March 1, 2016
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RAMBUNCTIOUS 2.0: A Festival of Music and Dance…Continued + DANCE, DANCE, DANCE

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RAMBUNCTIOUS 2.0: A Festival of Music and Dance…Continued, Photo Credit: Tino Tran

“Black history doesn’t only belong to African Americans; it belongs to all Americans. It is a travesty that most Americans don’t know black history.” 

– Chey Yew, playwright and artistic director of

Victory Gardens Theater (Chicago)

When I was growing up in the segregated South, attending all-black schools, we were always taught “Negro” history. Taught about the contributions and accomplishments of black artists, educators, scientists, inventors and political/ community leaders. There was no “Black History Month;” everyday was black history. Why? Because black folks’ histories and contributions were not to be found in the text books approved and provided by the all-white school boards of the Jim Crow South. Yet our teachers and families were committed to our knowing and remembering and so we were taught.

We all knew the names of abolitionists Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglas; educators and activists Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune; botanist and inventor George Washington Carver; Eli Whitney the inventor of the cotton gin; scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, poets Arna Bontemps, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes. We also knew the black figures from popular culture, sports, movies, music, and entertainment, especially those that had broken the race barriers and were trail-blazers like Joe Louis and Willie Mays. We were even encouraged to write essays about them and enter oration competitions held between black schools where the subject of our speeches was one of these renowned black figures. By the time I was entering the 9th grade in 1963, the list had expanded to include authors Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin.

This was the positive history, the biographies of those who were able somehow to transcend, if only for a moment, the ugly oppressive fist of bigotry. But there was also the dark history, slavery, always in the background and just below the surface of everything we did. Yet we were not shielded from it nor was it denied. In my own family I was taught and reminded whom had been born a slave or how many years after slavery they were born or their age at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Told of the indignities family members had endured at the hands of whites, some of those hands were ‘family’ hands – the white family.

We were taught about the atrocities of slavery, and made aware of its bitter remnants even as we sang the beautiful old Negro spirituals. We were reminded of its continued emotional and psychic damage on us, of its legacy of brutality. We learned of the lynchings and the systematic terrorizing of black folk by faceless white men in hooded white robes. We learned of cross burnings, beatings and demeaning acts of aggression. However, most importantly, we learned that in spite of the horrors of the past, the important history were the stories of when, how and whom had survived. Black history was the narratives of the survival and the thriving of black folk in America.

With the civil rights movement came hope, a belief that Righteousness would prevail over the evils of hate, bigotry, ignorance, and inequality. My family believed in this hope, not for themselves but rather for me, for my future. Their notion of integration was not a mixing or co-habitation of the races but rather equal access and equal opportunity – that’s what they wanted for me. Their hope led me to believed that one day the history that I had been taught in my Southern Negro schools would be taught to all Americans regardless of race, ethnicity, country of origin, or religion. They hoped and I believed that just as I had access to black history, white people would, with integration, also have access to it. And in the future we, all Americans, would be the beneficiaries of our collective histories.

Jumping ahead to 2016 – in many ways little has changed. While some non-black Americans know a few things about black history and the contributions of blacks to American and world society and culture, most do not. This is the challenge, creating awareness and consciousness about the positive and real contributions and accomplishments of blacks.

I wonder about the violence against black folks happening almost daily across our nation. Happening in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, Cleveland, Los Angeles and other cities and towns over the last two years and recorded by cameras on smart phones, distributed across the internet and witnessed on 24-hour news outlets. Wondering if these murderous acts would even be happening if the contributions of black people were known, acknowledged, and valued. Wondering if black history were the history of all of us, our history, Americans’ history, then, would #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite? or #StopErasingBlackPeople at Art AIDS America would even be necessary? Even Spectrum Dance Theater’s current festival of music and dance, “MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE”, might just be a nice oxymoron as opposed to an effort to illuminate the often ‘invisible persons’ status of black classical composers and the influence of black sensibilities, dancers and choreographers, and the Africanist Aesthetic on American dance both modern and classical.

I wonder and wonder and I wonder and I wonder…

Donald Byrd

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DANCE, DANCE, DANCE, Photo Credit: Tino Tran

The Minstrel Show Revisited Is Difficult…

October 19, 2015
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The Minstrel Show Revisited is difficult…

It is difficult because it complicates our thinking

It is difficult because it is disruptive

It is difficult because it confronts

It is difficult because it makes us race-conscious in a way that is not comfortable or easy

It is difficult because it represents conflict, chaos and potential danger

It is difficult because it hurts and we feel the pain

It is difficult because the issue of race in America will not go away

It is difficult because our responses reveal how ‘tinny’, limited and narrowed by political correctness our conversations about and around race are

It is difficult because it does not falsely uplift and we do not feel good

It is difficult because it provokes

It is difficult because it asks us to be brave and courageous

It is difficult because it asks black people and white people to sit in the same room when race is the issue

It is difficult because race and negative representation is thrust and thrown in our faces

It is difficult because we have to acknowledge the racists legacies of our past

It is difficult because we are asked to stare into the face of the minstrel “black-face” mask and it stares back at us

It is difficult because we are asked to face representations that horrify us but are part of our culture and history

It is difficult because we become aware of how we have internalized racism

It is difficult because our responses are complex/complicated and we want/wish them to be simple reactions, easily categorized

