Can dance remove the racial differences? Donald Byrd is striving for it

Dance

In front of a video of his younger self, choreographer Donald Byrd was watching a dance he created 33 years ago. In a button-down T-shirt, loose khaki pants and bare feet, the man floated on-screen with the continuity of rushing water through swift turns and bobbing springs, allowing the sentence to resolve in a simple first position.

“Now I like this solo,” said Byrd, adding with a laugh: “You can see that somewhere I was studying ballet.”

The graceful piece he dances in 1986, “Divertimento,” is one of the first images that visitors see in “The America That Is To Be,” a show which runs until January 26 at the Frye Art Museum here. Organized by Thomas F. DeFrantz, performance artist and author, the series traces the history of Byrd’s commitment to dance as a tool for social justice over 40 years.

The early works on display find a young Byrd, coy and confrontational by turns, nimbly slipping between aesthetics: punk, drag, downtown-postmodern. Growing up in the 1950s, he frequently felt pressure in the Black middle class of Clearwater, Florida, “to be some way, I had to represent all Black people.” Through dance, he rejected that mandate.

“My idea is that I’m trying to create space not just for myself but for other Black people,” he said, “young black people at the time, to be who they are, that the box needs to be big enough to contain all these voices and ways of seeing things.” Always obsessed with widening ways of seeing things, and not afraid of stimulating the public into paying attention, Byrd has lately been in high demand and has been in high demand. He has created new works this season for Pacific Northwest Ballet (the haunting “Love and Loss”) and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, within his job at Spectrum Dance Theater, the Seattle company he has directed since 2002. “Greenwood,” his exploration of the 1921 massacre of Tulsa, Oklahoma, will take place on Dec. 6 during the Ailey City Center season.

Byrd won a $275,000 Doris Duke Artist Award in July, just before turning 70, one of the most prestigious awards in performing arts. As part of the James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award, given to artists in the state of Washington and won by Byrd in 2016, the opportunity was given at the Frye.

“Donald was praised but undervalued,” said DeFrantz, who since the 1990s has been his mentor and intermittently collaborated with him as a dramaturge. “So it’s nice to see that attention paid, and maybe it’s the beginning of a kind of appreciation of the people in the trenches.” Given the abundance of dance in museums over the past decade, the work of a single living choreographer remains unusual.

Byrd was known for his volatility and hard parts of his past are not overlooked by the exhibition. One passage of the wall text recognizes his struggles with drugs and alcohol in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as his reputation as an “emotionally aggressive taskmaster.” “He had real challenges with drug abuse,” said DeFrantz, “not quite homeless, but being so bohemian that he didn’t care for himself. As a younger artist, he was irresponsible, and then all that confusion and fear became apparent in how he treated younger dancers or other artists with whom he worked.

In front of a video of his younger self, choreographer Donald Byrd was watching a dance he created 33 years ago. In a button-down T-shirt, loose khaki pants and bare feet, the man floated on-screen with the continuity of rushing water through swift turns and bobbing springs, allowing the sentence to resolve in a simple first position.

“Now I like this solo,” said Byrd, adding with a laugh: “You can see that somewhere I was studying ballet.”

Thegraceful piece he dances in 1986, “Divertimento,” is one of the first images that visitors see in “The America That Is To Be,” a show which runs until January 26 at the Frye Art Museum here. Organized by Thomas F. DeFrantz, performance artist and author, the series traces the history of Byrd’s commitment to dance as a tool for social justice over 40 years.

The early works on display find a young Byrd, coy and confrontational by turns, nimbly slipping between aesthetics: punk, drag, downtown-postmodern. Growing up in the 1950s, he frequently felt pressure in the Black middle class of Clearwater, Florida, “to be some way, I had to represent all Black people.” Through dance, he rejected that mandate.

 

“My idea is that I’m trying to create space not just for myself but for other Black people,” he said, “young black people at the time, to be who they are, that the box needs to be big enough to contain all these voices and ways of seeing things.” Always obsessed with widening ways of seeing things, and not afraid of stimulating the public into paying attention, Byrd has lately been in high demand and has been in high demand. He has created new works this season for Pacific Northwest Ballet (the haunting “Love and Loss”) and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, within his job at Spectrum Dance Theater, the Seattle company he has directed since 2002. “Greenwood,” his exploration of the 1921 massacre of Tulsa, Oklahoma, will take place on Dec. 6 during the Ailey City Center season.

 

Byrd won a $275,000 Doris Duke Artist Award in July, just before turning 70, one of the most prestigious awards in performing arts. As part of the James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award, given to artists in the state of Washington and won by Byrd in 2016, the opportunity was given at the Frye.

 

“Donald was praised but undervalued,” said DeFrantz, who since the 1990s has been his mentor and intermittently collaborated with him as a dramaturge. “So it’s nice to see that attention paid, and maybe it’s the beginning of a kind of appreciation of the people in the trenches.” Given the abundance of dance in museums over the past decade, the work of a single living choreographer remains unusual.

 

Byrd was known for his volatility and hard parts of his past are not overlooked by the exhibition. One passage of the wall text recognizes his struggles with drugs and alcohol in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as his reputation as an “emotionally aggressive taskmaster.” “He had real challenges with drug abuse,” said DeFrantz, “not quite homeless, but being so bohemian that he didn’t care for himself. As a younger artist, he was irresponsible, and then all that confusion and fear became apparent in how he treated younger dancers or other artists with whom he worked.

Shreyas Tanna

About Shreyas Tanna

The winner of Mr. Pune 2009 Pageant, Mr. Shreyas Tanna is currently the young, dashing, and dynamic CEO of a market research company called Research N Reports in Pune. Fondly known as RNR, the company specializes in market research as well as industry analysis, and is closely associated with its parent company Absolute Markets Insights (AMI). Mr. Shreyas Tanna began his corporate journey as the Head of Corporate sales & PR at RED Entertainment while pursuing his degree for MMS (Marketing) from the MGM College of Management, Mumbai. After accomplishing the tedious task of balancing his work and education, he further polished his skills in Corporate Sales, Public Relations, Channel Development, Global Client Engagement, Strategic Consulting, and Brand Development by working with HDFC Life and ResearchMoz Global Pvt. Ltd. His dedication towards his work has even won him accolades such as the National Level Performer 2013 – HDFC Life and Mr. ResearchMoz 2015. A disciplined individual with a loving heart, he is often seen taking crisp walks with an engrossed look and a gentle smile within the premises of his company to interact with the various departments. And he will be usually followed by an adorable trail of his beloved trio of Shih Tzu babies proudly known as Gucci, Drake, and Paris. The most enticing thing that you will notice about this content and proud pet parent is his infectious positivity and the firm belief in his eyes, a reflection of his favorite quote, “LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL!”

View all posts by Shreyas Tanna →