On Carmina Burana

March 10, 2014
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In the latter part of the 20th Century a few stage directors, notable Peter Sellars, began to look at the cantata as potential theatrical material. By the beginning of this century we began to see these staged cantata pop up on various stages across the US and Europe. The Sellars’ 2001 staging of Bach’s Cantatas nos. BWV 199 (Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut) and BWV 82 (Ich habe genug) with the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson made a convincing case for staging what many considered ‘un-dramatic’ musical works. What Sellars sought in his staging was to create an intimate, personal, and spiritual experience for those that encountered this particular work. Even if one were to concede to the un-dramatic nature of the Bach pieces, their musical value, and how they speak to a personal relationship with God, their spirituality, is unquestionable.

On the other hand, the ever-popular 1935 Carmina Burana from composer Carl Orff, subtitled a scenic cantata, was intended to be staged (though often it is now performed in concert form as a standard cantata). In addition, while drawing its text from poems and song found at the monastery at Benediktbeuern it is anything but religious or spiritual. Its subject matter – mortality and fate; nature; and tender, explicit, and highly sensual love – places it directly in the center of the secular and with its bombastic and hyperbolic score it is far removed from the intimate.

In 1997 I staged and choreographed Carmina Burana as a large-scale danced musical drama, a spectacle, for New York City Opera. The production was not only in keeping with the spirit of the music but also with Orff’s stated intentions. Orff developed a dramatic concept he called ‘Theatrum Mundi’ in which music, movement, and speech were inseparable. In this artistic formula every musical moment was to be connected with an action on stage. As such, Carmina was intended as a staged work involving dance, choreography, visual design and other stage action.

During the restaging two years later, however, I began to have other thoughts about the work especially in light of the fact that the supposed authors of the text were Goliards, defrocked monks. I began to wonder what circumstances might have led to these monks disillusionment and their subsequent descent into hedonism and debauchery. As I combed the text, I believed it gave indications of or suggested possible reasons. In order to explore this new way of thinking it seemed to me that the work needed to be stripped of all it spectacle and bombast, reduce the size of the chorus, use the two piano version of the score, focus in on and centralize the role of the baritone as a monk who becomes a Goliard. The simple concept that governs this production is – a righteous man’s crisis of faith that takes him on a journey through the darkness of his soul and the exploitation of his flesh and finally back to a place of personal enlightenment and a renewed faith in the goodness of man, and perhaps even God’s grace.


Carmina Burana runs March 28th & 29th at Spectrum Dance Theater’s Studio. Purchase tickets here.

10 Years Later: A CRUEL NEW WORLD/the new normal

April 12, 2013
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“At 7:30 AM on the morning of September 11, 2001, I sat in my apartment four blocks from The World Trade Center optimistically preparing for a fundraiser … At about 8:45 AM I stared in stunned silence as an airplane slammed into the North Tower of The World Trade Center… By 10:00 AM the life I knew had vanished. I was emotionally and psychologically devastated, displaced from my home, and I felt like a refugee.” – An entry from my diary/Donald Byrd

In 2003, “I felt like a refugee”, was my starting point for A CRUEL NEW WORLD/the new normal, my first new work made in my new hometown of Seattle and in my new capacity as artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater. But it was not my only source of inspiration. Surprisingly, on my arrival at Spectrum and in Seattle, I had been greeted with unexpected hostilities from various camps at Spectrum and around town that stunned and dismayed me. This ‘new world’ I had entered seemed hostile and often cruel. I felt isolated and alone. I responded with not only focused determination to survive and to succeed but also with anger. This became my norm –to meet the hostilities of this new world with aggressive anger and rage.

A CRUEL NEW WORLD/the new normal was to be a dystopic vision of life in America post-9/11. This was to be a vision of America comprised of vast refugee camps of displaced citizens, the result of ongoing terrorist attacks on our homeland. This world was to be one inflamed with cruelty, fueled by dislocation, uncertainty, fear and anger. It was also to be a personal critique of my new life on the outer edges of America – a dark and hostile place. And like an emotionally and psychologically scarred version of Shakespeare’s Miranda from The Tempest, I stared out onto a brave new world not with wonderment and awe but with despair.

As artistic director I had another concern – to develop the company dancers. This growth needed to begin with the technical. The kind of dancers I has grown accustomed to working with in New York were not only highly skilled technicians but often were in possession of exceptional physical capabilities. Though the Spectrum dancers at the time were good technically and possessed immense charm, spirit, and personality, they were not, in many ways ideally suited to the kind of work that I wanted to create. However, I was hopeful that they would meet the challenge and achieve what I was after. Also, the company had for sometime been branded as a ‘jazz dance’ company, thus, the repertory and the dancers’ approach to movement was very much in that style. When I began work with them on A CRUEL NEW WORLD/the new normal, my aim was to provide not only technical and artistic challenges, but also to create a movement vocabulary that drew from their jazz dance experiences and to infuse it with contemporary dance values and sensibilities. In other words I wanted to avoid some of the clichés of jazz dance (jazz hands, big smiles) yet embrace its strengths (attack, generosity and a performative veneer); while adding to that the purposefulness and high concepts often associated with contemporary dance work. My goal was to ease the company towards a Byrd aesthetic. A CRUEL NEW WORLD/the new normal was to be a bridge between the old Spectrum and what Spectrum would become.

