Social Dance

Spectrum Dance Theater Takes Its 'Shot'

The company's latest piece confronts police shooting unarmed black people. Plus, a conversation about resistance with artistic director Donald Byrd.

By Seth Sommerfeld January 31, 2017

Spectrum shot sczilm

Police shootings of unarmed black civilians comes into focus in Spectrum Dance Theater's Shot.

The names just keep coming.

As a chaotic collection of violent camera phone footage is projected across the stage, the audience is confronted with the names of unarmed black men, women, and children who have been shot and killed by police officers in recent years. Some of the names are familiar—ones picked up by the national media like Tamir Rice—but many might not even register. And the list keeps going and going.

It's not easy to sit still and take in Spectrum Dance Theatre's season opening production, Shot. It’s not supposed to be easy. Artistic director Donald Byrd wants you to feel the pain in hopes of understanding it and finding the sort of empathy that leads to real action.

Shot centers itself around the footage shot by Reykia Scott, who loudly pleaded with police officers and her husband Keith Lamont Scott to not do anything brash, only to see him shot and killed before her eyes. Nia-Amina Minor spiritually takes on the role of Reykia, continually repeating her words throughout the performance with increasing anger and emotional vulnerability. While the refrain of “Don’t do it. Don’t you do it. He doesn’t have a gun.” feels repetitive at first, Minor’s delivery grows increasingly powerful throughout the show until each word feels like heartwrenching punch in the gut.

The dance style itself feels discomforting. The dancers remain ever on the defensive with choreography that emphasizes a sense of fear over joyous movement. The performers act as is pulled against their will by unknown forces beyond their control. They struggle to resist, but lack the power to break free from the tension. It’s aesthetically impactful in a way that yields no relief.

Midway through the performance, Shot briefly transitions into a lecture. Byrd takes the stage and explains “The Talk” that black parents now must have with their children: What you need to do to survive when a police officer engages you. He proceeds to read a list of rules necessary to deescalate any encounter with law enforcement. It’s not something that should need exist, but has become a necessity. It gets the message across in an effective way, unlike the show’s other talking segment—a skit that depicts the Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter contingents yelling at each other behind barricades with slightly too forced on-the-nose points.

After a lovely segment of (mostly) solo dances that begin by again calling out the names of the fallen, Shot concludes by cutting out the artistic facade and simply projecting Reykia Scott raw video on stage. While the sorrow from these events can breed beautiful artistic tributes, this ending emphasizes the reality of the situation. Don’t look away.

And still, the names just keep coming...

As part of our Hope and Resistance in Seattle package, we highlighted Spectrum Dance Theater. The following is the extended interview with Donald Byrd conducted when reporting that piece.

When you were putting together the 2017 Spectrum Dance season, what led you focus on shows about the hot topics of police shooting, immigration, and violence against LGBTQ?

In some ways it was building on last season’s programing, which was #RACEish: An Exploration of America's 240 Years of (Failed) Race Relations. It needed to continue that conversation around issues of race.

Shot—the program about police shooting unarmed black men—is really a response to that. The second program, Rambunctious Iteration #3 – The Immigrants, in many ways is really a response to the Trump rhetoric around immigrants. But instead of kind of confronting that in a head-on kind of way, we kind of come at it obliquely, and just provide evidence how immigrants have contributed in a positive way to American culture and society through the works that immigrant artists have produced. Because I’m an arts worker, that’s what I know. So I think I can speak authoritative about it in this way. I couldn’t do it around other ways immigrants contribute, like to technology. And then (IM)PULSE’s violence against the LGBTQ community, that was really a response to the Orlando [Pulse nightclub] shooting. And not saying that the Orlando shooting was something new, but someway to but into context that that kind of violence against gay and lesbian and transgender and bisexual people… there’s a long history of that in this country. Even though in some ways it was classified as a terrorist attack, clearly there were some homophobic issues involved in why the person chose that place.

Part of Spectrum’s mission statement is “to educate the community about dance as an art form and as a social/civic instrument.” How do you go about getting audiences to actively engage in the works as opposed to just having them be pieces of entertainment they sit and watch for an hour or two before going back to their day-to-day lives?

