An interview with choreographer Donald Byrd

Donald Byrd is one of the most acclaimed modern dance choreographers of our era.


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Shards Revisited

Donald Byrd is one of the most acclaimed modern dance choreographers of our era.

He recently worked with the Ailey 2 dancers to restage his innovative work Shards, which, in 1988, was the first ballet he created for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Dancer and writer Jamal Story—who has danced in Byrd’s original company and in the musical The Color Purple (which Byrd choreographed)—assisted with resetting the piece. The two sat down to talk about the ideas behind the ballet, Alvin Ailey as an inspirational figure, and the importance of having former Ailey dancer Dana Nash on hand to help restage the work.

JAMAL: What was the inspiration for Shards?

BYRD: Ailey had always been a repertory company and the foundation that Ailey had built the rep around was his own work and the work of Donald McKayle and Talley Beatty. They were the three major African-American choreographers of the time who had kind of made it into the mainstream. I looked at the elements of their work and what they had in common. To various degrees they relied on ballet technique (mostly Alvin and Talley) and on some aspect or knowledge of Graham technique. Alvin also relied on Horton technique.

And then there was the aspect of Black vernacular dance that was strong in all of their works. So if I were to take all those techniques and influential elements, deconstruct the language that these choreographers used and recombine it with my sensibility as a choreographer from another generation, what would it look like? It was an acknowledgment that my history is built upon these other African-American choreographers from a generation before me.

JAMAL: Hence the title.

BYRD: If you think of shards in a kind of genetic way, the inside of each gene—a shard perhaps of the body—has the capacity to reproduce the whole organism again. You clone from the cell. And so there’s the idea that with one shard of a shattered mirror, what’s imprinted in the shard is the last thing the mirror saw. The mirror can see all kinds of things, but in this case it’s the “Rose Adagio” from the ballet Sleeping Beauty or the clump of dancers in “I Been ‘Buked.” It’s an Escher-like way of thinking about it, that things kind of turn in on themselves and create a kind of infinity.

JAMAL: You mention the “Rose Adagio.” What made you reference that part of Sleeping Beauty?

BYRD: I was sort of fascinated by 19th century ballet and I thought, “If you were to re-frame the ‘Rose Adagio’ in an African-American context, how would it look?” For me, the dancers are at the center of it. Who is it that I’m working with and what are the qualities of the person? How do I combine those qualities into something cohesive? I made this section on [former Ailey dancer] Ruthlyn Salomons. She had this kind of brightness and intelligence in her dancing that was captivating to me. Yet no white ballet company would have ever given her the opportunity to be Aurora.

JAMAL: Why did Alvin’s approval have such a huge impact on you? I mean, other than that he was Alvin Ailey.

BYRD: Well yeah, that. And also his interactions with me during that period changed me because sometimes I go back to that Robert Bly thing that, psychologically, a young man needs to be validated by an older man who’s not his father. It’s sort of a rite of passage and that validation lets him go into the world with a certain level of confidence. I was already in my thirties and in my head I was always still trying to be a choreographer, working to be a choreographer. Alvin would watch what I was doing and say, “Oh, you do such marvelous things.” What I realized in that moment is that what he was saying to me is, “You’re not trying to be a choreographer. You’re doing it. You are a choreographer.”

JAMAL: Dana Hash is fantastic.

BYRD: Yes she is.

JAMAL: Is there something sort of magical about having her in the room?

BYRD: My belief is that you can get a more authentic restaging of the work if the person restaging it is someone who has actually done it. Dana staged works of mine before this and the insight that she brings to it is what’s valuable. The idea of stuff being passed on and how it gets passed on is important to me. I can certainly see how some information gets missed because they’re not the choreographer, but the real question is can the essence of the work be communicated when it’s being translated by someone else when the creator is absent? It was good to see that there are people capable of passing that on.

JAMAL: The piece is older than the dancers in it. What kinds of challenges does that impose?

BYRD: It challenges them because they come from a different generation. Works of different generations require different things. One of the things about the Ailey first company is that because Alvin’s work is at the core of the sensibility and the aesthetic, the dancers have a reference to something from the past. But even that work has evolved. It isn’t performed the same way. The dancers solve the problems of the ballet differently than they would have years before.

JAMAL: Apart from Alvin Ailey’s involvement, what makes Shards such a defining ballet in your career?

BYRD: I was able to own my ideas on what dance ought to be or could be, my version of dance that I wanted to put out into the world. So everything I did afterwards was a direct effect of that.