10 years after it premiere on April 3, 2003, A CRUEL NEW WORLD/the new normal in this revised version is in many ways the same yet there are some marked differences. What remains are the movement and the vocabulary. Except for a few additions and trims here and there, done for clarity sake, the movement is as it was 10 years ago, as is the sequencing of the sections. However, it is different in its context, focus, and shape.

In its original iteration the world of the piece, its context, was that of displaced people in a citizen refugee camp. However, in this version they are no longer citizen refugees but rather citizen detainees, Americans held in a GITMO like detention camp. They are interned not because they are enemy combatants but rather because the ‘war on terror’ has curtailed personal liberties and their beliefs makes them suspect. This is an extreme vision of a future America where national security trumps civil liberties and all democratic processes are sacrificed in the name of the security of the state.

In addition, whereas in the 2003 version, the people of the piece were generalized and operated on a symbolic or metaphoric level (representations), here in the revised version, they are more specific. In fact, we can think of them as characters with very specific ways of being and behaviors. We experience the world these people inhabit and not just observe it. We see it focused through their eyes.

Finally, in keeping with my current practice of approaching revivals of my older works directorially as oppose to re-authoring, A CRUEL NEW WORLD/the new normal has undergone a directorial process that clarifies and shapes. There is now something more akin to a classical dramatic shape to the piece, especially emotionally, than there was before. Yet, there has been some re-authoring, primarily in the altering of the spoken text.

Donald Byrd


A CRUEL NEW WORLD/the new normal













Photos by Nate Watters


Revisiting The Theater of Needless Talents

October 25, 2012
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Last year this time I was deep in preparation for the revival of The Beast. It was during pre-production of that piece that I arrived at the strategy of approaching revivals of my work as a director rather than as ‘the author’ or choreographer. Rather than ‘rewrite’ the earlier work, I decided I would take the ‘text’ of the work (the movement) as it was written, create new frames or other ways to see moments of the movement, and make theatrical choices that enhanced clarity and meaning of the work. While I have tweaked a few steps here and there and made a few movement rewrites, for the current revival the choreography of The Theater of Needless Talents is pretty much as it was originally seen back in 2008.

For this revival, I have worked to smooth out the moments that felt awkward to me in the past. In addition I have created theatrical ‘enhancements’ and punctuations that help clarify meaning and intention. For example: a black-out of the lighting; a follow-spot for some moments; slowing down or speeding up of transitions; over-lapping moments; and pushing the pacing here and there. But I have also looked at what the piece really is and not necessary what I hoped it would be when we created it. This has been the primary guiding principal to my directorial choices.

The Theater of Needless Talents is a response to The Holocaust. It is not about The Holocaust. The piece asks us to consider The Holocaust not only as a profound Jewish tragedy but also as an atrocity perpetrated against humanity. It was not only a brutal assault intended to annihilate the Jews of Europe but also was the systematic murder of millions of people in other groups as well, including Romanian, Polish and Soviet civilians, homosexuals, people with disabilities, communists, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other political and religious opponents.

At its most inquisitive, The Theater of Needless Talents wonders about the creative life of artists imprisoned in Nazi concentration, transit, and death camps, as well as ghettos. In particular it seeks to shed some light on the nature of performances in the camps, and why in the face of imminent and probable death these people still chose to create and perform. Were these performances moments of respite from the horrors that surrounded them, an instance to lose themselves in the euphoria of performance, or morale boosting actions, or even acts of defiance? Or were they staged as just another insidious act of terror perpetrated on the prisoners by the SS to further humiliate and dehumanize? Perhaps performance in the camps was a complicated and potentially deadly mixture of all those possibilities.

The Theater of Needless Talents asks us to consider the extraordinary musical talent of Erwin Schulhoff, unique and daring, in all its uncompromising and resonant beauty. Schulhoff was a Czech Jew of German origins who loved jazz music, who went out dancing almost every night, and was one of the first European classical composers to significantly integrate African-American musical thought into his compositions. A man whose gifts as a composer and virtuoso pianist were monumental, but whose place in the pantheon of 20th Century European classical greats is conspicuously absent. It is through the contemplation of this absence of ‘one’, multiplied by the millions lost during this horrible chapter of human history, that perhaps we can begin to grasp the tragedy of The Holocaust and its devastating impact on us today.

Finally, The Theater of Needless Talents asks us to wonder that even sixty-five years after The Holocaust, when the world asserted, “never again”, genocide still persists. Though we might recall with horror that not more than 20 years ago the murder of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys during the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the ruthless and brutal murders of approximately 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda; less than 10 years ago the slaughter of thousands of Mbuti pygmies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and today, right now, while we might be shocked, horrified, and dismayed by the daily news that tells us of the ongoing alleged genocides in Darfur, Iraq, Pakistan and Bangladesh, these crimes against humanity continue. Why? Perhaps an answer can be found in a statement President Obama made back in April 2012 at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.: “Because remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing. In this sense, ‘never again’ is a challenge to us all — to pause and to look within.” The Theater of Needless Talents asks that during its 75-minute duration you take the opportunity not only to pause and look within, but also to consider what it will take to create a world free of genocide.