Be careful what you wish for.
When The New York Times trumpeted the New York debut of Spectrum Dance Theater last week, the Seattle troupe could rightly say it had accomplished exactly what its board and hiring committee wanted when they chose Donald Byrd to replace founding artistic director Dale Merrill three years ago. Their mandate was to find a high-profile director who would "take the company to the next level"—and by that they meant national recognition and touring. At New York's Dance Theatre Workshop, the company passed the muster of at least one of the nation's most important dance critics with Byrd's Sleeping Beauty Notebook, a work that shows off some of the best dancing they have ever done. But here's the cautionary part of the tale: The only thing that the current Spectrum has in common with the company that the hiring committee was trying to promote in 2002 is its name and its home base at the Madrona Dance Center. In almost every other respect, this is a different group altogether. What it's lost, what it's gained, and the painful path it's followed along the way, could be a textbook example of the hazards in changing artistic leadership.
This is a personal triumph for Byrd, who had to fold his original, New York–based company in 2002 due to severe budget problems. He has created new work for several East Coast groups since then, but this is the first time he's returned to New York City with his own ensemble, and it is a sweet event for him, reinforced by positive press in the Times, The Village Voice, and The New Yorker. (Times reviewer John Rockwell called Sleeping Beauty Notebook "fascinating, erratic and ultimately deeply moving.") His day in the sun will last into December, when the Broadway musical version of "The Color Purple" opens; Byrd is choreographing the Oprah Winfrey–backed production. Byrd says Spectrum's New York debut "is a big deal. I'm mostly trying to survive it and not piss everybody off. . . . Other than that part, I'm really excited about it."
Byrd knows all about pissing people off. He recalls, "At Spectrum, there [was] a group of people who were really committed to what the company was [before I came], and they fought really hard to have it stay that way. I think they felt that the changes that I've made were somehow killing Dale [Merrill] off—that somehow I was responsible for Dale's leaving." Change, always difficult, is especially traumatic when a company has a long history (in Spectrum's case, 20 years), and a long list of stakeholders.
The company was founded in the early 1980s with the idea of making dance available to everyone through performances and teaching at Madrona Dance Center, one of the city's reconverted bathhouses. To that end, it developed a strong children's program and a series of popular adult classes. Even after the company repositioned itself as a jazz dance ensemble in the 1990s, it retained an inclusive, family-friendly reputation. For years, it functioned in the netherworld between amateur and fully professional, never paying its dancers enough to quit their day jobs, or quite matching the artistic daring of the city's ballet and modern-dance companies.
When Merrill announced he was leaving to chart a new path, the board and hiring committee saw an opportunity for the company to attain a new level of professionalism. Still, the general response to Byrd's selection was surprise. Paula Peters, whose 13 years with the company spanned both artistic directorships, remembers "chuckling the first time Donald came. . . . The very first words out of his mouth were 'I don't do jazz,' and I remember thinking, 'Well, things are about to change.'"
Byrd's style is much more dynamic and, frankly, confrontational than what Spectrum was accustomed to. Choreographically, the world according to Byrd is often harsh or cruel, and although his dances are knit through with structural complexity and integrity, there is very little tenderness or uncomplicated happiness in them. This change in the repertory led to a change in personnel; only one dancer, Allison Keppel, remains from before his arrival. He cheerfully admits to being a hard-nosed director, and rehearsals can often be tense. Peters characterizes the old process as "open" and the new process as "on the defense."
No question, Byrd's approach has increased Spectrum's visibility. Alongside its New York appearances, the company announced a new partnership with Seattle Theatre Group, which runs the Paramount and Moore theaters. Spectrum is now the resident dance company at the Moore, and STG has committed to presenting it there through the 2007–2008 season. Byrd says, "I'm working to create . . . something that can be challenging but is a little more mainstream than what's happening on Capitol Hill." His work is already in the Pacific Northwest Ballet repertory, which puts him in a good position to bridge that gap.
Still, as the company follows this new direction, it moves farther away from its populist "dance for everyone" roots. Today's Spectrum is as distant from its origins as Sleeping Beauty Notebook is from its fairy-tale past.