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Summer 2003
“Dance and movement have a way of getting past barriers that words run into.”

For Donald Byrd, A73, the pursuit of that transcendence has driven a remarkable career in modern dance. Since 1976, he has created more than 80 works for his dance troupe, DONALD BYRD/THE GROUP, as well as for major modern dance companies such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His commissions have been performed by classical companies and for numerous stage productions, including the New York Shakespeare Festival and Peter Sellars’ production of A Soldier’s Tale with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He collaborated with Max Roach on many projects, most notably the 1994 multimedia performance piece JuJu, presented at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

Once described as “the new George Balanchine,” Byrd takes a provocative approach to self-expression, using movement to explore themes such as domestic abuse, racial stereotyping and sexual behaviors. His style has been called distinctly American in its integration of black vernacular dancing with classical ballet and modern techniques. Much of his choreography reflects the current times—fast, charged and direct.
Last year, Byrd folded his New York–based company, THE GROUP, which he started in Los Angeles in 1978 and moved to New York City in 1983. His work continues on the West Coast where he is artistic director for Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, a company to which he hopes to bring a national profile. Tufts Magazine’s editor-in-chief Laura Ferguson talked with him just after the world premiere of his latest work, A Cruel New World/the new normal, a reflection on 9/11.
Beyond Words
An interview with noted choreographer Donald Byrd, A73, on his passion for modern dance.

You were a student in the Tufts drama department in the same generation as other Tufts graduates who went on to become well-known actors, such as Peter Gallagher and William Hurt. What was going on at the time?
It was a time when people were really curious about things, and about trying to expand their thinking about how things worked and what they’re about, and I think there was a beginning of diversity, not just racial or ethnic diversity at Tufts, but diversity in the thinking of students.

Did you do some dancing?

I did, but there was no dance department at the time. I mostly did theater. I won the big acting prize at Tufts—William Hurt and I both won it our sophomore year; it had never been given to people who were not juniors or seniors.

What was a turning point for you in terms of leaving theater to work in dance?
I went into dance in part because I felt that I could dance without having to make a point, that I could just dance. I went off to the London School of Contemporary Dance and when I got back I enrolled at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. After leaving Ailey I went to work with Twyla Tharp. But I was unconventional, eccentric, and ultimately I was let go. Right after that I ran into Gus Solomons. I’d seen him perform when I was at Tufts. He had a degree in architecture from MIT, and he’d studied with Merce Cunningham. Merce would say that his work is not about anything. It’s just about the movement, that it’s abstraction at its most abstract. Gus liked my dancing, and I liked what he was doing a lot. I loved how it was very formal and intellectual in some ways, and very abstract, but it seemed to have some emotional subtext; it allowed you to invent or create an emotional subtext. But mostly I had decided that I would only collaborate with people whose work was interesting to me. I would never do anything because it was a job. It has to engage me. It has to get my attention, and it has to be work that I want to contribute to the choreographer in realizing their vision. And Gus was the first person whose work I really was saying, OK, I’m willing to work whether I get paid or not.

So at that point you’re maturing your own vision.

I think I was maturing in the sense of who I was as a person, as a dancer, and that I had something to contribute and that I didn’t have to prove anything. It was a genuine place to be and it was incredibly liberating. And then suddenly everybody wanted to work with me.

What do you think was going on?
One of the things that happened was I got out of my head. The whole experience at Tufts was really great in terms of that I learned how to think; I was very intellectual, I always had two cents to throw in. Then I realized I should just shut up. By the time I started working with Gus, I had discovered my intuitive self, and my intellectual conscious self, and my sensuality. It all came together, that suddenly I felt I was more of an integrated being.

That speaks to the source of your inspiration.
Yes. The source for my inspiration, quite often, is a combination of the body and the intellect. I’m completely about ideas, really, and that is so much about my experience at Tufts in terms of the drama department—that kind of rigorous thinking. For me, to complete the experience of really understanding dramatic theory, I had to actually do it. And I think that’s what happened at Tufts. Everything that I know now about the theater and about how to do things in the theater, I learned from being at Tufts. I haven’t really learned any more, I’ve just elaborated on it.

