Donald Byrd performing in The Chekovian Resolution.
Spectrum Dance Theater artistic director Donald Byrd has been invited to Israel to revisit an incomplete work about a great failure. He tells City Arts about trying again.
The project I’m working on is a follow-up to a piece I did a couple of years ago about the Israeli-Palestinean conflict called The Chekhovian Resolution. When the opportunity to go to Jerusalem came up, I thought that it might be an interesting project to revisit, knowing what I know now as opposed to what I knew then, which was almost nothing.
For that first piece it was a challenge to get Israelis and Palestinians in the same room to work together. Israeli dancers tend not to want to do political work, or work that might have political undertones. Most of their work is abstract. On the Palestinian level, it is a matter of principal that most Arab Israelis will not work with Jewish Israelis. It’s like collaborating with the enemy.
The visa process for getting people to the United States was difficult. I was able to get the Israelis here, but not the Palestinians in time to have the project develop the way I hoped. I heard criticism from both sides, not from Middle Eastern people there, but from people here in Seattle. The Palestinian community said, “Why are you doing this? You’re reinforcing the paradigm that already exists.” Pro-Israeli groups here said, “You’re making something that’s going to throw Israel under the bus.”
This was before I had done anything.
I went into the project with a naïve notion that it was gonna be great. Very “Kumbaya.” I had to adjust. Now I have some disillusionment and pessimism about the possibility of there ever being a negotiated peace agreement. I feel that the whole situation there is a perpetual machine of failed attempts. I learned a lot about the politics of the situation when making The Chekovian Resolution, but mostly I learned how I felt about the situation. Ultimately that was what the piece I ended up creating was about.
I’m not sure what I’ll do differently with this new piece, but my state of mind has changed. I don’t think, like I did before, that I’m creating something groundbreaking. Instead I’ll create something personal but abstract and more subtle and oblique. Something smaller.
In some ways, it sounds similar to the way people go into Middle East peace talks. With each round of negotiations, expectations are lowered. I don’t have lower expectations this time, just different ones.
As told to Mark Baumgarten
Donald Byrd is a Fellow at the American Academy in Jerusalem. The dance piece he creates there will, at some point, be performed in Seattle.
Photography by Gabriel Blenczycki