Byrd, Donald 1949—
Donald Byrd 1949—
Donald Byrd is one of the most important choreographers in modern dance. Building on the foundation created by such predecessors as Talley Beatty and Alvin Ailey, Byrd has gone on to forge his own unique style. His work has been molded by a diverse range of influences, from classical ballet—especially that choreographed by the legendary George Balanchine—to modern dance giants like Twyla Tharp. Through collaborations with other artists, including composer Peter Sellars and playwright Robert Wilson, he has also ventured across the barriers of dance into theater, opera, and film.
Although he has been based on either the East or West Coast throughout his professional career, Donald Byrd was born and raised in the South. Byrd’s parents were divorced shortly after he was born. Soon after that, his mother moved with her young son from North Carolina’s Stanly County to Clearwater, Florida, where Byrd was raised primarily by his grandmother. As a child, his first love was music. Byrd’s earliest artistic training was as a classical flautist; he performed with both his school band and the county youth symphony. He was also active in his school’s theatrical projects and on the debate team.
Byrd’s first exposure to dance came when he was 16 years old. Two dancers from Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, Edward Villella and Patricia McBride, conducted a lecture-demonstration in Clearwater. Since it was near his home, Byrd decided to attend. The dancers left quite an impression on Byrd, and though it would be several years before he received any formal training in dance, the mark was permanent.
An excellent student, Byrd was accepted by Yale University and received a scholarship for minority students. Initially he majored in philosophy, though he had thoughts of becoming an actor. At Yale, Byrd attended every play produced by the School of Drama and the Long Wharf Theatre. Yale was also where Byrd experienced overt racism for the first time, in the form of slurs and insults, these contrasting with the institutionalized racism of segregation that he had encountered growing up in the South. The summer after his freshman year, Byrd’s prowess on the flute earned him the opportunity to join an ensemble that toured Europe. On his return from Europe, Byrd decided to leave Yale, where he did not feel entirely welcome, and enroll in Tufts University in Boston.
One of the first friends Byrd made at Tufts was actor William Hurt. By this time, Byrd had begun to study acting seriously. It was from Hurt that Byrd first heard about the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. On Hurt’s suggestion, Byrd attended a performance of Ailey’s signature work, Revelations. The performance was indeed a revelation for Byrd; for the first time in his life, he became aware of the theatrical power of dance. At that
At a Glance…
Born July 21, 1949, in New London, NC. Education: Attended Yale University, 1967; Tufts University, BA, 1974; studied with Mia Slavenska for six years; attended Alvin Ailey American Dance Center; attended Cambridge School of Ballet; attended Harvard Summer Dance Center; attended London School of Contemporary Dance.
Member of Twyla Tharp dance company, 1972; member of Gus Solomons Jr. company, 1976; dance instructor, California Institute of the Arts, 1976–82; choreographer for a variety of companies, 1976—; formed dance company Donald Byrd/The Group, Los Angeles, 1978; taught at University of California-Santa Cruz, Ohio University, and Wesleyan University, among others; moved Donald Byrd/The Group to New York City, 1983; established Donald Byrd Dance Foundation, 1985; choreographed Crumble for Ailey Repertory Company, 1987; choreographed Shards for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, 1988; pieces created for The Group include Prodigal, 1990, The Minstrel Show, 1991, Drastic Cuts, 1992, and Bristle, 1993; associate artist, Yale Repertory Theater; member of board of directors, Dance Theater Workshop and Dance USA.
Awards: Special mention, 3rd Grand Prix International Video Dance Festival, 1990; Bessie Award, 1992, for The Minstrel Show; Emerging Dance Award, Metropolitan Life Foundation; numerous grants and fellowships.
Addresses: Office —Donald Byrd/The Group, 59 Franklin St., New York, NY 10013.
point, Byrd became, above all, a student of dance. He began taking dance classes at Tufts. At the end of the school year, he quit the University and moved to New York City to immerse himself in dance.
For the next several years, Byrd studied dance at a variety of schools, both in the U.S. and abroad. Along the way, he also managed to graduate from Tufts. Byrd spent two years in the early 1970s at the Ailey School in New York. He also studied with Twyla Tharp and was invited to join her company. He was shown the door after only two months, however. The rejection left him deeply depressed for months. While still rebounding from that disappointment, Byrd met choreographer Gus Solomons. Spotting his untapped potential, Solomons invited Byrd to join his dance company in 1976. When Solomons was named dean of the dance program at the California Institute of the Arts, he brought Byrd along to the West Coast to teach.