As you were starting to get into choreography, were you discovering your own voice?
I was searching for a voice, but I think I had one already, it just was not articulated. . . . One of the voices that I discovered was that there was anger and a real desire to investigate African-American influences, or how my African-Americanness impacted how I saw the world. What did popular culture say about our culture? I used to say that popular culture was a barometer of belief systems and how they fluctuated and changed. Those things had already started to come out in my investigations and my work, even within the first two years. And it really hasn’t changed; I’ve just gotten better at it, and more articulate at it, and clearer about the process that I go through to arrive at things.

Your style has been described as having a “hard-driving, hard-edged street credibility.” Would you say those are fair?
Those are very fair. Because I’m a contradiction. When I showed up at Tufts, I was a contradiction.

Meaning, that I’d come from the segregated South. I’m in an elite educational institution, I’m really interested in theater and dance and esoteric things—philosophy, drama—and then I’m outraged at the same time that in order to participate in these things and to take advantage of them, I have to give up part of my cultural past. I can’t sound the way I think—I can’t sound—I have to sound like I belong at a place like Tufts, so my speech pattern changed. And once my speech pattern changed, I could no longer be black to black folks. So it’s like twisting, shape shifting— and all of this stuff that you have to do in order to fit in—this is the late ’60s—into society. There were people in my classes who had never been in a room with a black person before. They would ask, Can I touch your hair? So I had a lot of anger and rage and confusion, and it helped to shape my artistic profile.

Did you feel alone in your efforts as a choreographer?

Well, choreographers always do things alone, but what you do is that you assemble dancers around you, and believe in what you’re doing. I think one of the things that is characteristic of my life at the time is that I made people literally jump through hoops. There were hoops with fire, hoops with knives, hoops with whatever. So I was really tough, and I guess I still am, on dancers, because I think it’s a tough journey.

What are some highlights of your career so far?
Meeting and working with Anna Deavere Smith is clearly one of them. I collaborated with her on a workshop production of House Arrest presented at the Mark Taper Forum. I just love her. I guess the other person that was significant is Peter Sellars. I think the thing that they have in common, and what I’m drawn to, is their uncompromising integrity. The only place where I have any real integrity is in the work that I do. I can be as icky as the next person about stuff in the real world, but when it comes to the art that I do, I can’t compromise.

Have you had a negative response from the black community, with works such as The Minstrel Show: Acts for Coons, Jigaboos and Jungle Bunnies?
I did. There was something kind of smart-assy about doing a piece where you put people in blackface. It was defiant, it was confrontational, and it was provocative. It provoked all kinds of people. It was about racism, it was about sexism, it was about your attitudes and thinking about how we stereotype and pigeonhole people. . . . The black people of my generation knew that we were supposed to be a “tribute to our race.” But that was irksome to me. I understood them, but I didn’t have time for that. I needed to figure out who I was as a human being. Because I felt that sometimes being a tribute to your race, people weren’t completely honest. I felt that to be an artist, you had to be completely honest, painfully so, with yourself and with other people. . . . You have to be rigorous, and I think when you are really rigorous, it will move through these zones of discomfort.

You mean rigorous as in honest?
Yes, honest and thorough in your investigation. Not superficial. Again, I want to bring it back to Tufts, because I think it’s really significant. At the Cup and Saucer Productions there would be these discussions afterward about the plays that had been shown, and we’d sit there for like an hour and talk about it. If you were a drama major, you were expected to participate. It was a tacit expectation. It really taught me how to articulate what I thought, what I was seeing, but also how to investigate something, and to anticipate the kinds of questions or to ask those questions while I was doing something, not just when it was over, but being in the process.

In a way, then, your dances are an investigation.
They are. They’re always an investigation of something. So you can’t be a tribute if you’re doing an investigation because you might discover some things that aren’t so nice.

