Like other artists, choreographer Donald Byrd turned out to be more engaging when he painted a picture of hell than when he tried to paint a picture of heaven. Or call it demi-heaven, which may be as close as we can get to the real thing in the '90s.
In his latest three-act work, "Bristle," seen Thursday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, Byrd progressed from cold sexual aggressivity through deconstructed Romanticism to interpersonal accommodation. The work closed the enterprising Feet First Contemporary Dance Series sponsored jointly by the theater and UCI Cultural Events.
Against a driving rhythmic score by Mio Morales, Byrd's longtime collaborator, four men and four women line up for a fierce, shifting and impersonal battle of the sexes in the sensational first part, "Sentimental Cannibalism."
Michael Blake, Friedrich Buhrer, Stephanie Guiland, Terace Jones, Aldawna Morrison, Diane Sales, Leonora Stapleton and Laura Rossini stalked through Byrd's rigorous, fast-paced geometries and met his extended balletic demands with rare power and clarity.
David H. Rosenburg's dramatic lighting design accentuated the battles. Ghostly quotations from Barber's Adagio for Strings lent momentary poignancy.
Choreographically, things began to go awry in Part II, "La Valse," which turned slowly away from Morales' music to Ravel's familiar score.
At first, the section suggested continuity, as the woman callously inspected the men's bodies; then the men returned the favor. Soon the guys lined up at the feet of the now spread-eagled women, and one by one had their way with them. Changing the lineup, the women took their turns.
But as "La Valse" continued, choreographic logic and impulse yielded to a theatrical concept that appeared imposed: Romanticism, represented by this score, had to die for new relationship to emerge.
We know that from interviews. Byrd found little to support the idea in Ravel's sinuous line--although he did capture the composer's explosive accents. Neither did he work against the music persuasively. The section began to fill with dead time.
The third part, "Quartet," admitted only two couples--Morrison and April Wanstall, and Blake and Stapleton. The odds of male-female relationship getting even this far, Byrd may be saying, are only 50-50. There remained tensions, feints and withdrawals, but also increasing trust and tenderness.
Visually, however, there was less and less to interest the eye as the storms subsided into calm, lyric stretchings, difficult balances and final sexual/emotional embraces.
"Bristle" is exclusively heterosexual and reflects none of the pan-sexual partnerings Byrd has explored in some previous works. Even so, the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, his American Family Assn. and others of their ilk probably still wouldn't approve.
* "Bristle" will be danced by Donald Byrd/The GroupC today at 8 p.m. at UC Riverside's University Theatre, $20, (909) 787-4331; and on Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Japan America Theatre, 244 S . San Pedro St., Los Angeles, $14 and $16, (213) 680-3700.