It is difficult because we feel guilt, shame, anger, surprise, complicit, fear, astonishment, remorse, sadness, and are numb all in the same breath

It is difficult because we are taken on an emotional roller-coaster ride

It is difficult because we laugh

It is difficult because we see and hear others laughing

It is difficult because we are bombarded by images and sounds that unnerve and unsettle us

It is difficult because we are asked to acknowledge that what we thought or hoped was finished, dead and gone, is alive and well

It is difficult because we are asked to acknowledge that at this point in time, there is no post-racial America and never was

It is difficult because it seems to ‘re-inscribe’ the language of racism that it purports to want to erase

It is difficult because we are reminded that history is painful, we can hardly bear it and want to rewrite it, or wish it weren’t so, just so we can feel better

It is difficult because we are asked to acknowledge that we see color and race

It is difficult because in spite of what one says, none of us are color-blind

It is difficult because sitting in the darkened theater we are aware of all the unfiltered thoughts regarding race running through ours mind – and maybe others know what we are thinking

It is difficult because it raises questions and provides no answers

It is difficult because we hate every minute of how we feel when we watch it yet watch it anyway

It is difficult because we are sick and tired of the past and wonder why we can’t just “move on” or just “get over it”

It is difficult because in it the past and present collide and often look the same

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Photo Credit: Nate Watters, 2014

An Update to “The Departure”

July 22, 2015
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This is the time of year when one performance season is transitioning to the next. It is also a time that Company dancers depart for new or just different lives. Often during this time I find myself reflecting back on the events of the past season, the highs and the lows, but also on my relationship with the dancers, in particular those that have decided to leave.

 In 2010 a Company dancer departed suddenly mid-season. It was a dancer that I was very fond of, not only as an artist but also as a person. In March of 2011, I wrote a blog about my thoughts and feelings regarding dancers departing the Company. This was the first time I had ever expressed them publicly (in writing) and maybe the first time I had ever thought them through so thoroughly. Since that time, from time to time, I re-read what I wrote then (usually during this transition time) and am often surprised that those thoughts still seem true and relevant. This year that posting seems to resonate more than usual. It is re-posted here, with some slight edits, and dedicated with love to all the former dancers of Spectrum Dance Theater who have moved on to the next chapter of their lives.

The Departure
March 29, 2011

One of the most difficult and challenging aspects of my job as artistic director is watching dancers leave. I almost always feel sad (and abandoned), sometimes hurt, and at times angry. Occasionally, I have felt betrayed or some combination of all of the above.
The abandonment feeling is my issue and has nothing to do with the dancer. On the other hand, the sadness means that the dancer is leaving with grace and my affection for them is still intact. There is a degree of dignity in their departure. My sadness being an indicator that I care about them, that we (well at least I) have connected. It is a deeply felt loss to lose someone that I not only have affection for, but with whom I won’t have the pleasure, joy, and challenges of almost daily creative interaction. It is a grateful sadness. The hurt, angry, and betrayal, however, is more complicated.

Usually when I have one of those responses it means that the decision of the dancer to leave and how they have chosen to do it has at best had some ‘awkwardness’ to it. These might include a range of things such as unfortunate statements – “there is nothing for me to get at Spectrum”; to innocuous one -“I don’t like Seattle and can’t live here”; to ones that are real pressing issues for the dancer – “it’s not enough money”. At other times these statements/reasons will demonize the organization, other company dancers and often me. I have to consider whether some of this ‘awkwardness’ can be attributed to age or inexperience in how to gracefully end a work relationship without burning bridges. Or is it mean-spiritedness, justification, or some unspoken expectations that the dancer had of Spectrum or me that were not met? The latter is I believe the most common – undeclared expectations not met or assumed promises unfulfilled. Rarely, I believe, is it plain mean-spiritedness (though there are couple of examples I can think of where I believe I misjudged character and the dancer was not the person I thought them to be).

One would think after all the years of doing this job that I would ‘get it’ by now:
1) Nothing lasts forever, 2) There is always change, and 3) Dancers leave companies. My head knows all of this but my heart is another matter.
Simply, I hate it when dancers in my company leave. My emotions take over and I am not reasonable – I am in a profound state of upsetness. I feel they don’t get my contribution to them or even who I really am. How could they do this to me? I gave them everything I had. I feel unappreciated, unacknowledged, unvalued and left alone (that’s the abandonment part). I feel sorry for myself. I sit on the ‘pity pot’. I wallow in the loss and in thoughts of loss. “What am I to do without them?” I think. “How can I go on?” I am inconsolable.

My response might seem overwrought and dramatic but beneath the histrionics the feelings are real and authentic. I guess it is my form of grieving. The departure of the dancer, the leaving, I experience as a kind of death. In some ways I go through all five stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grieving – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is the end of a great and wonderful ‘something’, of a collection of moments that can never be recaptured, lost in time and trapped in memory. I am reminded of the fragility of existence. Like a dousing with a bucket of cold water in the middle of winter, a slap in the face, I recognize at the moment of the dancer’s departure that my dances/choreographies as created with and performed by this particular configuration, this group of unique and singular people, will never happen exactly the same way again. Dance, like life, is ephemeral, the moments brief and elusive… There is an adage that says, “Wear life like a loose garment”. I like that – but it is so hard to do.