Seattle-based choreographer Donald Byrd works at the forefront of contemporary performance. For four decades, he has created innovative and startling dance theater works that explore the extraordinary capacities of dancers’ bodies, the complexities of Africanist aesthetics, and the ways that theatrical dance can open audiences toward social change. Presenting selected works from across his prodigious career, Byrd’s first solo museum exhibition reflects Americans’ ongoing struggles to care for our complex diversity. The show centers the artist’s firm belief in an America that is to be: one that is “multi-racial in every aspect.” For Byrd, the future of performance will include “a full spectrum of who lives in America on the stage…a reflection of our world.”
More than any other statesman of contemporary dance, Byrd concerns himself with the terms of social encounters that produce racialized and gendered subjects. His works test suppositions: he wonders on public stages about the conditions of gender and misogyny, race relations, eternal warfare, sexual identity, and the price of obsession. Working across multiple genres—in Hollywood, on Broadway, in opera, and with major ballet and modern dance companies—Byrd always moves toward the most difficult questions, boldly, forcefully, and thoughtfully. In so doing, he presses us all to understand the potential of dance as an act of defiance, as a demonstration of expertise, and as a meditation on what else could be.
The America That Is To Be incorporates archival performance footage and ephemera from various stages of Byrd’s forty-plus years of creativity with in-gallery dance performances. The exhibition traces his beginnings at California Institute of Arts, where his dance work took on a punk-inspired aesthetic, to his early works with his first dance company Donald Byrd/The Group (active from 1978–2002), through crucial collaborations with groups including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and his work since 2002 as Artistic Director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater. Reflecting the way Byrd’s vision has evolved into its full expression across a remarkable array of dance-theater works, The America That Is To Be demonstrates the passionate affirmation of a mature artist’s belief in dance to inspire social transformations; to dance toward social justice.
Donald Byrd (American, b. 1949, New London, North Carolina) is a Tony-nominated (The Color Purple) and Bessie Award-winning (The Minstrel Show) choreographer. He has been the Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle since December 2002. Formerly, he was Artistic Director of Donald Byrd/The Group, a critically acclaimed contemporary dance company, founded in Los Angeles and later based in New York, that toured both nationally and internationally. He has created dance works for many leading companies including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Pacific Northwest Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, and Dance Theater of Harlem, among others, and worked extensively in theater and opera.
His many awards, prizes, and fellowships include Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, Cornish College of the Arts; Masters of Choreography Award, The Kennedy Center; Fellow at The American Academy of Jerusalem; James Baldwin Fellow of United States Artists; Resident Fellow of The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center; Fellow at the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, Harvard University; and the Mayor’s Arts Award for his sustained contributions to the City of Seattle.
Donald Byrd received the 2016 James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award, which is funded by the Raynier Institute & Foundation through the Frye Art Museum | Artist Trust Consortium. The award supports and advances the creative work of outstanding artists living and working in Washington State and culminates in a presentation at the Frye Art Museum.