When critics speak, artists listen. Few artists, however, dare to talk back. Yet choreographer Donald Byrd is about to face down his detractors.
Seasoned with previous success, but still reeling from the strong critical disfavor that met his last dance program in New York, the feisty, 36-year-old dance-maker has concocted "A Formal Response."
This hourlong collage of dance, music, film and video attempts to deal with what Byrd calls the "anger, resentment, abandonment and hostility" he experienced after the premiere of his ". . . concerning Vices, Circumstances and Situations" at La Mama last year.
Based in Los Angeles during the latter 1970s, Byrd returns with his six-member ensemble, Donald Byrd/The Group, for the world premiere of "A Formal Response" on Wednesday and Thursday at the Japan America Theatre.
The choreographer promises a "personal theatrical manifesto" in this "Explorations III" presentation. And, from one who has championed risk before respectability, it's likely to be energetically and self-consciously provocative.
Byrd's work has frequently reveled in its rawness. "Brass Orchid," some eight years back, bristled with aggression and sexual innuendo. Byrd snarled and cursed at the audience and an indifferently romantic couple performed a classical pas de deux while puffing obsessively on cigarettes.
The more recent "Post-Holocaust Pop or Popular Dancing After the Bomb" crossed new-wave fashion with images of nuclear destruction. "Hot Times," characterized by Byrd as "a minstrel show," presented its performers in blackface, including the choreographer (whois black himself), and even invited audience members to relate their favorite racist jokes.
Byrd admits a fascination with "popular entertainment past and present." His penchant for punk music and costume mirrors his interest in such historical forms as the minstrel show in "Hot Times" or social ballroom dancing, as in his "Low Down and Dirty Rag."
Popular expression, he maintains, offers an opportunity to reach contemporary audiences. Yet, he warns, "if you try to be trendy, it's bound to be a miserable failure. It has to be part of your sensibility."
Byrd acknowledges that his "Vices" perhaps went too far in its depiction of a down-and-out, cocaine-addicted habitue of the pop club scene.
"It seemed authentic to me," he muses in retrospect, "but a lot of people complained that it felt like they were going through the experience themselves. It was painful to watch. I guess people want and need more distance, and I can see now how I made some errors in judgment."
Still, he wonders, "do people have to exist on a heroic level for audiences to accept them?"
He cites Bertolt Brecht's concept of "alienating" theater as an incentive to social change. Dance, the choreographer notes, has "a strong decorative element" that he is seeking to balance with substantive content. "I want to put honest work on the stage," he says, "and sometimes discomfort is part of that. At least you know you're alive."
Byrd had his own discomfort to confront in processing the negative response generated by "Vices." Reviewers and friends alike were strongly critical of the piece, and he found himself "questioning my talents and artistic concern--even whether I had the aptitude to make work."
"I'm still not objective about the experience," he adds, "but I realized how important it had been to me for people to like what I do. I thought I was a pretty tough cookie, but it made me aware how vulnerable I really am."
The artist was particularly hurt by one critic's comment that he was "not living up to his promise." He counters, "those were goals she set for me, not me for myself. If we have talent, don't we deserve some sort of commitment--time to mature and even the chance to fail without being thrown out?"
"A Formal Response" represents Byrd's attempt "to address, in a positive manner," these personal and aesthetic issues. He has worked in collaboration with video/film maker A. Starr Reese and composer Carman Moore; music by Prince completes the score.
Although he describes the new dance as "an exorcism," he has added humor to broaden its perspective; in one segment, film animates and enlarges the assault of his negative reviews. But if the first half of "A Formal Response" depicts a very personal "working through the past," the dance ultimately asks, "Now what do I do?"
However, Byrd is not returning to Los Angeles as a penitent prodigal son. Although he credits California as "the first place I got encouraged," he notes, "L.A. has no effective dance support system." In New York, despite "the jealousies and the envies," he has found community and inspiration. In fact, Byrd will bring "A Formal Response" to New York in June and he is ready to meet the reaction head-on.
"I don't need to be told every day that I'm okay," he has learned. "I'm really interested in trying to keep theater alive and I believe in what I do." The soul-searching and re-evaluation occasioned by last spring's setback were painful for Byrd, but he's bouncing back with no less gusto.
"I know why I'm in the theater," he says, "and it's time to get on with the show."