Talk a little bit about The Harlem Nutcracker, regarded as your most ambitious work. The setting is contemporary, and instead of a young girl, Clara is an elderly woman looking back over her life. What was your thinking in developing this interpretation?
The source was the Christian Right and their whole thing about family values. They said, well, we’re the only people that know what family values are. It implied that different kinds of racial and ethnic groups and family traditions in the country were not valued. I wanted to create a version of The Nutcracker to investigate and pay tribute to African-American family traditions, the importance of the grandmothers as being central to community life, and the church, to some extent. I wanted that to be embedded in it, so that people would feel that while they were watching it.
My grandmother died while I was doing that. I was really close to her, and I learned a great lesson from her in her death, that death is a part of life and is not something to be afraid of, that a successful life will end. But it doesn’t mean by its ending that you carry a kind of sadness around with you forever. And so, in my Nutcracker, death is a prominent figure; the grandmother actually dies at the end. But it’s a happy ending, because I felt in some ways that if people that love you, when they die, they give you a gift, even in death, that they don’t stop loving you or stop giving you gifts. I thought that might be important, also, for young people, and then start to look at. . . . They understood it because what they would see is that the family was having Christmas, and the grandparents were ascending the stairs into Heaven, looking down lovingly on them. So that was a reassuring message, I think, for the kids.

The financial strain of developing and touring such a complex work finally exceeded the resources of THE GROUP. Was that tough to fold your own company?

It was extremely tough. I spent 24 years of my life doing it. It was really hard, and I thought it was the end. And I felt really foolish. Foolish in terms of feeling that I had embraced a set of values—that I had fooled myself into believing that many of the values that I had, other people also had, and it seemed that they didn’t.

Because you didn’t get the financial support you wanted?

Financial support, or because people couldn’t understand that you take risks because you believe in things. It’s very typical that our culture perceives failure as a sin. People are very unforgiving about failure.

But yet, as an artist, that’s part of the trade.
Yes. You have to be willing to fail. And I was always willing to fail, and I felt that I got penalized for failing.

How would you sum up what you think your contribution is so far?
Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps what I’ve done is—how did Anna say it? She said that she thought there was intellectual rigor in the work, but combined with a technique that you’d usually find in a commercial work, meaning that it is highly technical. So perhaps what I’ve contributed is the idea that there’s no such thing as a dumb dancer. You have to be smart to be a dancer or choreographer. It really is an intellectual endeavor.

The dance you just staged in Seattle, A Cruel New World, what was that dance about?

I started working on the piece thinking, how is the world different since 9/11, or how is my world, or how do I perceive the world differently than I did prior to 9/11? Some of the things that came up are that there’s a kind of harshness in the world, especially if we look at how our government has been interacting with other people. There’s a kind of belligerence, a kind of self-righteousness, a self-serving insensitivity; we have become refugees or imprisoned by our government’s stance. But I think to have a successful theater piece, those ideas need to be embodied in people, in their behavior and movement.

How do you shape a dance out of that vast, huge feeling?

Well, you explore it. You know what it is you’re after, and you go in the studio and you start creating movement and situations that convey that. In this case, I had some music. I had some Wagner and some variations on Wagner that this jazz musician had done, Graham Haynes. But what you’re looking for is—how am I feeling? Am I getting close to any of those feelings or those ideas? I’m saying, do this, do this, do this, go over there, don’t throw your leg, watch this. Or I show them a sequence of movement and then do things with it.

What’s your experience of Seattle?

It is different from New York. I feel like a whole new chapter of my life has opened up here.

What’s the heading on that chapter?
I don’t know. I want to say it’s a new world. The theme I keep returning to is some version of Shakespeare, of The Tempest—“O brave new world, That has such people in ’t.” Even a Cruel New World is a play on that. I think what I’m experiencing here, in general, is some version of— it’s a brave new world for me here. There are a lot of things that I wanted to do in New York that I couldn’t do, but that I believe are possible here. I’ve thrown my hat into this arena, and I’m committed to seeing where it can go. One of the things that’s fascinating about what happened with the closing of my company is I know there are other worlds out there, which I had forgotten.