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Dance As Provocation

Part I “Donald Byrd: The America That Is to Be”

at the Frye Art Museum, Oct 12–Jan 26

Donald Byrd transforms movement into resonant art. The world-renowned choreographer Donald Bryd has been based here in Seattle since 2002. In March 2016, I wrote here about his humble base in the Madrona Bath house.

A groundbreaking retrospective of Donald Byrd’s career, curated by Thomas F. DeFrantz, Professor of Dance, Duke University, successfully overcomes the challenge of exhibiting dance in a venue designed for visual art. Videos from the 1970s to the present (from tiny to huge), as well as photographs from throughout Bryd’s astonishing career, mesmerize us as we witness his extraordinary creativity. In addition, on a low stage inside the gallery we can enjoy intimate performances by the Spectrum Dancers on Tuesday and Wednesday at noon and Saturday and Sunday at 3pm.

Johan Elbers. Donald Byrd in his choreographic work P-HP, 1983. Photograph. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Photo © Johan Elbers.

Donald Byrd has been radical from his first performances in Los Angeles as early as 1978, when he challenged racism, gender, and bourgeois sensibilities with a classical pas de deux that paired a “disaffected” black man and “blasé cigarette smoking” white woman. His choreography has deep classical roots, but he has consistently expanded the ways that he can confront us with deep social issues through music, movement, gesture, and settings. He deeply believes that dance can trigger social transformation.

His main inspirations are the giants of twentieth century dance George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey, but he also explores popular traditions ranging from punk and funk to Irish jigs. His encyclopedic vocabulary of movement (as well as music) becomes his own as he embodies challenging social issues.

Earlier in his career he aimed to shock: we see him in beauty pageant drag, singing an exaggerated “God Bless America” in American Dream, 1995 in a performance that includes “a phantasmagoric patchwork of terror and display.” You will have to see it to know what this means!

In addition to confronting bourgeois race and gender clichés, Bryd rewrote classics. In his Harlem Nutcracker, 1997, Clara now an African American matriarch, welcomes her well-to-do family for Kwanzaa and Christmas in Harlem. The choreography parodies traditional ballet while it also celebrates African American dance traditions. Another even bolder retelling is The Minstrel Show, Revisited, 2016: it confronts us with the ongoing existence of the racist blackface.

At the center of the exhibition at the Frye is a gallery with four large walls filled with A CRUEL NEW WORLD/the new normal, 2013. Performed in the orange jump suits worn by prisoners and detainees, and inside a hurricane fence, with an American Flag falling on the ground, it explores, through extreme movements, the anguish of being trapped with no way out.

Also included are excerpts from the WOKENESS festival last fall that featured intense performances by his extraordinary dancers on lynching and the killing of African American men.

Finally, don’t miss Donald Byrd performing Sweltering Son only two years ago!

Part II: “Immigration: South Asian Perspectives”

In this era of prejudice toward immigrants, we cannot be reminded often enough of the huge contributions that all immigrants make to the US.

Enter the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI)’s new exhibition “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.” (Nov 2–Jan 26).

The exhibition spans from the early twentieth century to the present with events that sometimes parallel the experiences of other ethnic groups, such as Indian American farmers making good from nothing and mobs driving them out, as happened to the Sikhs in Bellingham in 1907.

Photo No. 2 Installation view, “Beyond Bollywood”, photo by Susan Platt

The Smithsonian organized the exhibition, but Dr. Amy Bhatt, co-author of Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest provided a Northwest component. I found it more compelling, perhaps because I personally knew some of the people featured such as Farah Nousheen from the radical cultural group TASVEER. I have been friends with her since the aftermath of 9/11 when she made her first film on prejudice against Muslims. Don’t miss her articulate interview.

Highlighting the press preview and the exhibition itself were ways to don saris through complex manipulations of huge lengths of fabric. The stunning silks created a dramatic accent near the beginning of the exhibition, and we learned that each pattern contains stories. You can learn more about this in the MOHAI program “Sari Stories,” on December 15.

Other segments featured tech, engineering, food, film, dance and music. On December 3, MOHAI screens Vellai Pookai, a Tamil language movie thriller set in the Northwest at 630 and followed by a conversation with the director. Vivek Elangovan.

Another not to miss program is Dancing Peacock Puppet Theater, Saturday December 21 from 2:30pm.

I want to honor here the impressive Vic Bhatia, who died in 2003. Bhatia helped to create and run the Honors Program at Washington State University from 1964 to 1993. He also was the director of International Education. Hundreds of students from all over the world have been deeply impacted by these two programs.

I wish the programming also included readings from some of the amazing local authors of South Asian descent such as Indu Sundaresan and Sonora Jha, to name only two.

But I was particularly happy to see the emphasis on activism and politics in the last part of the exhibition. How fitting that our District 3 representative Kshama Sawant pulled off her election while this exhibition was going on!

~Susan Noyes Platt

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