Power is the not-so-middle ground

A pithy friend of mine once said to me (and I like to repeat it as often as possible) that there are only two subjects of any kind in all human pre-occupation: sex and death. The primal urgency of desire, which we can know and experience in a multitudinous variety of physically and emotionally intimate ways, and the certain finality of death, which we cannot know and cannot experience directly until our time comes. Both occupy us and compel us insatiably.

This binary sets up a neat opposition, and yet, there might be a third pre-occupation to consider, one that gets tangled up in both sexual desire and escape from death, one that motivates our strongest sexual impulses and our highest reaches for immortality: power. This is the modus operandi and conceptual entry point for all of Donald Byrd’s work as a dancemaker. Byrd is interested in sex as a means to exert power and death because it is the final result of many large-scale, political power struggles. This struggle manifests as a display of violent physicality and extreme mobility of the dancers within the narrative of his work, whether his subject matter happens to be about the Holocaust (massive death), China’s police state (death of individualism), a man’s prostitute (sexual potency as requisite for death), or a group of abused puppets (sadomasochism and sex).

This display can be as visually dazzling as the CGI car-chase explosions of a summer blockbuster. His dancers move fiercely with high technical aptitude, and those with an extreme amount of flexibility and strength, like current dancer Cara-May Marcus, are most suited to his work. The visual splendor of this technical voracity and cinematic robustness has been employed with incredible consistency throughout Byrd’s work with varying degrees of intellectual vigor to match.

Display of extreme mobility/sexual potency. Kate Monthy (standing), Cara May Marcus, and Andrew McGinn. Photo by Nate Watters

(R/r)omantic love

In Autopsy of Love, which was premiered by Spectrum June 20-29, 2013 at Emerald City Trapeze Arts, Byrd’s conceptual jumping off point is that romantic love is dead or perhaps a phantom state encouraged through culture but ultimately an artificial construct that leads to mass disillusionment and unhappiness. A suitably meaty subject—and I was looking forward to it being treated with Byrd’s usual deadpan nihilism. Surprisingly, however, there were no references to current cultural paradigms or even any establishment of what constitutes cultural artificiality versus deep primal drives in this work.

This seems to be partly a conflation, or a willful disregard for the difference, between relational love and Romantic love as defined in the 1800s. The lineage of the ballet vocabulary is forever and problematically attached to this era, existing in a realm of antiquated gender expectations and idealizations that in their day regulated behavior between classes and sexes.

La Sylphide, for example, is a story in which a middle-class Scotsman falls in love with the most beautifully feminine creature imaginable—an ethereal, weightless, virginal sylph—while already engaged to a woman of his own stature. The sylph by her nature is unattainable and taboo. Part of what makes her desirable is her virginal purity, thus denying any ability for real consummation. She’s also a magical being, not suitable for long-term commitment (what would their children look like?). The man’s desire for her is so strong however, that the only possible recourse is for the sylph to die. Thus, class order can be sustained and the man marry whom he is supposed to marry.

Hurrah! Class order triumphs. Emma-Jane Maguire and Steven McRae of the Royal Ballet in La Sylphide. © Dave Morgan.

Byrd has dealt with this historical baggage both comedically and more seriously many times with intellectual acuity, most readily in his remakes of classical ballets such as the Sleeping Beauty Notebooks, Petrushka and The Miraculous Mandarin.

Autopsy, however, calls on the Romantic era as a means to provide a tonal—rather than ironic or critical—setting for the unfolding narratives. For me, interestingly, these were some of the most beautifully designed moments. The lushly antique text of Heinrich Heine’s The Book of Songs (1827) was recited by actor Andrew McGinn over the cadaver of Love on the inspection table, alleghorically depicted by dancer Shadou Mintrone in a ravishing red dress and bright red lips. The language as performed was expertly cadenced to evoke the heightened desperation and fanciful attachment of the poet-lover, as if Fokine’s whistful poet of Les Sylphides were empowered to speak. The Robert Schumann score, which sets much of this text to music, was sung by Bass/Baritone Clayton Brainerd with piano accompaniment by Judith Cohen, who both provided an intricate austerity and florid classicism to the relational love stories.

