One More Time ...

Choreographer Donald Byrd puts Spectrum Dancers through new paces.

Allison keppel and Fred Gaudette were hurtling through the room just a few minutes ago, their legs stretching and twisting in a complex, driving pattern. Now, though, they're just standing and facing each other, struggling with what should be a simple embrace that keeps eluding them.

"Again," Donald Byrd demands. "No, again. . . . "

Choreographer Byrd is shaping a work in this free open rehearsal for Spectrum Dance Theater (there's one more scheduled for Tuesday, March 11 before the April opening; call 206-325-4161 for more info). It's his first piece since becoming artistic director last December, so everything is newthe dance, the job, and the relationships with the artists in the studio. Running a company isn't a new experience for himhe dissolved his own Donald Byrd/The Group last spring after a 20-year runbut at Spectrum he has walked into a different situation: a group of dancers chosen by someone else, a repertory collected by someone else, and a working environment developed by someone else. He's been hired to put his own stamp on all of these things, and the board and the dancers are all willing to help make that happen, but it's still a bit like a blind date.

And in this case, it's like a blind date on a reality TV show: We've all been invited to watch. Byrd and Spectrum have been presenting a series of open rehearsals over the last couple months as part of his introduction to the Seattle dance community, but these have been more like the real thing than the usual scripted "showing" of a work in progress. Rehearsal can be exhilarating, but at its heart it's about repetition, doing and redoing something until it becomes second nature and one or two important elements shine through.

As Byrd keeps taking Keppel and Gaudette back to the beginning of their dance, it's clear that at this moment the important thing is the emotional intensity of the embrace. He's on their backs about it.

"They don't care if your leg is straight or your foot is pointed," he tells the pair, pointing at the audience. "Those things are like a secret between us. They need to see the emotional connection."

He comes back to that idea at another rehearsal for a different piece, when Daniel Wilkins wraps his arms around Keppel before lifting her. It could be just a transitional moment, a mechanical adjustment, but that's not the point for Byrd.

"It needs to be more passionate, more emotional," he insists. "Like the Black Swan [in Swan Lake]. Black Swan, White Swaneither one of them swans. . . . "

Donald Byrd

Wilkins slows his arms down a bit. The gesture becomes more sequential and tender. Byrd is pleased: "OK. I'll buy that."Asking simultaneously for wildness and precision, Byrd's signature style combines the flexible strength of ballet with an almost combative sense of attack. The dances themselves are often relentless or dark, lightened by moments of emotional connection, and are a change in direction from much of Spectrum's previous repertory. Paula Peters, who has been with the company for 12 years, says that although they have performed similar dances in the past, "they're more intense now. Everyone always worked hard, but this is different. We are exploring other territories than before. Before there were a couple pieces in the rep [like these], but mostly they were gentler, softer emotionsjoy, happiness. Now, it's being what anger or harshness is about. It might be more uncomfortable for us and for the audience."

At this point, though, the dancers are mostly exhilarated by Byrd's drive. "You'll spend a lot of time maybe on two steps," says Peters. "The intensity, the physicality, is very demanding. There are no other options: 'You will do it my way.' And that's OK, that's our job. He's relentless about that. The really great thing, though, is that it happens, and then it's over. There's no residual [feeling]. That's hardto let it be what it is, and walk away."

Byrd himself cheerfully admits that he's intense, but always with a goal in mind.

"I'll push and push and push until they tell me to stop," he allows. "I can be a crazed egomaniac, but what keeps that in check is when I'm in service of something."

skurtz@seattleweekly.com

 
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