LINES OF FLIGHT: SPECTRUM DANCE THEATER
By: Maddie Kodat
The choreographer Mark Morris tells this story I really love about how, the first time he saw Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, he had to be escorted out of the theater — the sheer ingenuity of Balanchine’s response to Bach made him start laughing uncontrollably, disrupting the performance. I had a similar reaction to Donald Byrd’s Rambunctious Iteration #3: The Immigrants, a program whose music is all composed by immigrants from countries whose relations with the US figured prominently in the discourse surrounding the 2016 presidential election. The Immigrants contains, among other things, a piece (called Paraphrase) that borrows from Barocco’s choreography – because the music in question was also a piece for two violins, Byrd brilliantly quoted and re-worked this older material. But there are countless other moments in this program where Byrd’s musicality might floor you to the point of laughter. A trill replicated with a Pilates-style beating of the foot at the base of the ankle for Tania Leon’s A La Par, a creaturely twist of the head to the pulses of Gity Razaz’s Shadow Lines: all are products of Byrd’s uniquely liberatory formalism, where the rhythmic innovations of the contemporary music he has selected feed effortlessly into the incredible prowess of his dancers and the eclectic athleticism his work requires. Luckily, I was able to contain myself (relatively speaking).
That said, I want to return to this notion of disruption, both as a choreographic device that Byrd employs and a marker of Spectrum’s residency in Chicago. On Tuesday morning, I was lucky enough to take ballet class with Columbia’s advanced students and Spectrum’s company members. I marvelled at the reciprocal generosity of this exchange and the impeccable technique of the company members, making every effort to push my out-of-shape body along with them. Then, on Wednesday, Chicago was the coldest place on the planet. Fifteen people died for lack of proper shelter. No cars passed on my street. When Columbia closed, and closed again the following day, the Thursday evening performance called off. On Friday, we all returned to the bright warmth of the Dance Center and there is the company, back on stage, performing Byrd’s relentlessly demanding choreography with appreciable ease. I thought about how the dancers might have felt – being in a strange city, stuck indoors, when one knows one has to dance (and dance well) imminently. How after the cocoon of the polar vortex we as audience members might be differently primed for a piece like The Immigrants, with its gamut of emotional and physical registers.
During the performance, Byrd walked on stage in the brief interim between each piece, engaging with the audience to ensure that his dancers had enough time to change costumes, maybe catch their breath. Here was another necessary pause, demanded merely by the casting of each section, but nonetheless inflecting the content that was to follow: we had more information, and a rare opportunity to ask the maker questions in medias res. Byrd’s notion of concert dance as a “civic instrument” might point towards a productive disruption as well — especially given that, in his words, “the politics [are] in the choice of the music rather than the content of the piece.” The formations in this choreography suggest abjection, unfettered joy, bitterness in turn: all sites of political consequence, all symptomatic of the precarity in which we now live, all formative emotions in our dominant narratives surrounding immigration. The last piece, drawing explicitly from the US’s first mass shooting (August 1st, 1966), is perhaps the most literal in its gestures of horror. Yet it’s also a vehicle for some of the most gut-wrenching solo dancing on the program, performed exquisitely by Mikhail Calliste and Paul Giarratano in turn. Disruption as Byrd attends to it necessitates a different mode of attention. Rambunctious Iteration 3: The Immigrants is a celebration of this quality and its place in American life. We are enriched by the presence of whatever has come before: prior movement phrase, prior archive, prior nation. We cannot assume that we know immediately what such enrichment might entail. Such necessity is also true of the title of the program itself — as Byrd remarked during the pre-performance discussion, the contrast between the content of each dance and the contemporary implications of a title like “The Immigrants” already serves to teach the audience something about their assumptions.
Here’s another Balanchine maxim, one which might make us cringe today: “Put a man and a woman on stage and there is already a story.” (What, the story of heteronormativity?) This is another notion that Byrd eagerly unsettles; his aesthetic skews more towards the solo dancer or smaller group within a supporting corps than any extended treatment of duets. When these do appear (as in Paraphrase) they are often same-sex. As dancer Fausto Rivera explained in a post-show discussion, the demands of Byrd’s athleticism are such that the normally heavily gendered nature of classical dance ceases to be an operable divide. This is also true of Byrd’s approach to genre: the dancers switch expertly from movements that might be associated with Graham, to the lines of classical ballet, to something more reminiscent of hip-hop, and so on. Within the choreographer’s own training, he studied multiple styles of dance in tandem, disregarding the hierarchies proposed by most of Western dance – in his words, “ballet at the top, then modern, then jazz, and so on”.
For Spectrum’s dancers, then, each isolated movement and phrase is fully inhabited, demonstrating a respect for the authenticity of all dance forms as well as a rabid curiosity for what happens when they’re all collapsed in on each other, when one category interrupts another. (Rambunctious!) The company assumes a still position at the beginning of the program’s first piece, then return to those spots with less stillness. And at the end, a solo dancer walks towards the back of the stage as his peers lie around him, facing the sky. The labored breath of every possible technique belays what they have just accomplished.
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