November 2, 2015
651 ARTS is an organization dedicated to contemporary performing arts of the African diaspora. When the organization celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2014, I was tasked with producing the anniversary video retrospective. It was a massive archival project: over the course of nine months, I combed through hours of old performance footage and conducted dozens of interviews with former staff, community members, and historians. There was perhaps no artist more fondly remembered by those that I interviewed than Donald Byrd. After all, 651 ARTS co-commissioned Byrd’s New York premiere of the groundbreaking work The Harlem Nutcracker (1998). Indeed, there are few artists, regardless of medium, as heralded as Byrd. In 1978, he founded the critically acclaimed modern dance company Donald Byrd/The Group, which ushered this eclectic choreographer onto an international stage. He has choreographed for companies including Alvin Ailey, The Joffrey Ballet, Philadanco, and MaggioDanza diFirenze, among others, and currently serves as the Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle. On the heels of his Works and Process performance at the Guggenheim, Byrd spoke to me via Skype about his creation process and impulse, the relationship between dance and theater, and his current artistic preoccupations.
Jessica Lynne (Rail): Is your relationship with 651 as memorable for you as it has been for so many of us?
Donald Byrd: 651 ARTS was important to me because it was an organization committed to the support of African American artists in particular. At the time, it was important to me that I had that cultural connection, that I wasn’t just a “downtown” artist. I felt, at times, that some African Americans thought that my work didn’t speak to African American issues—even though I believed it did. I felt a bit alienated from the community. There are certain artists who I would say are like me in that their work is not overtly or obviously Afrocentric: artists like Bebe Miller or Ralph Lemon, and, to a certain extent, Bill T. Jones. But, as I used to say, the very nature of our being black means we are making dance speaking to black issues—even if we don’t do so in a way that seems obvious. So, it was really terrific that Mikki Sheppard and the entire 651 apparatus got that.
Rail: I want to stay with this ambiguous idea of black dance. How do you strike a balance between your more abstract work and work that has an explicit social/historical thesis, particularly for viewers who encounter your pieces for the first time? Is abstraction even a fair term to apply to dance and choreography?
Byrd: I think abstraction becomes a vehicle for understanding the cultural specifics that lie in the subtext of my work. It’s not the text but the subtext. I have a program coming up where I talk about the African aesthetic of my work and how the principles that define the African aesthetic are really present, especially abstractly. Even if you don’t know what those principles are, you can feel the “blackness” there.
Rail: It seems as if you are not necessarily arguing against the existence of a “black dance” the way we have come to understand that phrase vernacularly, but instead saying that as a black person, a black body, your work can always be thought of in those terms regardless of the explicit nature of the content of the choreography itself.
Byrd: Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.
Rail: As a writer who appreciates dance but is not a dancer, I have a habit of thinking about choreography in very textual terms. How would you describe your vocabulary as a choreographer?
Byrd: I’ve come to believe that dance is more than just vocabulary. Sometimes, there is an overemphasis on vocabulary. I am most interested in the architecture of the work. What is the architecture of the dance? Mostly, when I think of vocabulary, I think of beautiful bricks—and you might have a bunch of beautiful bricks, but not have a building. I’m interested in the building that the beautiful bricks make, and so the vocabulary I use varies from dance to dance.
Often, the vocabulary is determined by what the subject matter is. But given the African sensibility that I believe runs through my work, there are influences in my life that will always show up. For example, there is a sense of the European that comes from my background in ballet and the classical world—but my emphasis is different. You know, I jokingly say to people, “I’m black; I like the bass, the drums.” [Laughs.]
Rail: How do your students respond to this architectural approach to your creation process?
Byrd: When I teach, what I am after is the language of movement that emphasizes a strong but flexible torso. The torso has the capacity to be responsive to nuances, whether emotional or informational. The torso should bend and move easily. Then, you have highly articulated feet and legs. That doesn’t always mean this movement is articulated in the way ballet is articulated, but that you can see each movement clearly nonetheless.
For instance, when I was working on The Minstrel Show, we used a vocabulary through which we might understand what minstrelsy looked like. The building, if you will, was the result of certain types of deconstructions we made around how the body moved during that period and then filling in
The more culturally aware the dancer is, the better. There is a lot of information that lives in the movement and the dancer brings his or her own cultural specificities to the work as well. Because I’m so much older than the dancers I work with now, I have to fill in some gaps for them. In some ways, I have to act as a dramaturg because sometimes I make references and allusions to things from my own cultural experiences that they don’t get. But part of my job is to keep up with them so that I know how to communicate better.
Rail: But this also affirms for me how we might understand the beauty of dance as living in the crafting of the work itself and not merely in the final display of movement.
Byrd: When I first went to New Orleans, I saw really big women dancing in one of the city’s open areas. It was so beautiful to me. I thought, “Wow, look at how they move!” Part of why this movement was so beautiful was that their flesh would move in concert with the bottom half of their bodies, creating these very complex rhythms. What I try to do in my dance is recreate something like that: a complex, polyrhythmic sense of the body moving.
Rail: I appreciate the theatrical reference you made to dramaturgy earlier. I know that you studied theater and philosophy as a college student. Do they still influence your work and your thinking about dance?
Byrd: Yes, they do. Especially theater. I see dance as a form of theater—even when it’s abstract. I think about—and I try to communicate this to my dancers—how to make the experience theatrically rich for the audience. Even if it is an abstract dance, there still has to be intentionality in the movement. You can dance and simply execute, but I like dance that is purposeful. What is the relationship that you are having with the person you are dancing with? Imagination is important. Performers are like magicians. If you as a dancer don’t have anything in your head, the audience is not going to see anything. You imagine and that is transmitted to the audience. In the theater, that is how ideas are communicated.
Rail: What are your current artistic preoccupations? How are you thinking about your dance in this moment of protest and the hyper-visible reality of police brutality, if at all?
Byrd: It is very much on my mind. In some way, every program of our current season at Spectrum is preoccupied with what is happening. Some of it is more oblique and not as direct. We are doing Rambunctious 2.0, for example, which focuses on African American composers. I was really interested in thinking about why African American composers are underrepresented and invisible, and how that is obviously one of the legacies of racism in this country. I’m also collaborating with Anna Deavere Smith on a project titled Rap on Race, which is based on that James Baldwin/Margaret Mead conversation from 1970. So right now, that is where my mind is: What can I contribute to the current conversation around race relations in this country?
When I first revived The Minstrel Show, it was like six months before the Michael Brown incident. My dancers and I were emotionally focused on Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman and then boom: Michael Brown. This says to me that, given where my interests generally are, I have to keep visiting and revisiting this issue of race and equity and try to find ways of engaging audiences, dancers, and myself. What I’ve talked a lot about is this idea of positive disruption. We have to disrupt not only how we talk about race but the mechanisms for speaking about race. We live in these discrete bubbles of dance, or theater, or visual art and we must find ways that the distinctions between them are disrupted so that we can bust through boundaries that separate us.
Jessica Lynne is a writer and art critic. She is founding co-editor of ARTS.BLACK.