Well, there’re two things. I would say the traditional way arts or performance is viewed or experienced makes artists feel like sex workers. The audience comes in, they sit down, and they go show me or do me. That’s the relationship. There’s nothing asked from the audience, usually. It’s like any healthy relationship, there [needs to be] give and take. Whether it’s implicit or explicit there’s a conservation, a dialogue, that’s happening between the audience person and the performer or artist.

The thing that I know about Seattle audiences is that they tend to shy away from things where—and this is a quote that I’ve heard a lot—“It made me feel uncomfortable.” My idea is asking audiences to lean into their uncomfortability. But there’s also this responsibility that artists—we all have it because we’re all humans and we’re all citizens—engage within some sort of civic discourse. And not all artists feel like that’s what they’re interested in, or what they want to do, or can do, or feel comfortable doing. So I’m not saying that all artists should do it, but I think that it is something to consider. All artists should consider how they can contribute to civic discourse.

For so long, it’s been about art for art sake. And that isn’t a bad thing. That’s okay. That’s fine. I think historically artists have engaged civically, and I think that we just need to step forward and do more given the century that we’re living in and what we’ve seen that’s happening—not just here in the United States, but globally. Arts engages people differently from how the news and information does. It can be a really powerful tool for creating conversation and investigating a kind of personal interrogation around issues. I feel like part of what we do at Spectrum and our responsibility is to encourage audiences and the public to engage that way. To start to wonder about how the arts can actually contribute to those kind of conversations.

Do you feel like art can be an effective tool of resistance against certain cultural or political climates?

Yeah, absolutely. The notion of resistance is difficult to me. I want to say problematic, but it’s not problematic. It’s just difficult. Because when I think of resistance, I think of the French Resistance or something in the Second World War. This is a much more subtle kind of resistance that you’re talking about. Art generally communicates in way that are not always direct. It’s not on-the-nose, it’s kind of around and about, subliminal and suggestive. It actually can cause a kind of deeper questioning that’s not based on facts or information, but based on what’s morally right or ethically correct. I think that’s kind of challenging notion for people. On a personal, moral, ethical level, the individual gets to question how does whatever it is that they feel and how does it morally or ethically offend them? I think that the artistic work can cause or contribute to that kind of questioning. That then leads to some sort of action that is appropriate for each individual.

People have been talking about the normalization of certain negative things, these Trumpisms during this Trump time. The resistance is really how do we as individuals resist that normalization. Because it’s very easy to fall into well that’s just how it is now and that’s how it’s going to be. For myself, and this is what I want to share with people, it is important to not allow oneself to be lulled into some kind of new normal around the kind of behavior that was exhibited during the campaign and what is clearly moving forward with the Trump administration. So it’s really about resisting that. It’s about a personal way of resisting the impulses to kind of go along with it.

Do you feel like the cultural contextualization of the shows in the new season changed after Trump was elected?

Yeah, I do. I’ve heard people at Spectrum say that it has become even more urgent to those productions. I know one of the things that I’ve felt sometimes is to pull back a little bit, and some of it has to do with a kind of fear. The fear that maybe we’re going to return to McCarthyism or some new version of those totalitarianism impulses or fascist impulses, and if you’re too outspoken or if you put yourself out there too much, then you are at risk on many levels. And so that’s a little devil on my shoulder that kind of whispers in my ear, and I think for many people or some people, that’s true. It seems even more important to go forward with these programs because these issues have not gone away.

There’s an impulse in American society and culture now that sees nothing wrong with [these issues]. As Trump says, the African Americans are just violent, so you kind of have to shoot them. Or the immigrants are like this… the gays… it’s rolling back rights. So it’s important to keep those things out and in front of people—in their face—and say, okay, this is really important. Just like Trump doubles down, we need to double down on these issues that these pieces raise.

What do we mean when we say “resistance”? What are we resisting? I hadn’t really given it a lot of thought, but in the process of talking to you, there’s this notation that what we really have to resist is this impulse to give in or to become complacent or to accept this as being okay. And that requires work. When you do that you actually put yourself at risk, I think. The number of people that actually voted for Trump was kind of an eye-opener. But it made me realize how much of the belief systems that he embodies are out there in a big way in the country. In some ways, you don’t know who you’re talking to. Does that mean you are shut down or do you still talk and risk? I think the idea of resistance is personal. Yes, there are other manifestations of it that you do publically, if you are part of a community or group of engaged like-minded people, but I think it actually begins at the personal level.

Thru Feb 4, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $42

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The names just don't stop...

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