Spectrum Dance director brings new spirit to 'Oklahoma!'

In a musical set in the Midwest during the 1930s, a cowboy and farm girl face the trials and tribulations of falling in love and following their dreams. With a musical background and the impending statehood of the Oklahoma territory, this classic story is a tale that many are familiar with.

Yet, with choreography from Donald Byrd, a Belltown resident and artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theatre in Madrona, the old-fashioned love story will take on a contemporary twist in the musical “Oklahoma!” opening on Feb. 3 at the 5th Avenue Theatre.

“The primary vision for me is to capture as much as possible the intention of what the authors originally intended,” Byrd said. “[But] I make it different.”


A passion for dance

Byrd was asked to choreograph the production because of his passion for musical theater and dance, said Bill Berry, producing director of 5th Avenue Theatre, a partner with Spectrum.

Byrd’s role is to make the production something more than a recreation of the original 1943 show, while balancing the director’s vision for the play. Early conversations with Berry focused on raising the level of dancing in the productions at the 5th Avenue Theatre and using the talent of dancers at Spectrum Dance Theatre to do it. 

“Donald is really exploring how to use dance to have the original impact and use the power of the dance that brings us close to the characters,” Berry said about 5th Avenue’s first collaboration with Byrd as the choreographer. “[Viewers] will feel the urgency of the story in the way they would have felt it in the original production.”

For Byrd, the creative process starts in the form of research; he spent a lot of time discovering what society was like in Oklahoma during the ‘30s. From the popular social dances to the dynamics of the African-American community in the state-territory, he tried to find historical evidence to back up the movements for the production’s characters.

“It’s not just dance routines, but they are dance moves, movement, structure and architecture that tell you something about the characters,” Byrd said.

“Oklahoma!” is one of many projects Byrd has taken on since his arrival in Seattle as Spectrum’s artistic director in 2002. Byrd is also directing “Petrushka,” a musical about a puppet who falls in love with a girl, for Spectrum.


International acclaim

Before moving to Seattle, Byrd owned his own contemporary-dance company, Donald Byrd/ The Group, in Los Angeles and later New York. However, spending time in Seattle while choreographing three productions for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, he felt this was a place he could settle down in, he said.

His expertise and dedication to his craft are renowned.

Byrd studied at Yale University, the Cambridge School of Ballet and London School of Contemporary Dance. He also worked at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center and has served as faculty for various universities across the United States.

Recently, Byrd received a $50,000 fellowship award for his impact in his field. Each year, a new group of nominators chooses artists working at “the top of their game,” said Katharine DeShaw, executive director of the fellowship program at United States Artists. 

After nominations are made, a peer panel chooses the winners based on what the artists contribute to their field, as well as their impact on the community.

The nomination was “really exciting, and I was absolutely thrilled,” Byrd said. “There are a lot of people who get nominated for those, and I was honored and humbled by it.”

He has also served on the Seattle Arts Commission as a citizen-volunteer appointed by the mayor and is the recipient of the 2011 Mayor’s Arts Award.

Byrd’s most acclaimed productions included choreography to Motown classic hits for the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and the play “The Color Purple.” 

He recently finished a three-month fellowship at the American Academy in Jerusalem, arriving back in Seattle in December. He plans on using the money from the United States Artists fellowship to continue his work in Israel, studying the impact of art on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I was looking at how a dance or a piece of art might actually contribute to a deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation,” Byrd said.

DeShaw said, “He is on the world stage as a constant leader. Donald is an artist who is doing fresh work and who is constantly innovating his field.”


“Oklahoma!” will open on Feb. 3 at 8 p.m. at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are available on-line at www.5thavenue.org/boxoffice.

For more information about Spectrum Dance Theatre, visit www.spectrumdance.org.

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