Donald Byrd has long suffered from a choreographic identity crisis, but it never previously overwhelmed his work or company in quite the oppressive manner in evidence during his three-part program of excerpts at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on Saturday.
Immensely talented as a modern dance choreographer and company leader, Byrd has never come to terms with his fixation on ballet. Classical positions, steps and assumptions about partnering have long dominated his work, sometimes leading him into confronting the art dead-on ("Life Situations: Daydreams on Giselle"), elsewhere giving his choreography a weird, wannabe desperation--as if he somehow hoped to link up with the cool, contemporary classicism of William Forsythe or Alonzo King by copying their stagecraft or technical preoccupations.
The result on Saturday proved a disastrous technical compromise, with Byrd's four women cast as ballerina surrogates all evening long, executing on half-toe the exact kind of supported balances-in-extension that Forsythe or King women would perform on full pointe. Obviously, there are plenty of distinguished choreographers who explore ballet technique without requiring toe shoes--Jiri Kylian for starters. But nobody seems as unrelenting as Byrd in his fixation on tests of balance: the heart of pointe choreography.
Worse, Byrd's balletic movements don't fit, don't connect--they're jammed into phrases by reflex, becoming a kind of misplaced modifier and leaving the choreography looking hectic, overloaded, compulsively arbitrary. There's no shape, no flow, no speed slower than breakneck, just plenty of company skill and stamina to make the dancing forceful if not coherent.
The last pas de deux in "Quartet," for instance, begins with three big lifts in a row followed immediately by three equally flashy supported extensions--all staged showpiece-style but supposedly depicting a relationship that culminates in a quasi-copulatory roll on the floor. Michael Blake and Leonora Stapleton dance impressively, with Blake the only member of the eight-member company who can look unhurried at any speed. But the ecstatic playacting is a sham, an attempt to somehow unify all the discontinuities of a work with no real commitment to an expressive core.
Drawn from Byrd's full-evening 1993 "Bristle," this piece also featured Massimo Pacilli and Laura Rossini as a more combative couple--at least initially. Byrd frequently uses anger to drive his pieces; it supports not only the velocity of his choreography but also its flung-out technique. But it can grow thin and even cheap--as proven in "Sentimental Cannibalism," another section of "Bristle" to more recorded percussion by Mio Morales. Here everyone takes turns being sexually devastating and devastated, one moment the incarnation of desire and the next just passion's fool.
"Drastic Cuts" proved Byrd a master of this kind of satiric eroticism and the company isn't exactly shy--no, not with the prone Pacilli pumping his pelvis into the floor while Stephanie Guiland writhes on his back. But once again, Byrd can't deliver his insights on cupidity without inserting passages of stretched classroom turning-leaps and other infusions of formal ballet-display that clash with the prevailing body language and floor-bound focus of the action.
Happily, "Jazz I" (part of the forthcoming full-evening work "JazzTrain") dispenses with human behavior as a theme and examines the language of dance--specifically, the finger-snapping, hip-rolling, jazz-dance idiom, here diced and respliced into brilliant new configurations. When does finger-snapping cease to be a personal response to rhythm and begin to be a stylistic statement--or a cliche? Byrd knows and, working to another percussion score--this one by Max Roach--gives his dancers a showpiece that satirizes showpieces, a display of cool that undermines the pretense of cool, a work of dance criticism without any need for paper or a personal computer.
Of course, ballet steps prove omnipresent once again, but here they're heightened and exaggerated like the formula jazz vocabulary, so you notice when the dancers speak one language and when another. Even the inevitable Balanchine references (the women's sunburst extensions from "Apollo") relate to the question of what's alive in a dance form and what's empty rhetoric. Finally, the seven solos at the end form a fitting tribute to a company of tireless virtuosos--a company that currently includes (besides those already credited) Brian Brooks, Wendy White and Antonio Carlos Scott.