Donald Byrd Leaps Straight From Jacob Lawrence's Brush

The figures in Jacob Lawrence's art are rarely still. They're hard at work, tackling obstacles, building for the future. And nowhere more so than in his celebrated series Migration of the Negro—60 panels depicting the Depression-era exodus of African American men and women to the northern U.S. It's one of several pieces Lawrence painted in multiple panels to form a lyrical narrative. It's also one that choreographer Donald Byrd draws on heavily for his contribution to "colôr-ógraphy, n. The Dances of Jacob Lawrence."

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company invited Byrd and three other contemporary dance professionals to translate Lawrence's work to the stage. In his J Lawrence Paint, Byrd follows Lawrence's lead, creating human frescoes that pay tribute to composition before exploding into dance. "I was interested in capturing Lawrence's large-scale thinking," says Byrd.

Visual art has come to life often over the years, and with mixed objectives. There was Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with a statue that Venus—out of pity—decided to animate. Nineteenth-century audiences had the pose plastique, in which scantily clad performers in flesh-colored stockings maintained poses derived from famous paintings and sculptures. And, of course, there's Mary Poppins, who jumps with her charges into a rainy-day chalk painting to cavort with an animated landscape. It's a rare moment when arts collide successfully—the final product can suffer from "too many cooks" syndrome. But Byrd's work for "colôr-ógraphy" is in the best tradition.

Lawrence termed his style "dynamic cubism," perhaps alluding to his use of geometric form in combination with large swatches of graphic color, as well as the implied movement within his canvas. While his style reveals the influence of Matisse and Picasso, he molded their methods to his personal brand of social realism, protesting injustice and elevating awareness of African American history.

Byrd captures the monumentality of Lawrence's figures, placing the Dayton dancers in friezelike silhouettes reminiscent of Egyptian statuary until they burst into movement. Blink and you've missed a multitude of extraordinary thrusts, catapults into space, and propulsions across the stage. Byrd imitates the way Lawrence's canvases look, before his choreography evokes how they feel.

One solo, set to a remix of Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit," opens with dancer William B. McClellan crouching center stage right, while a noose dangles loosely from a projecting tree limb. The scene is a reproduction of a panel from the Migration series (No. 15), but Byrd steers clear of any obvious chronology in which Lawrence's paintings read as narrative. Rather, his scenes create layers. The right side of the stage might evoke a scene from Lawrence's Harriet Tubman series, while the left recalls a painting from Migration. What results are visually dynamic sets of movement that cover nearly every inch of the stage. Tubman—the "Moses of her People"—flows in and out like a leitmotif, a powerful and prophetic figure urging the dancers to carry on.

It's little wonder that Byrd channels Lawrence so flawlessly. There are a number of parallels in their lives—not the least being geographic. Both grew up in the South—an environment integral to their work—and later moved to Seattle, where Lawrence resided for 30 years (see his 1985 piece Theater, created especially for Meany Hall, hanging in the West Lobby) and Byrd has lived since 2002. More obvious is the marriage of art to contemporary social concerns. Lawrence sought to bring important events in African American history into the public eye with later work focused on social themes such as integration. He described his paintings of builders—showing blacks and whites working alongside one another—as a symbol of both hope and progress. Byrd's recent work has focused on the current health crisis, poverty, drugs, and race relations. He sees his presence in Seattle as a continuation of the African American legacy in the region.

While the other three choreographers on the program—Reggie Wilson, Rennie Harris, and DCDC artistic director Kevin Ward—have created visually engaging pieces that obliquely address issues explored by Lawrence, such as African history and urban strife, they don't operate at the same level as Byrd's choreography. Would they evoke the celebrated painter if the program didn't bill them as such? Unlikely. Byrd's work has so utterly embraced both the formal and spiritual aspects of Lawrence's work that his dances seem to have sprung from the very paint fallen from Lawrence's brush, rebounding from the floor of his studio and onto the stage in human form. He has, in his own right, produced a masterpiece.

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