Performing Immigration (sort of): Donald Byrd’s ‘The Immigrants’

You may expect a dance production titled ‘The Immigrants’ be about immigration. Especially if it’s in an ‘American—Identity, Race, or Culture?’ season, whose stated goal is “to explore in unique and unexpected ways 3 intractable issues currently occupying the American consciousness: police shootings of unarmed black men, immigration, and violence against LGBTQ people ”.  Another sign is the program cover: a US flag wrapping the head of a dark-skinned person, pointing to the religious, racial tensions currently wracking this country.  

If you follow these pointers, you will end up mightily confused, because Byrd does not probe contemporary conflicts.  Of his five pieces, four do not address US social issues at all, and the only piece that does, ‘August 1, 1966’, concerns the historical fatal shooting, by a white American ex-marine, of fourteen people, and his injury of thirty-one others, in Austin, Texas.  Immigration didn’t feature in the original episode itself, and it isn’t an element of Byrd’s exploration.

The immigrants of Dance Spectrum’s program are, in fact, the five composers whose music, performed live, provides the scores of the movement. They hail from Cuba, Mexico, Iran, China, and Russia. All of these are countries with which the US has complex, fraught, and evolving relationships. However these international relationships are not Byrd’s concern.

It’s aesthetic excellence, not geopolitics, that seems to drive Byrd’s musical selections. These extraordinary compositions invite the kind of original, thoughtful, engagement that Byrd provides through a choreography that is often as inventive as the music itself. Rather than make the movement and music compete, or subordinate one medium to the other, Byrd places them in a richly rewarding, equal partnership, wherein each illuminates the other. For the first half, the live musicians perform on stage, adding to the collaborative ethos of this production. In the second half, filled with large-scale movements, the musicians absent the stage, and the dance company fills the space.

The musicians—violinists Mikhail Shmidt and Sol Im; viola player  Mara Gearmana; cellist Rajan Krishnaswami,; pianist Judith Cohen; percussionist Brian Yarkosky—provide passionate, meticulous artistry.   So do Doris Black, the costume designer, and lighting designers Kent Cubbage and Sara Torres. The Spectrum dancers deliver technically assured, expressively nuanced, powerful movement. The ever versatile, vivacious Alex Crozier, acrobatic Paul Garriatano and elegant Alexander Pham are particularly distinguished as leads, and are compelling to watch.  

In the striking opening piece, ‘While He Was away’, set to ‘A la Par’ by Afro-Cuban Tania Leon, one sees elements of Jerome Robbins/Leonard Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story Suite’. The piece charts the triangular erotic tensions of a trio of dancers (Crozier, Jaclyn Wheatley and Giarratano) within a sonic universe drawn, partly, from African/Latin rhythms. Whether Byrd is saying something about race in this trio’s relationships—Crozier is visibly black, Wheatley and Giarratano visibly white—is unclear. The score places piano and percussion in a conversation every bit as complex as the human dynamics on stage, exploiting the percussive elements of the piano to the max. The piece multiplies its cultural ingredients, and references, by occasionally throwing gongs, jazz, and blues into the pot, along with multicolored costumes that evoke carnival. The dance playfully comments on key aspects of canonical classical ballet: its whiteness and its illusion of effortlessness. Byrd punctures the latter by highlighting the dancers’ strenuous efforts to support and drag one another, and gives Wheatley a solo whose unreconstructed classicism reads almost as a caricature.

Byrd’s penchant for intertextual play continues with ‘Paraphrase’, set to Mexican-born Mikhail Shmidt’s ‘Five Impromptus’, for violin duo. This dance paraphrases the first movement of Balanchine’s ‘Concerto Barocco’. Where Balanchine (harnessing J. S. Bach) evokes courtly dances of the Baroque era, Byrd’s court is the contemporary, subcultural ballroom, where the four dancers dancers evoke the hyper-stylized, angular moves of vogueing. The costumes, like the casting, unambiguously showcase racial difference. The bodysuits worn by Crozier and Andrew Pontius share design, but reverse the color proportions, emphasizing the racial identities of the men: white prevails in Pontius’, black prevails in Crozier’s. The men pair up in competitive duets—duels--where they never touch. The duets of the two women, black Nia-Amina Minor, and (white-presenting) Madison Oliver, in contrast, are tactile, collaborative, and supportive. In this court, the men operate as polarized  atoms, the women, as trans-racial partners.

‘Roaming Ghosts’ is set to ‘Eight Memories in Watercolor (For Piano) by Chinese-born Tan Dun. This 1977 composition predates his immigration by many years.  The score appears derived (to Western ears such as mine) from a primarily Chinese sonic tradition, with Debussy-esque (and/or Pink Panther) Western musical flourishes; these are, themselves, pentatonic simulations of Chinese sound. The beautiful costumes and set design—huge white dropcloths that dangle like unfilled scrolls—add to the ‘Chinese’ associations of the music. The choreography takes Asian-inspired movement into new directions. However the final product comes uncomfortably close to Orientalist pastiche.

