writers on dancing


Another "Sleeping Beauty" For Our Times

"The Sleeping Beauty Notebook"
Donald Byrd/Spectrum Dance Theater
Dance Theater Workshop
New York, NY
November 4, 2005

By Susan Reiter
copyright ©2005 by Susan Reiter

Donald Byrd apparently likes to examine, speculate about, taunt and at times undermine the nineteenth-century classics, and in "The Sleeping Beauty Notebook" he wants to get us thinking about that Petipa perennial—to question its premise, imagine a backstory for Carabosse, investigate a broader idea of what "beauty" is. But while his theatrical imagination is clearly revved up to full throttle in this two-hour work, much of the actual dancing we see slows the experience down to a slog.

The dance proper begins after we have heard two pairs of dancers (the first casually striding onstage while the house lights are still up) simultaneously mime and intone rhythmically in unison an approximation of Carabosse's curse on the infant Aurora ("she will grow up, she will be beautiful with beautiful arms…"), repeating it at increasing speed until one ends their efforts with an expletive. Byrd then brings out his version of the Prologue, with the "fairies" in simple black leotards and cut-off sheer tights, long black gloves, and sporting imaginative "tutus" made out of colored loops of ropey material. They look like children who decided to play dress up and create their own ballet. A couple of men in vests and pants, with what look like fezes on their heads, fill out the scene, which consists of a barefoot version of some basic ballet.

Here, and in his analog of the Act Two Hunt Scene that opens the second half of the evening, Byrd lets the dancing speak for itself at some length, and it is not particularly articulate. The Lilac Fairy-wannabe in the center features multi-colored loops rather than a single color, and her gracious manner befits the role, but there is not much point to her, and the other dancers' bland approximation of what would be going on in a "real" Prologue to the ballet, other than to set up the rude, frenzied arrival of a dancer with wild frizzy hair who rushes through screaming "motherfucker!" a the top of her lungs.

As Byrd proceeds through an approximation of the ballet's action up through the awakening, there is plenty of such aggression and profanity, as well as bawdiness and groping. A small screen high above the action introduces each "page" of his "Notebook," with pithy titles—some referring to the action and some to the concepts or questions he is positing. Even though he has already launched into his take on the action, he takes time for a section titled "But First a Curse," intended as a seven-minute summation of the entire tale, set to Tchaikovsky's Overture. It is more abstract and gestural than much of the dancing we see, full of hyperactive arms and legs, with everyone in simple black, occasionally donning a tiara or sash to identify their characters. It's kind of cute, a clever exercise, but it's hard to see its use as a provocative statement, or jumping-off point, for the presumably bold statement Byrd is trying to make with this piece.

The eleven dancers (eight women, three men) of this Seattle-based company are certainly kept quite busy during the two acts, and Byrd asks them to do a lot more than just dance. They switch "roles" as well as movement styles, occasionally address the audience or shout out furiously, and they also move set pieces around as the initially bare-bones staging becomes more elaborate, albeit with a charmingly funky, homespun look. A pleated crimson draped curtain and three mirrors frame din gold evoke the world of the court, for example. The costuming, one of the work's more successful aspects, continues to be simple but clever, making wonderful use of colored gloves.

When the scene shifts to the all-important birthday scene, Byrd takes us to sleazy bar or nightclub milieu, as three suave guys court a pert little chippie (Lara Seefeldt) whose bright pink dress is shaped more like a tulip, and who performs an approximation of the Rose Adagio choreography in black strappy pumps, and minus one partner. Before and during, the men drop their well-mannered stance and engage in competitive rough-housing fueled by drinks from the bar. As an intimation that there are animal urges beneath a polite exterior, it is a pallid imitation of Paul Taylor's subtly brilliant take on this idea.  

Another dance scene that had some theatrical viability—as opposed to others that seemed merely aimed at showcasing a certain rebellious or naughty take on the original—was one in which the rigid, proper Prince, wearing what looked like gleaming Navy dress whites, found himself at the mercy of five raging nymphomaniacs in scanty burlesque outfits. One by one they leaped at him, wrapping their legs around him with viperfish delight, as he could do little more than try not to get his neatly pressed clothes mussed. It could be seen as a nightmarish reverse-image of the Rose Adagio, with the gleaming male object of beauty and the slutty women competing, in their ugly way, to win him.

Towards the end of the evening's first half, at a point when the hissing, vengeful fury that is the analogue to Carabosse has seized and thrown a couple of doll-babies to the floor, a lean, mild-mannered man emerged from the audience, reprimanding, "don't throw the baby." He picked them up and, while holding them tenderly in his arms, engaged the audience in a discussion of Carabosse's motives. What about "the scale of her response," he inquired—was it out of proportion? Somehow, he managed to bring up the buzz-word "terrorist." A few audience members offered their ideas, and soon this segment petered out and the dancing resumed.  

This moderator was Thomas DeFrantz, the writer and historian who is credited as "production dramaturg," and whose substantial program note tells us that this work "answers 'The Sleeping Beauty' back with modern preoccupations and contemporary themes," that it is a dreamlike vision of 'Beauty,' dissected, parsed and reconfigured." I'm certain Byrd has a lot of fascinating ideas in response to "Sleeping Beauty,' and he certainly knows how to present a provocative sequence and catch his viewer off guard. But this evening proceeded  in fits and starts, and too often presented a diluted version of the real thing. I would have liked to have been drawn into a "dreamlike vision," but this was not it.

Volume 3, No. 41
November 7, 2005

copyright ©2005 Susan Reiter



DanceView Times

What's On This Week
Index of Writers

Back Issues
About Us


Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Nancy Dalva
Rita Felciano
Marc Haegeman
George Jackson
Eva Kistrup
Gia Kourlas
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Sandi Kurtz
Alexander Meinertz
Gay Morris
Ann Murphy
Paul Parish
John Percival
Tom Phillips
Naima Prevots
Susan Reiter
Lisa Rinehart
Jane Simpson
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Lisa Traiger
Kathrine Sorley Walker
Leigh Witchel
David Vaughan
last updated on November 7, 2005