Michael Upchurch


By: Michael Upchurch
March 3, 2017

Come for the music, stay for the dance – or vice versa.

But whichever approach you take, do not miss this show.

Spectrum Dance Theater’s “Rambunctious Iteration #3” serves up some of the most gorgeous, inventive work I’ve ever seen come from the bodies of Spectrum’s dancers and the mind of choreographer Donald Byrd. Subtitled “The Immigrants,” it consists of four world premieres and one Seattle premiere of a piece originally commissioned by Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas, Austin. All five works are abstract – and all are set to live music performed by some of the top chamber players in town, including pianist Judith Cohen and Seattle Symphony violinist Mikhail Schmidt.

While Spectrum’s 2017 season has had an emphatically political thrust, touching on police shootings of unarmed black men (“Shot”) and violence against LGBT people (“Impulse,” coming in June), the agenda in “Rambunctious Iteration #3” is more subtle.

Its musical scores are all by American immigrant composers who moved here from Cuba (Tania Léon), Mexico (Max Lifchitz), Russia (Yevgeniy Sharlat), China (Tan Dun) and Iran (Gity Razaz). The key takeaway from the evening: Who in their right mind would want walls or travel bans keeping this kind of artistry from becoming part of our culture?

“While He Was Away,” set to a trickily frisky piano-and-percussion score by Léon, kicks things off. In asymmetrical particolored leotards as bright as a candy-counter display, a dozen dancers animate the stage. Soon a conflicted trio emerges, with Alex Crozier at the center of it, and Paul Giarratano and Jaclyn Wheatley competing for his attention.

Byrd has staged Merce Cunningham works in the past, and the look and movement of “While He Was Away” seem to tip a hat to the dance legend. Still, Crozier, Giarratano and Wheatley, as they approach and intercept one another, tap into an erotic vein that is one-hundred percent Byrd.

“Paraphrase,” set to a violin duo by Lifchitz, has a similar teasing vivacity as it plays with pairings among a quartet of dancers: Crozier, Nia-Amina Minor, Andrew Pontius and Madison Oliver. Costumed in harlequinesque black-and-white, they shift allegiances as they’re put through courtly yet edgy paces.

Byrd and the dancers excel at translating the gist of the music into their movement. At one point while violinist Sol Im offers a moto-perpetuo backdrop for a soaring solo by Shmidt, Minor moves in double-time while Oliver orbits her at a slower, dreamier pace. “Paraphrase” wittily ends with all four dancers withdrawing from the stage at a loping gait while the strings fade toward the stratosphere.

“Roaming Ghosts” finds Byrd working in an atmospheric, neo-romantic mode. It’s set to a piano score by Tan Dun, composed early in his exposure to Western music (Ravel seems a key influence). Four white floor-to-ceiling banners, hung at staggered depths on the stage, comprise a kind of gauzy glade that the dancers, in flowing gowns of different pastel colors, pass through.

Solos by Oliver, Giarratano, Minor and Alexander Pham tap deep into each performer’s distinctive dance personality. Pham, slinky and serene, has an uncanny ability to “hang” in the air seconds longer than the rules of gravity would seem to dictate. Giarratano is more of a gymnast/acrobat here, pulling off virtuoso maneuvers – casual handstands, silky back rolls, all manner of precarious balancing acts – with eager ease. Oliver and Minor are grace itself.

Their solos give way to two duets, pairing Giarratano with Emily Philaja and Wheatley with Sherman Wood, before Crozier returns with a prowling, capering solo. The whole company joins in on a finale that’s all costume flow and fluid pattern, set to a Chinese-American composer’s pastiche of a Western take on an “oriental” sound.

Live cello and electronically distorted recorded cello are paired in Razaz’s score for “Not from Here.” Pham again amazes with his elastic elegance, and Giarratano is as lithe a tumbler as you could wish. Pairings and trios among the five performers don’t spell out an overt narrative, but their wistful connections to one another and, especially, Pham’s repetitions of certain dance phrases read like attempts to communicate that make perfect sense of the piece’s melancholy title.

“August 1, 1966” is by far the most intense piece on the program. It was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the mass shooting that killed 14 people on the University of Texas campus. Though dancers fall as if to their deaths in some sequences, this isn’t a literal recreation of the events that inspired it. Instead, it’s a study in turmoil and the strangeness of survival … or could it be the strangeness of entering the afterlife? Sharlat’s score – a string quartet incorporating eerily distorted harmonica and kazoo effects – adds to the tension and sense of unreality.

Giarratano is our guide through this world, and he’s extraordinary – able to levitate from the most unlikely positions and continually defying what seems physically possible with his swift, contorted limb articulations and ever-unpredictable balance.

After it was over, someone behind me said, “I was worried for his body.”

His neighbor answered, “He didn’t seem worried about his body.”

To do such pyrotechnics with no sign of strain or self-concern is dance artistry of the highest order.

Doris Black’s lively, varied costuming for all five pieces and Kent Cubbage’s and Sara Torres’ brilliantly protean lighting provide the crowning elements of the show.

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