‘Not From Here’, set to Iranian-American Gity Razaz’ ‘Shadow Lines’, is the closest this program gets to representing immigration on stage, in starkly evoking the condition of being a stranger in a strange land. Byrd’s abstracted choreography is appropriate to the subject matter here, the dismal experience of being stripped of all particularity, personal and social. The ensemble of five dancers (Blair Jolly Elliot, Giarratano, Alexander Pham, Fausto Rivera, and Wheatley) inhabit an eery, post-apocalyptic landscape, dressed identically in shimmery, dirty gold. Pumped fog fluid forms a continuous, shifting cloud, that anchors and propels the movement. Dancers stare at the cloud, line up, look up, struggle to connect to one another and to the empty space. The score’s live, sonorous cello part gives way to the wailing, electronic distortions of a pre-recorded second cello; the audience becomes an aural participant in the human anguish it witnesses on stage.

The program concludes with ‘August 1, 1966’. This is the only piece not premiered here. It was  commissioned by the University of Texas, in 2016, to mark the 50th anniversary of the terrible mass shooting in Austin. Yevgeny Sharlat’s string quartet score is extraordinary: in it kazoos join the quartet, buzzing, faltering, frantically and aimlessly, along with the large ensemble of dancers who twitch, huddle, slither, flicker up and drop down.

The selected composers are not only permanent residents but official American citizens. It’s interesting how much this matters to Byrd, and, presumably, to his curatorial vision. During one of his between-dance informal chats with the audience, Byrd revealed that he called all the composers to ascertain that they were bona fide citizens (“It was hard, because I did not want them to think I was from I.C.E.”, he said.)  Another, related curatorial consideration (I assume) is that the music was not specially commissioned for this occasion. Instead, it exemplifies work that already graces America, evidence of the great art that is all around us, would we but acknowledge it. The subtitle on the program and tickets is ‘making the invisible visible’: pronouncing the foreign origins of established artists, and giving lesser-known work the profile that it deserves.

Byrd’s ‘visibility’ is the flipside of the ‘disappearance’ tactic now being adopted by American visual arts institutions. In February 2017, curators at the Davis Art Museum at Wellesley College removed all art created or donated by immigrants (about 20% of the collection), placing black cloth over the emptied display cases, filling walls with the labels “Created by an immigrant”. Their purpose was “to demonstrate symbolically what the Davis Museum would look like without their contributions to our collections…and to thereby honor their many invaluable gifts”. The curators generated downloadable labels for “sympathetic institutions” to use elsewhere. (

Byrd’s curation raises some critical questions. If immigration is the rationale of the program, why, in ‘Roaming Ghosts’, choose a score written in China, long before the composer actually immigrated? Why choose the subject of a 1966 major mass shooting, unconnected to immigration, and give it the last word? Why use music by a Russian-born composer, Sharlat, for this purpose? The composer is a professor at the commissioning institution, University of Texas. In original context, the choice of a community composer makes sense. But in Byrd’s ‘immigrant’ centered program, the implications shift: now, having Sharlat provide the score seems less like honoring community  and more like using an immigrant to tell someone else’s story instead of his own.

At times, then, Byrd casually undermines his own guiding principles. To create exceptions without explaining the reasons for them creates an opacity, and arbitrariness, that belie Byrd’s stated aim to ‘make the invisible visible’.  The production, and its packaging, generate larger questions too.  The ambition of this ‘American’ season, according to its marketing, is to cultivate civic engagement. Byrd seems to view the cultural value of immigrant composers as a tactic for confronting the xenophobic racism that elected Donald Trump. Might this be misguided? Writing of the struggle for decolonization, the activist thinker  Frantz Fanon remarked “You will never make colonialism blush for shame by spreading out little-known cultural treasures under its eyes”.

Colonizers were unmoved by the argument that a people’s wonderful culture should ensure their freedom. For colonizers, it wasn’t about the art, and for Trump’s government—currently trying to dismantle the NEA--it isn’t about the art either. Appealing to artistic greatness will not itself assist immigrant rights, and may even be divisive as a tactic in that growing political struggle. It is all too close to the “model minority” discourse that poses “good” against “undesirable” people of color.  

This is not to suggest that art cannot expand audience awareness and generate support for immigrant rights.  But that support comes from embracing the humanity of immigrants; from  grasping the systemic, often inhumane forces that drive them out of their home countries. Arguing that some immigrants are gifted artists, or trying to revive American pride in its “unique” multicultural heritage—these tactics foster elitism, not alliance. One way alliances can grow is by choreographers grappling with migratory experience on stage, as in Mark Haim’s stunning 2016 ‘Overflow’ (performed by Whim W’Him), and Step Afrika!’s spectacular 2017 full-length production ‘The Migration’. With ‘Not From Here’, Byrd moves in that direction.

What the production as a whole points to: that dance companies could benefit from the services of a dramaturg.  Someone who can pre-empt distracting inconsistencies, help identify and realise the production’s core ideas, and communicate these effectively, unambiguously, to the audience, in programming and publicity. This is all the more valuable when the issues in question are so pressing, and sensitive, and the director’s ideas so abundant.

  • Spectrum  Dance Theater/Donald Byrd: Rambunctious Iteration#3. “The Immigrants”.
  • Cornish Playhouse, March 4, 2017
  • Review Lead: Laura Chrisman
  • Review Team: Steph Hankinson, Lydia Heberling, Andrea Iaroc, Hannah Rae Liz Janssen.