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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Shot" by Spectrum Dance Theater

You might go to a Spectrum Dance Theater performance for many reasons: you never go see dance, and you think it’s about time; you heard Spectrum is controversial, and you’re feeling feisty these days; you got the ticket from a friend who came down with the flu; you read that Spectrum’s current show, “Shot,” is about Black Lives Matter, and you want to do something political and be a good citizen. 

Or, maybe you're a season subscriber welcoming another adventure. Any of these might be your reason to see this show during its brief run at Seattle Rep.

Let me give you one more: this is a moving, fascinating, flawed, memorable piece of political dance theater, coinciding with the inauguration of an administration that is going to require a lot from brave artists willing to put their work out there and have an influence.
Ensemble members
Paul Giarratano and Fausto Rivera Contreras; Photo by Nate Watters

In “Shot,” Byrd starts with facts: killings of unarmed black men and women by police happen with tragic frequency in America. You’ve heard about it, talked about it, perhaps argued about it. As with so much in our public discourse, the narrative is often reduced to simple extremes: Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter.

"Shot" highlights these polarities, and is able to transcend them by crafting an idiom of the body, focusing on human beings caught up in the machinery of institutional racism and oppression.

Byrd places his discourse of movement on the steps and street in front of a massive, multi-level, whitewashed screen, embedded in which stands an arched doorway and rising steps flanked by two glass-globed light-posts: a hall of justice, or perhaps the impassive façade of a precinct police station. Fourteen young dancers enter as lights flicker and flash; sounds of police action rise; a mosaic of images flutter like torn pages of a newspaper across the screen, images reduced to memes of all-to-familiar desperation, violence, and fear. 

Out of this cacophony, motifs and patterns emerge: life in motion, life in the body -- solo, pairs, triads, ensembles. Violence is there; fear; love and loss; family; rupture; oppression. And death. Again and again, in the midst of this life and struggle, a figure falls, shockingly inert. Taut, synchronized group gestures of astonishing technical expertise sharply contrast with fluid moments of intimacy and warmth.

“Shot” features the music of two important artists: Jaimeo Brown and Julius Eastman. Their shifting, transcendent fusions of sound create another rich layer in the multi-sensory experience of “Shot.” The soundtrack is a flowing river of voices, tones, genres: blues filtered through the news, global rhythms in the local pulse of life and death.

Byrd makes a radical, unsettling choice midway through the piece, as he reads from the stage an informational page or two about "the talk" that many black parents now have with their adolescent children about surviving an encounter with police, listing the "ten things to remember." This interrupts the idiom of the performance with an abrupt foray into unadorned language, followed by more words as actors representing opposing sides debate, escalate, and finally resort to slurs and insults to shout each other down. 

It's an interesting choice, a risky one, and detracts more than it contributes to the piece as a whole. The work is a tribute to lives lost, loved ones left behind, displaying the human-driven machinery of death powered by institutional, embedded racism. The return to the last third of the performance after this rupture is a relief, but the broken thread of the experience is never quite made whole again. If this is Byrd's intent, it backfires.

The human lives depicted and remembered on this street are composed of many threads: work, family, hope, loss, heavy burdens made bearable by the lightness of love and community. "Shot" succeeds best by weaving voice, music and movement into a coherent visual and visceral experience. The falling bodies, and the anguished cries of "Don't shoot him! Don't you shoot him!"from the video recording made by Rakeyia Scott as her husband was gunned down in September, 2016, are enough to drive home the brokenness of American justice and the tragedy of police violence against people of color.

This is work that honors and eulogizes victims of systemic injustice; that sets its sights on transformation and healing, not polarization. It is a work of love and anger that should be widely seen. 

Spectrum Dance Theater
Executive Artistic Director Donald Byrd

At Seattle Repertory Leo K. Theater

January 19 - February 4, 2017