At a recent open rehearsal for Spectrum Dance Theater's new production, farewell, artistic director Donald Byrd was asked how he creates his pieces.
His terse, absolute response:
"I have an idea about something, and the dancers have to figure out how to do it."
The full name of the show, which has its world premiere this weekend at the Moore, is farewell: a fantastical contemplation on America's relationship with China. So, it's probably not too surprising that the piece is a little complex. Byrd described it as a subjective, dreamlike meditation on history.
The piece tracks the parallel histories of the U.S. and China in the last half of the 20th century, centering on the 1989 student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. The soundtrack includes documentary clips (interviews, protest chants, and news reports) from both events, working with Byron Au Yong's Chinese-folk-inspired music (Chinese percussionists, fiddle, cello, banjo) to create a dense, multilayered effect. Byrd further adds to this effect by having the dancers shout slogans through bullhorns.
Ma Jian's novel Beijing Coma provides the show's primary narrative thread and its core thematic element. In the book, a man lies in a waking coma after being shot in Tiananmen Square, remembering his childhood during the Cultural Revolution and experiencing the changes in his country post-1989 through the people around him and what he overhears through an open window.
In the performance, this character is portrayed by a dancer who moves in and out of a coma state and is carried along by the other dancers through key events of history. (During the rehearsal, this dancer was lying on a bench at center stage through all the introductions and the whole time Byrd spoke. "This is his coma state," Byrd said. "He will keep coming back to this.")
"In interviews [Ma Jian] talks about how China is in a coma," explained Byrd. "Since 1989, the democratic movement has disappeared and the focus has shifted from democracy to money. And, leading up to 9/11, you could say that the U.S. was also in a coma."
The rehearsal began as Byrd yelled "Go!" and twelve more dancers entered, marching determinedly onto the stage. From the audio clips, it was clear that they were at a protest.
The dancers alternated between militaristic precision and romantic, lyrical movement, sometimes layering the two. The mix was both visually interesting and thematically evocative.
In the next section called "Chinese Hoedown," they shifted into a sort of productivity mode, with sharp, angular movements that looked like something straight out of The Red Detachment of Women.
It was a little hard to tell from the few pieces we saw at the rehearsal what the final result will look like tonight. From what I did see, the dance is incredible. The dancers in this company are so technically strong, and the choreographic combinations show the artists constantly working through something—some question, or some emotion—moving the piece forward really effectively.
Spectrum has since posted this video with limited clips.
farewell plays at the Moore Theater tonight through Sunday. All performances are at 8 p.m.