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DANCE : Donald Byrd's Dance of Reality : The choreographer's 'Minstrel Show' will bring audiences face to face with themselves on issues of race

April 25, 1993|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles is a staff writer in The Times' Orange County edition

When choreographer Donald Byrd wanted audiences to face up to this country's history of racism and prejudice, he didn't pull any punches.

He created a work he calls "The Minstrel Show: Acts for Coons, Jigaboos and Jungle Bunnies." An African-American himself, he even made the African-American dancers in his company put on blackface, and he invited members of the audience to come on stage to tell the latest racist jokes they'd heard.

Little wonder that "The Minstrel Show" galvanized and upset audiences at UC San Diego when the work was presented there last year.

Now it's L.A.'s turn.

"The Minstrel Show" will be seen as part of the festival of Black Choreographers Moving Into the 21st Century, May 6-8 at the Japan America Theatre. Another Byrd work, a different section of "Drastic Cuts" from what was seen here last year, also will be part of the three-day festivities.

"I picked that title because that's what minstrel shows were," the 43-year-old choreographer said in a recent interview. "And also to provide a clue for the audience that the stereotypes are so extreme that they can't possibly be real.

"At the start, I had said that to the dancers. There's no such thing as a 'coon,' a 'jigaboo' or a 'jungle bunny.' That's an invention. There are no people that are those things.' "

Byrd's aggressive stance isn't turning people away. In fact, "Drastic Cuts" has encouraged former New York City Ballet Master in Chief Jerome Robbins to talk to Byrd recently about choreographing for "a large ballet company," Byrd said. The young choreographer has just set a new work, "Cracked Narrative," on Oregon Ballet Theatre (the premiere is May 14) and is "in the middle of a development deal with Columbia Pictures for a film."

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater danced Byrd's "Dance at the Gym," created for the company in 1991, during the recent UCLA engagement. Byrd also has created choreography for two theater works directed by Peter Sellars: Brecht-Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins of the Bourgeoisie" for the Opera de Lyon in January, and Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" seen at the Ojai Festival last summer.

Although born and raised in the South, Byrd said he didn't experience overt racism until he went to Yale University as a philosophy major.

"My first weekend there, someone yelled (a racial epithet) at me and threw a chair from a passing car. Yeah, it hit me. That was my introduction to New Haven, (Conn.). Nothing like that had happened to me before. . . .

"Racism in the South was institutionalized, it was built into the whole system. You knew how things were, so they didn't impact you immediately."

Within a semester at Yale, Byrd switched to the drama department, and that soon led to taking ballet classes at a nearby school. "A couple of days later, I enrolled in a modern dance class, then a few days after that, in an African-Haitian dance class. Within one week, I was hooked."

Byrd moved to New York and began working with various directors and choreographers, including Twyla Tharp.

"Her way of thinking absolutely startled me. I had never seen anyone choreographically so rigorous. Most of the time I would stop dancing (in rehearsal) because I would realize what she was doing and I would be startled into motionlessness. I'm sure I just appeared as not being with it or just stupid."

He began choreographing in earnest after he came out to California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in the late '70s. While in Los Angeles, he formed his company, Donald Byrd/The Group, in 1978 and moved it to New York City in 1983.

Los Angeles had another major impact: Byrd says he was transformed by the first Black Choreographers Moving festival, held here and in San Francisco in 1989.

Speaking as part of a public panel in Los Angeles, he said then: "In regard to our responsibility to the (black) community, I would say I have been negligent. My concerns have been about myself and not about giving something back and putting something in, even though that's been in the back of my head."

He amplified that remark recently. "One of the things that happened (at the festival) was that I had an opportunity to really feel I was a part of the community that I come from. My work sometimes can be abstract and appear not to have a direct relationship to Afro-American concerns, but, in fact, it is based on that.

"It's an incredible dilemma to be an artist of color and to always be in denial about that, saying, 'I'm a choreographer first and then I'm black,' when in fact, that's not the case. I'm black first and then I'm also a choreographer. The blackness, the Afro-Americanness, came first. And I don't think that minimizes what I do. In fact it gives a point of reference to what it is."

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