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Spectrum Dance Theater first presented an OCCURRENCE at La Usina del Arte in Buenos Aires, Argentina on March 20, 2016. OCCURRENCE # 1, was created as the culminating public presentation of a week-long U.S. Embassy residency in Buenos Aires. Our performance was...

Assessing Choreography

When I hear conversations (usually in lobbies of theaters after performances or granting panels) about whether choreographic work is good or bad based solely on the work’s vocabulary, I cringe. Often I will hear comments like, “the vocabulary was not new” or “the vocabulary was not innovative” as a way of assessing (usually minimizing) the artist’s work. When I hear those kinds of statements I always want to scream. While I admit that an interesting vocabulary keeps the eye engaged and that movement invention plays a key role in the success of a work, however, there are other elements that ought to be brought into play for assessing a work’s success, for example concept or idea, vision, theatricality, or structure.

This obsession with new, fresh and innovative vocabulary seems to be a particular American fixation (Europeans seem less concerned with it). The American-ness of it, I believe, is linked to the ascent of abstract expressionism in post WWII America. Just as social realism in the 1930’s with its social and political protest themes had been a major influence on early American modern dance, abstraction and abstract expressionism was the perfect art for a time of increased censorship of the arts and artists in America. With abstract expressionism’s image as pure, highly idiosyncratic and apolitical it was a perfect movement for McCarthy era art where the political climate did not tolerate social protests. Its rightness lay in the non-specificity of abstraction – if the subject matter were totally abstract then it would be seen as apolitical, and therefore safe; or if the art was political, the message was obscure, oblique or for a small group of insiders. And just as this very American movement and New York became the center of the western visual art world it also became a significant influence on American modern dance makers and the move towards an American dance focused on pure movement.

Authentic Structures

Over the past couple of years I have found myself dissatisfied with many of the ways in which I work. After the creation of the Man/Pet program (The Miraculous Mandarin/Petrushka), it occurred to me that the formality and tidiness of those pieces robbed them of their vitality and the structures were inadequate to support the theatrical experiences I wished the audience to have or ideas I wanted them to grapple with. For years my work had very much been grounded in a proscenium aesthetic (a framed picture through which the audience peered to observe what was on the other side). I had relished exploring the possibilities of proscenium theatrical devices as well as the visceral thrill and dynamic energy generated when the conventions were broken. But what had once seemed exciting now started to seem like mindless habit – irrelevant, artificial, un-thoughtful, automatic and gratuitous. These explorations had grown tiresome. This became clear to me during Man/Pet.

The PAMU projects (Beyond Dance: Promoting Awareness and Mutual Understanding), with their focus on complex geo-political issues, seemed to demand that I explore other ways of working and structuring. I saw these projects as a possible way, an opportunity, to break the old habits and begin to explore other kinds of structures and organizing principles, something more ‘authentic’- structures that mimic or attempt to replicate the complexity and the unknowable(ness) of the subject of the pieces or even of life itself. I was weary of the neat and tidy on stage, viewing things from only one vantage point, everything organized so that the eye could easily take it all in. I wanted something that was closer to how the contemporary world appeared to me – so unknowable and complex that order as it had been known seemed to disappear and become unpredictable, even chaotic.

Le Bal Noir

I have long been fascinated by the ballroom ballets of George Balanchine. Le Bal, a work from 1929, was his first attempt in this genre that he continued to explore through out his long career. These ballets, including La Sonnambula, La Valse and Davidsbündlertänze, seem to be dance as envisioned by a surrealist or romantic poet and in this sense they are radically different from the cool and austere masterworks like Agon and The Four Temperaments that we usually think of when we think of Balanchine. Sometimes referred to as ‘Le Bal Noir’ ballet or The Black Ball ballets the above works which form the core of the corpus of the genre share some distinctive traits beyond their ballroom setting: undercurrents of something tragically wrong, bereavement and loss, ill-fated relationships, and destiny as indifferent and fickle.

In many ways, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty anticipate the genre of ‘le bal noir’ – with Rothbart and Carabosse as agents of fate who make the party go terribly wrong. Yet, in these ballets as in all things 19th Century, conflicts are resolved, in one way or another, by the end. Many believe that Balanchine, whether consciously or not, modernized the genre by letting narrative points remain uncertain and leaving plot questions unanswered. To him, these works were not about happy endings or even tragic ones, but rather suggesting philosophical and human complexities through irresolution.

The Dancical/Control/Twyla Tharp

Several years ago in preparations for a new ballet using Motown hits that I was planning for The Joffrey Ballet (and because I was also thinking of the work as a possible workshop for a dance musical, a “dancical”, I wrote some thoughts down about the dance musical in general and Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out in particular. However, I never shared those thoughts with anyone – but I will later in this post.

With the recent opening of the new Tharp dancical, Come Fly Away (to the songs of Frank Sinatra), and the critical response to it, I started to think again about my own aspirations in this area and what I had written back then. Several other factors might have also gotten me thinking as well. Spectrum’s current collaboration with the 5th Avenue Theater on its revival of On The Town probably triggered some thoughts. But my being fired from the Broadway bound musical White Noise, which I was scheduled to direct and choreograph this spring in New York, (as of this posting, it still hasn’t gone into rehearsal) is the most likely instigator. I had co-directed and choreographed the out of town tryout in New Orleans this past summer and with two show stopping numbers in it and tremendous audience response, I was thrilled at the possibility of my theater dances being seen the way I wanted them to be seen as opposed to how a director (not me) thought they ought to be viewed. I was also excited that with Bill T Jones’s Fela, the Tharp show, and White Noise, the current season might see three choreographer directed shows running simultaneously on Broadway.

What Do We Need To Know?

In my first posting I wondered about how much of the personal should appear in the blog – what my personal life had to do with my professional choices and artistic creations. As I said then, the point perhaps of this blog is to provide some insight into my process of being an artistic director and choreographer and the complex array of things that go into making artistic and organizational decisions. This issue of the relationship of personal history to artistic meaning, output, and value has been around for a while in literary criticism – is knowledge of an artist’s personal history and psychology necessary to discern meaning from the work, and for an appraisal and valuation of it? But in dance these questions are seldom if ever asked. Mostly, it is that those personal truths and realities of the artists’ lives is thought to add a deeper understanding or insight into what is being seen on stage but not necessarily to contribute to the work’s artistic successfulness, worth or value.

Since so much of American contemporary dance is abstract, autobiographical elements are almost impossible to discern. One might say that American contemporary dance artists do everything they can so that who they really are as people and glimpses of their personal life goes unrevealed in their work, (Bill T Jones, David Rousseve, and Reggie Wilson might be exceptions and interestingly all African-American males). With abstract dance artists it is only through ongoing viewing of their work that we come to understand and appreciate (or not) their aesthetic concerns and interests. But seldom do we know what non-aesthetic circumstances drive them and the choices they make – how the non-aesthetic affects the aesthetic. Perhaps even the complex structures employed by many of these artists are like elaborate decoys designed to distract and to keeps us away from knowing who they really are.

portrait of donald byrd

Mr. Byrd, a TONY nominated (The Color Purple) and Bessie Award winning (The Minstrel Show) choreographer, became Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theater in December 2002. Mr. Byrd has frequently been referred to as a ‘citizen artist’ a descriptive that perfectly aligns with an important component of Spectrum Dance Theater’s mission – “dance as an art form and as a social/ civic instrument.”