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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.