Several years ago, Spectrum Dance Theater Artistic Director Donald Byrd faced a silent audience at a post-performance question and answer session. It seemed as though the spectators didn’t know how to assess the ballet they’d just seen. To help and subtly teach them how to watch dance, Byrd asked the group, “How did the ballet make you feel?”
It’s a valid question, certainly not the only one that can help a viewer evaluate a dance performance, but one that provides a clue about how Byrd approaches his art form. Anyone who has seen a significant amount of Byrd’s work knows that he is a deeply emotional artist and his ballets — from his abstract dances to the narrative-driven ones — tend to provoke strong reactions.
It’s odd, therefore, that Byrd’s latest outing, the full-length Love, is strikingly devoid of feeling. Over the course of three acts and numerous romantic comings-and-goings, Love does a fine job of showcasing the physical prowess of Spectrum’s nine dancers but almost never touches the heart. From Vincent Michael Lopez’s languorous opening solo to the concluding sequence, Love explores the full range of physical relationships in all their permutations and combinations but rarely conveys the emotion that motivates them.
The dancers rarely look into each other’s eyes, even when they’re lip-locked in what should be a passionate embrace; as they writhe, leap and spin across two stark white platforms set against each other, they seem emotionally disengaged, not just from each other but from themselves. Often they appear to be in a trance-like state, as if literally going through the motions of love but never feeling the experience.
In the intimate Daniels Recital Hall, the sanctuary of the former First Methodist Church, it’s impossible not to pay as much attention to the performers’ faces as their bodies; sometimes we’re only inches away. The result is not just unnerving, surely part of what Byrd intends, but counterproductive. Rather than drawing us in to the love stories unfolding before us, the dancers’ lack of affect has a distancing effect. There are some lovely moments and an abundance of Byrd’s stretched-out stylistic elements but without a good dose of human feeling to enliven it, Love becomes little more than a display of technical feats.
But what feats they are! Although there is very little new here, Byrd has outdone himself with endless sequences of undulating, hyper-extended torsos, leg and arm extensions that go on forever, and what often look like gymnastics-inflected floor exercises.
The current crop of Spectrum dancers is the strongest Byrd has assembled since taking the reins of the company in 2002, and, more than any other work Spectrum has presented this year, Love shows us just how limber and powerful his dancers are. Although Lopez has the largest role — and does magnificently with it in his ballet-infused, elegant style — he is supported by a stellar troupe of performers, each of whom brings a unique quality to his or her dancing.
Jade Solomon Curtis, so memorable as the seductive love interest in Byrd’s recent Petrushka, is as sleek as a gazelle and as long-limbed. In one section, she is carried, tossed, twisted and turned by six men, dominating the group even as they manhandle her. Throughout, she is the embodiment of grace with legs that reach to the stars and a commanding stage presence. Kate Monthy —like Curtis, new to the company this year — looks like a female wrestler, with a ferocious intensity and stamina to match. In her opening duet with Lopez, her short, squat body is an unexpected counterpoint to Lopez’s elongated ballet line but the two work together surprisingly well.
Shadou Mintrone is as lithe a dancer as any Byrd has ever hired and whether arching her back or stretching away from Ty Alexander Cheng, Donald Jones, Jr., or Jeroboam Bozeman, her every movement is sublime. Cheng is dynamic as always, although he’s terribly underutilized here, and both Jones and Bozeman have a restrained machismo that underlies but never overwhelms their performances.
Despite these many strengths, Love’s deficiencies undermine its impact. Byrd, who is usually so musical, badly misses the mark here. Set to Benjamin Britten’s stirring Cello Suites 1-3, played with passion and finesse by solo cellist Denise Djokic, Love’s choreography fails to capture the intensity of the score and, indeed, seems completely disconnected from it. Byrd could easily have rearranged the musical movements without affecting how each section looks; it’s almost as though he created the steps and then added the music.
Perhaps Byrd is channeling Merce Cunningham here. In Merce’s ballets, the movement and the music were often created separately, then put together at the last moment. Merce was so successful because of the inventiveness of his ideas and the novelty of his movement style; although Byrd has on occasion achieved great originality in his choreography, Love contains too few new steps to sustain its more than 90 minute length.
The most successful element in Love is Byrd’s use of the two juxtaposed platforms and the placement of the seats (former church pews), angled on three sides around them. Without a defined “front” to the theater, at any moment the view of the dancers depends on where one is seated. As he has been doing for several years, Byrd is playing with the physical relationship between the audience and the performers and how he can break down or at least lower the “fourth wall” that separates them. It’s an interesting experiment and in Love, the most compelling aspect of an otherwise uneven production.
NOTE: At the performances on June 28-30, the score will be played by Wendy Sutter, recently named “one of the great cellists of the classical stage,” by The Wall Street Journal.
If You Go: Love, Spectrum Dance Theater, Daniels Recital Hall, Fifth Avenue at Marion, through June 30. Tickets $25 general, $20 students, $5 teens with ID TeenTix pass (day of show only) at the box office one hour before performances, by phone, 206-325-4161 or online at www.spectrumdance.org.