In California, Byrd’s career began to blossom. He began choreographing on a regular basis, and his earliest work was well received in Los Angeles. Word of his talent spread back East and by 1977, Byrd was producing shows of his own work at the Dance Theater Workshop in New York. Eager for a steady outlet for his choreography, Byrd founded his own company, Donald Byrd/The Group, in 1978. Byrd’s style around this time was largely an extension of the work of Talley Beatty, particularly in its combination of classical ballet, modern dance, and urban street dancing. Byrd also experimented with punk rock for a short time in the early days of The Group.
The Los Angeles press was quite taken by Byrd’s brash approach, and the company’s success brought invitations for residencies at several universities. Success also contributed to a struggle with drugs and alcohol that would last for the next several years. In 1983, Byrd relocated his entire company back to New York. There he quit using drugs for six months, but his drinking intensified. He began taking classes at the Merce Cunningham studio in hopes of finding the necessary discipline to stay away from both substances.
When Byrd returned to New York after a residency in Minneapolis in 1984, his problems with cocaine and alcohol reached a peak, and their effect on his work became increasingly apparent. Then, in 1985, New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning, a longtime admirer of Byrd’s work, wrote a scathing review of a Byrd performance at LaMaMa. In the review, Dunning questioned what had become of the promise Byrd’s career had once held. Stung by this response, Byrd acknowledged that he needed treatment. He entered the Hazelden Clinic in Minneapolis for a 31-day rehabilitation program; he has been sober ever since.
With his drug and alcohol problems behind him, Byrd was able to reignite his stalled career. In 1987 he was asked to choreograph a piece for the Ailey Repertory Company, the junior Ailey ensemble. The resulting work, Crumble, was well received, especially by Ailey himself, and soon Byrd was a regular contributor of works to the main Ailey group. His first piece for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater was Shards, a work heavily influenced by Balanchine, originally staged in 1988. “Shards,” Byrd told Chris Pasles of the Los Angeles Times, “was about a deconstruction of the vocabulary that people considered, quote-unquote, black movement.”
Byrd’s association with the Ailey company continued over the next several years. In 1991 the Ailey Dance Theater debuted Dance at the Gym, a piece about adolescent bravado. A Folk Dance, premiered the following year, was created specifically for the Ailey company’s four senior members, Sarita Allen, Marilyn Banks, Gary DeLoatch, and Dudley Williams, and featured original music by Byrd’s longtime collaborator Mio Morales, a close friend from his days at Tufts. Meanwhile, Donald Byrd/The Group was gaining international attention in its own right; in 1990 The Group premiered Prodigal, a piece inspired by Balanchine’s Prodigal Son.
In 1991 Byrd and The Group presented Minstrel Show, a controversial dance addressing racial stereotypes. In Minstrel Show the company’s dancers appeared in blackface, which aroused a spectrum of responses, from amusement to rage, in audience members of all races. The show won a prestigious Bessie Award in 1992. That year also marked the premier of Drastic Cuts, an evening-length suite of abstract dances that, according to company literature, “investigates the basic elements of theatre and performance,” relying on a stripped-down theatricality without sophisticated sets or props.
By 1993 Byrd’s work was in demand all over the world. Donald Byrd/The Group toured throughout the United States and Europe, and work choreographed by Byrd was presented, among other places, in New York by the Ailey company, in Paris by Concordanse, and in Boston by Boston Ballet II. 1993’s premier offering from The Group was Bristle, a long work exploring tensions between the genders. Plans for the 1994–95 season included Domestic Violence Project, inspired by German playwright’s Bertolt Brecht’s ideas about theater, and the development of The Harlem Nutcracker, an African American take on that classic Nutcracker using Duke Ellington-style big band arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s original music.
Although his work owes much to predecessors such as George Balanchine and Alvin Ailey, Donald Byrd has succeeded in developing his own vision as a choreographer, producing more than 80 works during his career thus far. Many of his pieces are about social issues, but they always leave room for the audience’s interpretation. The dances often hint at telling a story, but generally the narrative is stripped away, revealing the bare bones of movement itself, unencumbered by a concrete plot line. This ability to jump back and forth between social commentary and abstract movement, as well as between classical and modern influences, is key to Byrd’s work. As he stated in a Los Angeles Times interview, “One of the opportunities of being a choreographer in this generation is that finally there’s enough dance history and enough ideas that… maybe our job is to synthesize all this information that’s popped up over the last 100 years, since Sleeping Beauty.”
Dance Magazine, July 1993, p. 42.
Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1993, Calender, p. 5.
New York Times, February 20, 1992, p. C26; December 13, 1992, p. H23; August 14, 1994, p. H24.
San Diego Reader, January 23, 1992.
Washington Post, April 25, 1994.
What’s Up (Durham, NC), January 28, 1994, p. 21.
—Robert R. Jacobson
"Byrd, Donald 1949—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/byrd-donald-1949
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