Donald Byrd on Disruption and Using Dance as a Social Civic Instrument in (Im)Pulse

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Donald Byrd of Spectrum Dance Theater gives insight on theater of disruption and his new work (Im)Pulse, which is inspired by two artists’ works: David Wojnarowicz, a painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, and AIDS activist and playwright Brian Quirk. (Im)Pulse is a two-part dance theater work made in response to the Orlando Pulse Nightclub tragedy and the ongoing aggression towards LGBTQ people.

{ DIYdancer }, Alejandra Iannone: What inspired you to create (Im)Pulse?

Donald Byrd: The LGBTQ community has long been marginalized. Members of the community have been asserting themselves for much of that time; in the last few years, it seems like they are also being heard.  Yet, discomfort about the LGBTQ community remains even in a “progressive” city like Seattle. And the shooting at PULSE shook my system. It was like 9/11, in many ways.

Photo by by Nate Watters

Photo by by Nate Watters

Part of Spectrum Dance Theater’s mission is to use dance as a social civic instrument. Though our programming history reflected that mission, we weren’t leaning enough into that focus; some of our board members wanted us to be more like the ballet and wondered why we weren’t presenting programming that was “pretty.” That was frustrating to me. I was tired of “be like the ballet.” Either we were going to present the kind of programming that our mission calls for, or I wasn’t going to do any of it. About two years ago, we leaned into our mission. It’s been fantastic for me as an artist. Now I am making work I want to make about things I want it to be about. (Im)Pulse is one of those pieces.

AI: You describe “theater of disruption” as artistic work that uses many media to engage audiences in issues that are difficult and intractable, while also moving closer to disrupting the artificial and often arbitrary boundaries in, for example, the arts. How did you become involved in making work of this kind?

DB: I’ve been referred to a provocateur; people have seen my work and responded that I was “just trying to shock.” So, I’ve realized that a lot of work I do is disruptive, but it’s not always conscious. It’s just the nature of how I ask questions.

And disruption isn’t necessarily negative. Disrupting the way we think about certain issues may not lead to solutions, but we do gain insight. It’s important to be engage in questions; that way we might evolve something like a solution. Disrupting boundaries in art means moving away from saying things like “That’s not dance” and using anything that seems appropriate to lead us to discovery. When nothing is off the table – whether it’s text,  movement, a  documentary – it can lead us on a path to good insightful, art that encourage conversations about the content addressed and how the artwork addresses it.


Photo by Nate Satters

Photo by Nate Watters

The movement in the first part of (Im)Pulse evokes ideas and images of hatred and being hated. This section primes the audience…gets them into another world… guides them toward kinesthetic empathy. The second section is text heavy; monologues with movement intertwined.

Some think that there are limits to what an art form can do. In my work, dancers speak and share the stage with actors. Using various elements stimulates me. Being open provides clarity.

We host facilitated talkbacks after every performance and a panel discussion the Monday before every show.

 AI: Can you describe the creative process for (Im)Pulse?

DB: This project was different than some others I’ve done. I think it was more challenging for the dancers – it was the first time I had pushback from them. In some of the questions I asked and requests that I made asked them to do, I think language was problematic.

AI: For example?

DB: One question was “Can you perform gayness?”  Interrogating gayness was problematic for some at first, especially those dancers that identify as gay.

AI: Did collaboration play a role in the creation of (Im)Pulse?

DB: Yes, but perhaps in a different way than others think of collaboration. There was give and take with the playwright – he was willing to strip things down and set them on stage as I asked. Sometimes I would ask for something to change about his play, he wouldn’t adjust it, and I yielded. The music had been composed well before this project came into existence. The composer said we could use it however and whenever we wanted.

Photo by Nate Watters.

Photo by Nate Watters.

There were a lot of conversations, especially with the dancers, to feel stuff out. I hear them, even when they feel like they are not being heard. I have collaborated with them for the longest time of all; if they don’t buy in, they are not committed. This requires commitment. Normally, I take their responses to a question – like “When was the first time you heard the word “faggot”? or “When was the first time you saw violence against a member of the LGBTQ community?” – and include their personal experiences in a work. This time, I did not.

AI: Anything you’d like audiences to keep in mind when they attend?

DB: This is a speculative piece, rather than one story. Expect some parts to be abstract and others concrete. Be ready to go on a journey and be with your feelings, your level of comfort. People who know my work – the uncomfortable is in this. Or maybe, the unfamiliar. One person who saw it told me that before it she had never seen two men kiss. That’s in “progressive” Seattle. She’s never seen two men kiss.

AI: What were your takeaways?

DB: I learned as I made this piece. Movement is inclusive; it does not lie. And gay culture is embedded in the movement that inspires us in the 21stcentury. This piece unpacked homophobia for me. And I’ve learned that I don’t get it. It seems like the stupidest thing.

June 15th-July 2nd
Seattle Repertory, Leo K. Theater
Click Here for tickets.

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