An interview with choreographer Donald Byrd about “Tap Dance” and “Verklaerte Nacht,” which he made for Music of Remembrance, an organization dedicated to remembering Holocaust musicians and their work.
By Alice Kaderlan
Watching a rehearsal of Donald Byrd’s new “Tap Dance” is like eavesdropping on a class in Morse code. “Dada, dada, dadadadada,” Byrd calls out as dancer Shadou Mintone listens intently, then tries to duplicate the beats in her tap shoes.
“Not exactly,” Byrd responds, then repeats the complex rhythms. Mintone tries again, slapping out the rapid-fire rhythms against her body, then transferring them to her legs and feet. Finally, she gets the timing and the steps down.
The work is a challenge for both of them. The 1938 score for piano and dancer by Dutch composer Dick Kattenburg includes the music and tap rhythms but no indication of the dance steps. It’s not even clear whether the work was ever presented, as Kattenburg died at Auschwitz just a few years later at age 25.
“The challenge comes because the rhythms are written out, and you have to follow them,” Byrd says, “but the steps aren’t notated. But it’s fun, turning the dancer into an instrument.”
“Tap Dance” is one of two works Byrd is creating for a November concert presented by Music of Remembrance, an organization devoted to the remembrance of Holocaust musicians and their art. The other, a much longer piece, is set to “Verklaerte Nacht” by Arnold Schoenberg — an artist whose work was deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis. (He emigrated to the U.S. in 1934.)
Schoenberg composed the string sextet in 1899, before he invented his 12-tone technique; as a result, the score has a lush, melodic romanticism perfectly suited to the poem by Richard Dehmel that inspired it.
In the poem, two lovers are walking in a forest when the woman shares a dark secret with her partner; she is carrying another man’s child. Schoenberg’s emotional score reflects the three stages of the story — the sadness of the woman’s confession, the man’s struggle with it and his ultimate forgiveness of her.
MOR artistic director Mina Miller had wanted to program “Verklaerte Nacht” for some time but waited until she could have choreography with it. “It’s a long piece and even though it’s accessible, I felt that the visual element would really add to the performance,” she explains. When Byrd became available this year, they moved ahead on what is now their third collaboration.
“I’m a great fan of Donald’s,” she says. “He brings incredible vision and commitment to our projects and has an interest in the composers of the Holocaust period.”
Byrd is equally enthusiastic. “I want to be supportive of what Mina is doing, of how she’s creating awareness of the evils of genocide and how it affects all of us,” Byrd says.” She is helping us move closer to ‘never again.’ ”
Unlike “Tap Dance,” which Byrd had never heard of, he knew “Verklaerte Nacht” from Antony Tudor’s ballet “Pillar of Fire,” which uses the same music but a different story line. For his loose narrative, Byrd returned to Dehmel’s poem, creating a pas de deux. (Byrd had not completed the choreography when we met and was still toying with the idea of adding a third character.)
Because MOR performs at the Nordstrom Recital Hall, where the stage is small, Byrd has to make the choreography intimate, so he’s foregoing big leaps and jumps for a vertical, sculptural quality.
“I create the sense of a beautiful starry night, like Van Gogh’s famous painting,” he explains, “and the choreography is soft and impressionistic. There’s a nod to Tudor in using the music as a manifestation of what’s going on internally, but I’ve added some surprises, some things that will make you sit up a bit.”
Read the original online publication here.