Spectrum dancers and actor Andrew McGinn Photo by Nate Watters


Agnes Oaks, Thomas Edur, Elena Glurdjidze of English National Ballet in Les Sylphides. © John Ross

A group section playing with social, courtship dance and performed in heels by the women was the most overt depiction of cultural influence over sexual desire (although still harking from the Romantic era) and simultaneously the most restrained in its continuous repetition of a pattern of small, ball-change steps and hand claps. Dancers Jade Solomon Curtis and Donald Jones, Jr. first presented this pattern at the outset and later reconnected for more dynamic interchange in which all of pretense had been flung away.

Almost all of the dance component of Autopsy exists in this mode of abject desperation and serial, soap-operatic coupling and recoupling. There is one example of continued mutual attraction, danced by Derek Crescenti and Stacie Williams, and it is the most vapid depiction of them all. Crescenti as a dog willing to do as many tricks as needed to gain favor was comical and amusing, and yet added little to a discussion of the actual psychological, biological or cultural influences at play. Williams’ movement was, tellingly, very straightforward classical ballet vocabulary, with running waltzes, balancés, and port de bras in third arabesque, letting us know she was merely playing a clearly defined role for her gender, rather than experiencing anything real.

Semiotic affinity

I have to wonder if the blatant blurring of capital and lower-case “r” in Autopsy is a result of Byrd working so systematically inside the ballet idiom.

Byrd uses randomization techniques of retrograding, disassembling and reassigning movements to different body parts, bodyside switches, and level changes to subvert the associated signs of the ballet vocabulary. Although ballet vocabulary itself is abstract, it was developed inside a narrative construct. The waltz step for example is mechanically a traveling step in ¾ tempo in which the feet glide on the floor and the body flips from front to back. In common usage, however, it signifies a “peasant step.” In classical ballets like Coppelia, we see the waltz step performed by a large, female corps-de-ballet that is supposed to represent the village community come out to celebrate. Its associations, therefore, are as pastoral propaganda, the always-young, simplistically happy farmers who are wholesome, full-hearted and content.

Byrd is very adept at circumventing this kind of signifier—as in a thematic step of ronde de jambe en l’air with a progressively higher extension—or emphasizing them. Which is why his work is set up to be particularly apt with the inspection and dissection of the Romantic body. But, towards contemporary, romantic couples? I was left with a question—in the reality of this work, what was the determined cause of death of romantic love? There was stunning dance movement, a display of histrionic content, but was there detailed observation, documented evidence, and rigorous diagnostics of the personal, societal and historical components that create and kill our expectations about romantic love? I guess it was not enough for me to see dancers emerge with clipboards and “take notes” as others performed.

Some closing thoughts

Declaring that “love is dead” is a rather grandiose statement. I am only able to understand this statement through the prism of a single artist’s experience of love, rather than a principle that can be applied to all of humanity. I also see it as an attempt to exert control, again that need for power, over biological forces that are greater than any single individual, and thus to transcend death by triumphing over one of the most basic needs we, as humans, have. In a smaller way, it’s a power manipulation over one’s audience to purport a claim with such authority and then not rigorously follow-through, especially as I know Byrd is capable of doing, and is akin to false advertising. I look forward to seeing later iterations of this work in hopes that some of these issues are addressed. Byrd works with some of the most technically vivacious dancers in Seattle, and they deserve to perform work that expands perception rather than stereotyping it.


Nobody knows Christin Call the dancer/choreographer/poet/artist, explainable by part-existential, part-marketing reasons. As a fair weather critic she has written articles for F5, Kansas City Review, The Ulrich Museum, SeattleDances, and now, happily, STANCE. Her poems have appeared in the lively journals Boston Review, Eastwesterly Review, KNOCK, and Anemone Sidecar. The Mountain? The Mountain., her self-published book of poems, is available through Lulupress.com.

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