and that something is a commitment to the transformation of Spectrum and Seattle’s contemporary dance scene into something that is glorious, magnificent, and unparalleled. Now I’ve said it.

Where To Begin

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

I’m not quite sure where to begin… Perhaps, I should create ground rules for myself about what I will or will not write about; make a decision on how formal or informal this blog will be… What I do know is I don’t want it to be like those Facebook postings that are mundane information that pollute with banality and makes me want to hide permanently that person’s comments. I hope I can find an inviting balance between information about Spectrum and my relationship with it and my personal thoughts/considerations on dance, aesthetics, and art – to create a tone that is not to loose and chatty but also not stiff and desiccated.

Also, there are the questions of how much or little of my personal life, details and experiences, should I include and what is the relationship of my personal with my position as artistic director at Spectrum?

For example, I am writing this in my room at the Amstel Hotel in Amsterdam (it is my favorite hotel in the world) … I am en route from Gothenburg, Sweden where I performed at 24kvadrat (an intimate, charming, and green colored performance space) with Maud Karlsson (former dancer in Donald Byrd/The Group), Siv Ander (a 70 year old beauty and former dancer with Cullberg Ballet) and Tommy Håkansson… Tonight I will have dinner with Scott deLahunta (an Amsterdam based researcher, writer, consultant and organizer on a wide range of international projects bringing performing arts into conjunction with other disciplines and practices, whose also a friend that has moved and touched me in so many ways with his intelligence and sensitivity). Does any of this contributes to or shapes my decisions as artistic director or helps you the reader to understand the choices I make in that position? Maybe what is more pertinent and directly related is I met with Paul Selwyn Norton, a Netherlands based choreographer, who I would like to bring to Seattle to work with Spectrum? I don’t know …

As I ponder these questions, information, and facts, they all seem to have some bearing on what might be happening and what you might be seeing and experiencing at Spectrum in the near future. How they fit together, I don’t quite know as of yet – but I am sure they must fit.