Last year, the New York-based choreographer Donald Byrd made a dance, ". . . Concerning Vices, Circumstances and Situations," which, by Byrd's own admission, "met with considerable criticism" from both friends and the press. After some initial anger, Byrd turned the experience to his advantage, using the negative criticism as the inspiration for new work.
The result -- the full-evening dance "A Formal Response" -- was performed here this weekend by Byrd and The Group as part of a two-week National Performance Network residency. (The Dance Place still awaits the opening of its new performance space, so the event took place at the Montgomery College Performing Arts Center.)
The work, which Byrd has termed "a personal theatrical manifesto," is divided into two distinct sections, each with its own method and message. The first half is a series of discrete, formal dances that are performed with hyperdriven energy to music by Prince, accompanied by a video that refers to the reception of ". . . Concerning Vices."
Much of the movement is recognizable as contemporary social dance with a theatrical veneer of speed, heightened energy and an expanded use of space. The dancers are in continuous motion, but Byrd still manages to have the movement register in microseconds as a series of clear "poses." Body parts move off in wildly divergent directions, but the movement also flows from a liquid torso and reverberates into the head and outer limbs. Toward the conclusion of Part 1, Byrd inserts a dramatic vignette that has him menaced by a chorus of nay-sayers. He clutches at his head in a haunted frenzy, then lashes out at his demons. The section concludes with a video depiction of Byrd burning the offending reviews.
In the second part, performed to a jazzy "art" score by Carman Moore, the mood turns lyrical and dreamy. The dancers move as though swimming through a viscous medium, and the video becomes a chimerical montage. The souped-up dancing of the first half creeps back in intermittently, but Byrd deliberately keeps himself apart from the group both on stage and in the video.
Byrd and his dancers are an astonishingly skilled lot, as compelling in stillness as in motion. The appealing slickness of the work is due in no small part to Byrd's collaboration with costume designer Pier Voulkos and the video artist A. Star Reese.