Can Dance Make a More Just America? Donald Byrd Is Working on It

The choreographer’s commitment to dance as a catalyst for social change can be seen at a museum show in Seattle and in a new work for the Alvin Ailey company.

The choreographer Donald Byrd stood before a video of his younger self, observing a dance he created 33 years ago. In a button-down T-shirt, loose khaki pants and bare feet, the man onscreen floated through swift turns and bobbing leaps with the continuity of rushing water, letting the phrase resolve in a simple first position.

“Now this solo I like,” Mr. Byrd said, adding with a laugh: “You can see I studied ballet somewhere.”

The elegant 1986 work he’s dancing, “Divertimento,” is one of the first images visitors see in “The America That Is to Be,” an exhibition at the Frye Art Museum here that runs through Jan. 26. Organized by the dance artist and scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz, the show traces the evolution, over 40 years, of Mr. Byrd’s commitment to dance as a catalyst for social justice.

The early works on display find a young Mr. Byrd, by turns coy and confrontational, slipping nimbly among aesthetics: punk, drag, downtown-postmodern. Growing up in the 1950s, in the black middle class of Clearwater, Fla., he often felt pressure, he said, “to be a certain way, that I needed to represent all black people.” He rejected that mandate through dance.

“My thinking was that I’m trying to create room not just for me but for other black people,” he said, “young black people at the time, to be who they are, that the container needs to be big enough to contain all of these voices and ways of seeing things.”

Still concerned with expanding ways of seeing, and unafraid to jolt an audience into paying attention, Mr. Byrd has lately been in high demand and earning what some would say is long-overdue recognition. Beyond his role at Spectrum Dance Theater, the Seattle company he has directed since 2002, he has created new works this season for Pacific Northwest Ballet (the haunting “Love and Loss”) and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “Greenwood,” his exploration of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, will have its premiere during Ailey’s City Center season on Dec. 6.

In July, shortly before turning 70, Mr. Byrd received a $275,000 Doris Duke Artist Award, one of the most coveted honors in the performing arts. The opportunity at the Frye was granted as part of the James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award, given to artists in Washington State and won by Mr. Byrd in 2016.

“Donald has been celebrated but way undervalued,” said Mr. DeFrantz, who has been his friend and worked with him intermittently as a dramaturge since the 1990s. “So it’s great to see this attention paid, and maybe it’s the start of a kind of acknowledgment of the people who are in the trenches.”

Despite the proliferation of dance in museums over the past decade, exhibitions focused on the work of a single living choreographer remain rare. “The America That Is to Be” presents an in-depth portrait of a bold, enigmatic artist influenced by the neoclassical ballets of George Balanchine and the danced spirituals of Alvin Ailey, Baroque music and Prince, the 1970s postmodernism of Twyla Tharp and the 19th-century romanticism of “Giselle.”

Mr. DeFrantz stresses that the show is not a retrospective but rather follows “a strand of creativity” in Mr. Byrd’s oeuvre, oriented toward “possibilities of social justice and social transformation.” Rich in rarely seen video, it encompasses landmark works like “The Minstrel Show” (1991), Mr. Byrd’s unflinching look at the legacy of racist caricature in American entertainment; irreverent early gems like “Brass Orchid” (1978), with its pas de deux for a cigarette-smoking interracial couple (a nod to Balanchine’s “Agon”); and pieces spanning his time at Spectrum on subjects including domestic violence, lynching and the experience of political prisoners.

On a stage in the central gallery, four days a week, Spectrum dancers perform duets and trios derived from Mr. Byrd’s improvisations. Packed with the tense, intimate relationships that characterize much of his work, these offer a close-up view of the assertive virtuosity that one company member, he said, once aptly described as dancing “in caps with exclamation points.”

Mr. Byrd has been known for his volatility, and the exhibition does not overlook difficult parts of his past. One passage of wall text acknowledges his struggles with drugs and alcohol in the 1970s and ’80s, as well as his reputation as an “emotionally violent taskmaster.”

