Donald Byrd: Spectrum Dance Theater in Bhangra Fever

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Spectrum Dance Theatre in Bhangra Fever
Photo by Chris Bennion

Donald Byrd may share a name with a famous jazz musician, but he’s also a legend of his own in the dance world. Byrd considers himself an American choreographer. He names African American dance icons, Alvin Ailey, Tally Beatty, and Donald McKayle as significant influences, and also considers Balanchine part of his legacy. “Ailey gave me my first break when he hired me to choreograph Shards for the company,” remembers Byrd. “He paid for it out of his own pocket, too.”

His career has taken him all over the dance universe including Europe, New York, and now Seattle, where he heads up Spectrum Dance Theater, Seattle’s leading contemporary dance company. Houston audiences may recall his work with his own company DONALD BYRD/THE GROUP back in 2001. He closed his company for a variety of reasons. “Some good, some not so good,” says Byrd, about those difficult years. “Now, it seems like the right thing to do.”

He took over the helm of Spectrum in 2002. Byrd admits, “I work better inside a company environment.” Although he knew the city and the community, starting from scratch with Spectrum wasn’t easy. “Those first years were tough,” says Byrd. “The dancers were not used to my aesthetic. It took me ten years to get my own company where I wanted it.” Today, he has an incredibly versatile group of dancers, who are mostly natives of the Pacific Northwest. He finds they have they also posses a kind of distinctiveness that he has grown to love. “I am trying to collect that and create this identity,” says Byrd. “They are getting better and better; I am thrilled by that.”

The program speaks to Byrd’s taste for diversity and openness to multi-cultural influences. Bhangra Fever was inspired from article in The New York Times about a famous Bhangra singer being mobbed on the streets of New York. While Bhangra began as a traditional harvest celebration in the Punjab, it was appropriated by the club scene in Asia and the UK beginning in the 1970s.

At the time, the Bhangra culture was hardly on Byrd’s radar. He googled the star, and caught a case of his own Bhangra fever. Intrigued by this dance/music phenomenon that merges traditional Indian music with electronic club music, Byrd set out to do some cultural merging of his own. His movement vocabulary is as much all over the map as the music is. Bhangra music knows no geographic boundaries and is listened to by people all over the world. Byrd’s dance is exotic and sexy, with touches of Indian movements interspersed with ballet and modern virtuosity. “I did some research, but I wanted to mix classical, Bhangra and African dance forms,” he says. “There’s also a highly erotized feeling in this music.”

He’s interested in a philosophy of contemporary modernism, which he describes as “the convergence of populations and information that are crossing boundaries at an unprecedented rate.” Bhangra may have originated in India but we can all claim ownership. It’s that “everyone has access to everything” concept that fueled Byrd’s approach. If music can be democratized, why not dance?

Short Dances/Little Stories is yet another adventure in culture crossing. Houston graffiti artists will be making fresh art in the background while the dance is going on. This piece is an excerpt from a larger evening called “Hip-hop Fado and the Blues.” Fado music, a form of Portuguese blues, grew out of the mixing of African cultures with European elements. “Fado is about the world and life and fate,” says Byrd. “It’s about how we deal with life regardless of what is thrown at you.” Again Byrd draws from a large pool for his movement vocabulary. There’s some Hip-hop influences combined with a strong emotional tone. “Rage and anger are part of hip-hop and I wanted to express that,” he says. “Dance and music is a safe way of really intense emotions. Why not dance it out instead of shooting people?” Artists Nathaniel Donnett, Phillip Perez, A.K.A. “Article,” Rudolph Perez, Jr., and Thomas Razo will join the dancers on stage.

The program also includes Thaddeus Davis’ Tantric Voices, set to traditional Tibetan music. “He started to choreograph while in my company and has been at it ever since,” says Bryd about his protégé. “He has a very unique and distinct voice; people say they can see my influence, but I don’t.” Davis comes with an impressive list of kudos, including being named by Dance Magazine as “one of 25 to watch in the world,” the 2003 Choo San Goh Award for Choreography, and the judges’ vote for Ballet Austin’s New American Talent competition. His very first choreographic work, Once Before Twice After, was named one of the top 10 moments in dance for 2002 by The New York Times. Currently he’s a guest faculty member at The Alabama School of Fine Arts and Co-Director of Wideman-Davis/Artist in Residence.

We can’t really discuss Byrd’s career without mentioning his ground-breaking work on the Tony- nominated musical The Color Purple. “It was a remarkable experience, and one very intense year,” says Byrd. “It got me interested in storytelling, narrative, and emotion.” He found working on Alice Walker’s award-winning book life changing. “The musical strikes a balance between visual beauty and the harshness in the book,” he says. “What’s remarkable is that it’s so uplifting by the end. I spent a year crying and didn’t realize I could be so compassionate.”

Versatility, working with a confluence of influences, and staying open to the shifts of the global culture exchange are some of the ideas that characterize Byrd’s style. When you ask Byrd what he’s all about, he refers back to his mentors. “I synthesize a lot of traditions. I deconstruct my influences, break them up, and rearrange them, almost like a mosaic.”

Society for the Performing Arts presents Bhangra Fever, Spectrum Dance Theater on January 12 & 13, 8pm at Wortham Center, Cullen Theatre. Call 713-227-4SPA or visit http://www.spahouston.org/ .

Off the Wall: Graffiti-Art or Not?
A public Discussion with Spectrum Dance Theater Artistic Director Donald Byrd, Executive Director of the Community Artists´ Collective Michelle Barnes, Councilmember Sue Lovell; Contemporary Arts Museum Houston curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, and a local graffiti artist.

Thursday, January 11th, 6:30pm
MFAH, Brown Auditorium
Free
www.mfah.org

Reprinted from artshouston.

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