Celebrated Choreographer Donald Byrd Talks about his New Work for Dancing Wheels and the National Physically Integrated Dance Festival [PREVIEW]

By Steve Sucato

The National Physically Integrated Dance Festival: Beyond Barriers, Boundaries & Belief! brings together dancers with and without disabilities in a three-company, three-city tour beginning in Cleveland, this Friday, June 10 at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre.

Conceived by the Dancing Wheels Company founding artistic director Mary Verdi-Fletcher, the nation’s oldest physically integrated dance company now in its 41st season, will host the first leg of the tour in a program that includes performances by New York’s Heidi Latsky Dance and Miami’s Karen Peterson and Dancers.

Dancing Wheels will present three world-premiere dance works by guest company artist Brian Murphy, longtime company choreographer Mark Tomasic, and award-winning choreographer Donald Byrd, the Artistic Director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater.

I spoke with Mr. Bryd about his new work “This Day” and working with Dancing Wheels.

Was this your first experience creating a work on a physically integrated dance company?
Yes. The idea that I was going to work with a physically integrated dance company was kind of frightening in some ways initially. Usually, if something unnerves me, I want to do it.  

How was it working with Dancing Wheel’s dancers?

I loved the experience. The eye-opening part of it for me was not that there are dancers with disabilities in the company, but how quickly that became not important in working with them. I got used to pretty quickly what the dancers in wheelchairs can do as other bodies in the creative process. I thought of the wheelchairs as an augmentation in some ways, like pointe shoes are an augmentation that allows you to do some things you normally couldn’t like stand on your toes. And like pointe shoes, there are also constraints on what can be done.

Donald Byrd

What was your inspiration, motivation, or direction for “This Day”?

It began with me thinking about the concept of a wheel and seeing [company founding artistic director] Mary [Verdi-Fletcher] as the hub and the other dancers as spokes. This was a jumping-off point. As the work progressed, I began also noticing relationships within the company. For instance, Matt [Bowman] and Mary have a really great rapport. That idea of relationships then became a significant part of the work. I have also been thinking about the unities in classical theater where everything happens within the course of a day. So, in the work, now titled “This Day,” we are looking at the kinds of relationships we get a glimpse of in one day.

How is that manifested onstage?
The piece suggests relationships and the audience can infer relationships in how they see the work. In the lighting design, there is a progression from early morning to twilight to drive home the concept of things happening in one day.

What music are you using?

I am using music from composer Max Richter. It is music I find to be atmospheric and that sustains a mood. There are two pieces of music that I use that both loop on each other.

How has your company, Spectrum Dance Theater, addressed inclusion?

The company is inclusive in many ways, but it has not, because of the nature of our building, been able to be inclusive of people with disabilities. The city owns the building, and it needs to be brought up to code. Being at Dancing Wheels has made me realize that I need to push the city to bring it up to code because I would love to bring Mary and Sara [Lawrence-Sucato] here to do some workshops. What I have decided to do for now is perhaps do those workshops off-site as a way of drawing attention to the fact the building isn’t accessible.

The first leg of the National Physically Integrated Dance Festival: Beyond Barriers, Boundaries & Belief! hosted by the Dancing Wheels Company & School will be performed at 8 p.m. at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave, Cleveland. For general admission tickets at $50 each that include a champagne & dessert post-performance party, visit playhousesquare.org or call (216) 241-6000. V.I.P. tickets, that include a pre-show event, preferred seating, and the post-performance party are $150 each and can be purchased online at dancingwheels.org or by calling (216) 432-0306.

The National Physically Integrated Dance Festival: Beyond Barriers, Boundaries & Belief! continues on Tuesday, June 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Mark Morris Dance Center, 3 Lafayette Ave, Brooklyn, NY. Tickets: https://tinyurl.com/beyondbarriersbrooklyn and Saturday, June 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Miami Light Box, 402 NW 26th Street, Miami, FL. Tickets: beyond-barriers.eventbrite.com

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.

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