“The universe does not allow me to stay in comfort zones for extended periods of time,” Donald Byrd told me, sitting in an office at Spectrum Dance Theater, where he has been the artistic director for the past 13 years.
Byrd says sometimes he wishes he could just stay home and “veg out,” and not think about difficult things like race, violence and the American identity, but it never lasts for long. “Either I go, ‘okay, that’s not working for me’ or the universe tells me, ‘okay, it’s time to do something different.’“
But Seattle is lucky that he’s incapable of tuning it all out.
On Friday October 14, The Seattle Globalist will recognize Donald Byrd as the 2016 Globalist of the Year, celebrating his outstanding body of work and the dance company’s 2015-16 season, #RACEish, which the company called “an exploration of America’s 240 years of (failed) race relations.”
The season’s four dance pieces are blunt, provocative and unapologetic. The Minstrel Show Revisited makes the point that “we’re all complicit. Everybody is. And that we all have to take some responsibility for our cultural history,” said Byrd. “We didn’t make it, but it’s still part of our history and we have to own it, it still influences our history and how we do things today.”
Another piece, “A Rap on Race,” incorporated live conversation on stage: excerpts from “a 1970’s conversation between white American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead and iconic black novelist James Baldwin,” according to Spectrum’s website.
Byrd thinks even his most loyal audiences didn’t know exactly what they were getting into this year:
“Even if they were the choir, and we were preaching to them, they weren’t expecting that kind of preaching,” he said. “It was a much more take-no-prisoners kind of preaching.” He thinks of it as “positive disruption.”
Byrd wants to help his audience see dance in new ways, “so it’s not just ‘oh it’s pretty, it’s tutus, it’s tiaras, it’s pink.’” He wants to broaden the notion of what dance can be.
But tutus and tiaras may be a little easier to sell tickets for. The company saw a bit of a slump in ticket sales this year, which Byrd attributes at least in part to the season’s challenging subject matter. But, he says, “you can’t always judge if something was successful by whether you sold out or not. There are other ways of defining what success is.“
Over the past two weeks, Byrd has been leading an intensive dance workshop that culminates this weekend in company auditions for new dancers.
At 6 p.m. on Monday he was ready to dig back in to a grant proposal he’d been working on for the National Endowment for the Arts. He says it can be difficult to translate his vision for a piece of dance into the tight character limits of a written grant proposal, but that it also often helps him and his colleagues crystallize their ideas and get on the same page about a new piece.
He’s already thinking about next season, in which a new work called “Impulse” will respond to last month’s shootings at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. The 2016-17 season will be called “American Identity: Race or Culture?” — and it will continue to dig in to the challenging issues his work has long explored.
“We can’t think at Spectrum, ‘oh we did race already so we can move on.’ Race isn’t a fad I can just check off the list.”
There will be no comfort zones for Donald Byrd.