“He had real challenges with substance abuse,” Mr. DeFrantz said, “not quite homeless, but being so bohemian that he wasn’t caring for himself. He was really irresponsible as a younger artist, and then all that confusion and fear became manifest in how he treated younger dancers or other artists he was working with.”

In an interview at the Frye, on a quiet block of the First Hill neighborhood here, Mr. Byrd spoke about his taskmaster reputation, which, he says, has followed him even as he has changed. “I would push and was demanding,” he said. “I think I’m still demanding, but in a different way.”

The dancer Fausto Rivera, in his sixth season with Spectrum, agrees. “I’ve seen a very conscious effort to be not easier necessarily, but to be more patient,” he said.

Mr. Byrd attributes the change, in part, to working through the insecurity that plagued him as a younger artist. A latecomer to ballet training, he grew up taking tap lessons and, more seriously, studying classical flute. As a student at Yale and then Tufts University, he discovered an interest in theater, earning a degree in drama. (He left Yale after a year, alienated by its elitism, he said.)

Balanchine’s ballets had piqued his interest as a teenager, when he saw a presentation by the New York City Ballet dancers Edward Villella and Patricia McBride. But it was an infatuation with a dancer at Tufts, he said, that landed him in class at the Cambridge School of Ballet, where a teacher instantly recognized his aptitude.

Around that time he also saw “Revelations,” the Ailey masterpiece, a moment he often cites as life-changing. Where he once had felt shame about slavery and ambivalence about African-American spirituals, he said, he now marveled at the capacity of black people in America to wrest beauty from pain.

Around ‘Revelations’ I couldn’t be cynical,” he said. “There’s something so authentic about the impulse behind the creation of it.”

Still, his career path remained unclear. After moving to New York, where he trained for two years at the Ailey School, Mr. Byrd auditioned for Ms. Tharp’s company and joined for a trial period in 1972; he was let go after a couple of months. “I was even more insecure after this and kind of devastated,” he said. “I wallowed in it for a bit and then I said, ‘O.K., I do have something to offer.’”

In 1976 he joined the company of Gus Solomons Jr., who was impressed by the wiry speed of Mr. Byrd’s dancing. “He moved like a sprinter,” Mr. Solomons said. “I remember thinking, he’s like a mosquito!”While in residence with Mr. Solomons at California Institute of the Arts, Mr. Byrd began to choreograph, starting with “Street Dance,” a piece about missing New York for three dancers and three jazz musicians. In 1983 he returned to New York, where he directed Donald Byrd/The Group until its closure in 2002.

Over the decades Mr. Byrd has more clearly underscored the potential of dance to enact social change, as a tool that can help us imagine new worlds and ways of thinking. His fifth and latest commission for Ailey reflects on the racist brutality that ravaged Greenwood, the prosperous black business district of Tulsa, Okla., after an encounter between a young black man and a young white elevator operator. Through dramatic gesture and vigorous partnering, he depicts multiple versions of what might have occurred between the man and woman — a story still not fully understood — before the ensuing destruction.

“I think there are parallels that he would like people to see with what is happening today, in terms of race relations, in terms of the nature of violence,” Robert Battle, Ailey’s artistic director, said. “From my perspective he wants to just leave that with the audience — for them to untie that knot, or be left in a knot.”

At home in Seattle, at Spectrum’s studio on the edge of Lake Washington, Mr. Byrd has worked to cultivate a company of dancers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. (Current projects include a restaging of his 1996 “Harlem Nutcracker” and a new piece on race and climate change.)

“There’s this very true diversity,” said the dancer Nia-Amina Minor, noting that this range of experience informs Mr. Byrd’s often collaborative process. “And he’s been doing that for quite a long time, before it became hip to have diversity in your dance company.”

Mr. Byrd said that while the word “diversity” gets tossed around, he sees its meaning as this: “There’s a kind of convergence that happens that creates a kind of dynamic tension and that dynamic tension is where growth is, and I think where aspiration lives, because then we can imagine things as bigger than only our way of thinking.”

“That’s what I want to have,” he added. “That’s what I want America to be. That’s what I want the world to be. But I have to start here.”

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