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.

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