That's Harsh

Spectrum reworks two problematic, provocative dances from the past.

Dance rehearsals are about figuring things out, taking phrases apart and tinkering with all the little bits, putting them back together, and knitting them into one long sequence that makes sense. The hand that reaches out must meet the shoulder that supports it, and the body thrown into the air must land in the arms meant to catch it. The rehearsal process is the same, whether the dance is a romantic duet or the violent story of a holy man attacked by a band of highway robbers, which is the plot of Spectrum Dance Theater's Miraculous Mandarin, set to a 1926 score by Béla Bartók. Artistic director Donald Byrd is fascinated by problematic ballets from the past, and in the company's upcoming show he features two of them—this new version of Mandarin and his 2005 remaking of Mikhail Fokine's 1911 Petruchska.

It's "the role of the artist to speak the unspeakable," Byrd says. "Our capacity for brutality and inhumanity is universal." And in his reworkings of these two dances, he stays close to their uncomfortable roots. Petruchska was originally set at a Lenten fair, where the benign jollity of the surroundings contrasted with a menacingly enigmatic magician, whose puppet show taunted and abused a mannequin who might actually be human. In his new version, Byrd moves these characters into an S&M nightclub. They play out the same twisting relationships in a more modern environment, but it all comes to the same conclusion. The choreographer's reworkings of these older dances are attempts not to reconstruct the original steps but to re-examine the original ideas. His version of Sleeping Beauty, which premiered here last year, is less about the awakening of a young girl than it is about the commodification of beauty, but that's there in the original, too, just behind the sweet and lovely.

With Miraculous Mandarin, Byrd is working with a score and a scenario that have challenged many other choreographers and offended many people in its audience (Konrad Adenauer banned it after its initial performance in Cologne). The premise of the story—that the Chinese mystic of the title cannot die until the prostitute who is helping kill him actually sleeps with him— could easily devolve into just so much writhing. The choreographer's job is to get beyond that easy out, which leads to the painstaking work at rehearsals for Spectrum's upcoming show.

"This is the jumping thing after you guys stab me and cut my throat." Peter deGrasse, who dances the Mandarin, is trying to find the right angle for his long body so that David Alewine and Joel Myers, who play the two thugs, can wrestle him to the floor without hurting him. This is the underlying challenge through the whole rehearsal, as they slice, strangle, and suffocate a man who continually shrugs off their attacks, lurching toward the woman he thinks of as salvation. Byrd manages the chaos of violence quite deftly, intercutting steps from three different phrases so that the jerky transitions embody runaway aggression. Just over two weeks before the premiere, the work is still being made, but the skeleton of the dance is clear, as it is in so much of Byrd's choreography, where the harshest aspects of human nature are translated into extreme physicality. Byrd recognizes that his uncompromising point of view puts him in line for criticism as well as praise, but he sees that as part of his job. He says he doesn't know whether he's "fearless or stupid," adding, "I'm compelled by my responsibility, and I'll live with the consequences."

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