A Review of Donald Byrd’s “Farewell”

written by Mary Murfin Bayley

Donald Byrd’s newest work for Spectrum Dance Theater (Feb. 18 – 20) came with an agenda neatly spelled out in the title: “Farewell, A Fantastical Contemplation on America’s Relationship with China.” It is the second part of a three-year program called Beyond Dance: Promoting Awareness and Mutual Understanding.  Last year Byrd addressed the Middle East and next year he takes on Africa.

Setting out to make art that is political, that has a stated meaning or intention beyond what it is itself, raises some itchy questions.  Why “beyond” dance?  Is he saying that dance itself is inadequate? A work created by a choreographer of Byrd’s ability, long famed for his punchy, fraught vision, and performed by talented go-for-broke dancers such as he has assembled at Spectrum, is going to “promote” some “awareness” and some “mutual understanding” despite itself -- by human beings moving through space in incredibly complex patterns and rhythms, pushing their physical limits while interacting with each other, the music, and the scenery in formal and theatrical ways.

“Farewell” is at times a fascinating, gorgeous piece, especially when it is not striving too hard for attached meanings. Yes, the human rights abuses that came after 9/11 were similar to some of the repressive policies of China, but we don’t need it underlined; we can safely be left to draw these kinds of conclusions ourselves from what Byrd shows us.  We see it in the dancer’s suffering dreamlike cadences, or their regimentation, how they sit straight-backed in a row, or the desperately hopeful way they take turns shouting propaganda through megaphones.  The ways government can blight personal freedom is lovingly touched on for us when the dancers break into a contemporary, pared down version of a Chinese folk dance as a traditional melody breaks through the cacophony of recorded voices.

The hyper-frenetic sound score by Byron Au Yong, (who also recently composed a score for Whim W’him “3Seasons” at On the Boards) used a mix of recorded sounds, including an onslaught of mostly unintelligible words in English and Chinese and the music of onstage performers Paul Kikuchi and Tiffany Lin, who played various instruments, including drums and bicycle wheels. Christine Joly De Lotbiniere’s costumes conveyed the drab uniformity of the clothing of the Mao era without being drab themselves, their light material and varying shades of khaki moving well with the dancers.   Byrd reconfigured the Moore Theater for this piece so that the audience sat on platforms surrounding the stage, creating an intimate and intense experience of the dance.  Scenic designer Jack Mehler suspended an evocative web of photographs from the rafters, including images of the tanks of Tiananmen square, 9/11, and a gigantic image of Chairman Mao.

The dancers performed the lightning fast shifts of choreography with the exhilarating, all stops pulled freedom that is a Spectrum trademark.  Joel Myers drifted in and out of a coma in a waking dream. (“Farewell” was loosely inspired by “Beijing Coma,” a 2008 novel by dissident author Ma Jian, about a man left in a waking coma following the protests in Tiananmen Square.)  Myers was partnered by a compellingly cool-edged Catherine Cabeen, a last minute stand-in for injured dancer Kylie Lewallen.  In one terrifying sequence, the heavy benches that the dancers move throughout the evening to re-shape the performance space were dropped with a stage-shaking bang, dangerously near his sleeping form. The high-stakes dancers included Geneva Jenkins, Vincent Lopez, Kelly Ann Barton, Ty Alexander Cheng, Marissa Quimby, Amber Nicole Mayberry, Patrick Pulkrabek, and Tory Peil.

Throughout the piece Byrd sat upstage under the picture of Mao, occasionally shouting “Go!” at the dancers.  He himself became a formal element in the scene, but was also a tongue-in-cheek reminder that we are all capable of creating various forms of tyranny.  Watching this exhilarating, although sometimes sprawling work, made me feel once again grateful that the form of tyranny Byrd chose to follow was dance itself, and not something else, something “beyond” it

Photos by Gabriel Bienczycki, Zebra Visual