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Originally published March 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 18, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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In "Nevermind," Spectrum Dance Theater merges physical skills with raw sounds

What can the rarified art of contemporary dance have to say about the gritty music of Nirvana? A lot, if a recent rehearsal at Spectrum Dance Theater offers any proof.

Special to The Seattle Times

What can the rarified art of contemporary dance have to say about the gritty music of Nirvana? A lot, if a recent rehearsal at Spectrum Dance Theater offers any proof. The world premiere at the Moore Theater next weekend of Spectrum's "Nevermind," 13 years after Kurt Cobain's Seattle suicide, will be a meeting of two different, but equally intense, forms of expression.

It's a blustery Northwest day, but the aging studio space on the shores of Lake Washington is warm. Dancers are sweating. Kelly Ann Barton practices a grueling solo she has only recently learned. She throws herself into artistic director Donald Byrd's characteristically difficult choreography, embracing the twisting contradictions, the sudden reversals of direction and plane, the huge moves, punctuated by tiny gestures (quick nods of the head, or an itching twitch of a hand).

Coming up

Spectrum Dance Theater

8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, The Moore, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle, $15-$45 (206-467-5510 or

It's a long solo and when it is done she stands gasping for air. Byrd says only "That turn, you're coming around too quickly, the leg should stay up." She immediately goes all out for the turn, keeping her leg high and her head down as she comes around, doing it again and again until she does what he wants to see.

Next, David Alewine and Allison Keppel launch into a duet that seems all about neediness, love and rage. From the sidelines, it's hard not to gasp and flinch at the prospect that at any moment someone is going to be hurt.

"Gotta find a way, to find a way, when I'm there," Cobain's rough, feedback-distorted voice sings, and the music resounds through the studio. The young dancers throw themselves into suicidally difficult moves, refusing to protect themselves, holding nothing back. Their approach seems perfectly aligned with the music itself — the physical risk reflecting the emotional rawness and risk in Nirvana's music.

On the surface, choreographer Byrd would seem to have little in common with Cobain. Born on the East Coast, he was educated at Yale and Tufts, and garnered critical acclaim in New York for his work with Donald Byrd/The Group. He has choreographed for Broadway ("The Color Purple") and opera (Seattle Opera's "Julius Caesar"), and has served as artistic director of Spectrum since 2002.

Yet, Byrd's life has not always been easy, and he relates personally to what happened to the young Cobain. "The tragedy of his drug addiction that didn't allow him to see with the kind of clarity that would have made for different choices, I was just kind of drawn to that," Byrd said, sitting in the Spectrum offices downstairs after the rehearsal.

Byrd remembers the difficult times in his own youth, the distortions of the drug culture at the same age. "I guess it came down to the difference that I wanted to get older," he said. "If I take away any message from working on this piece, not that it has a message, but if I'm getting one myself, it's about how the sense of unconditional love, that someone loves you is what makes the difference between life and death. In my case I knew if I killed myself or continued with drugs, my family would be devastated. I couldn't do that to them."

Not so for the legendary rock singer. At the height of his fame from his albums "Nevermind," "In Utero" and "Incesticide," under the influence of heroin, he shot himself. Cobain had said that after his parents' divorce, when he was 10 and living in Aberdeen, he never felt like he belonged anywhere again.

"He was shifted around and he never had a sense of security in his life after that happened," Byrd said. Some of the scrambling and reaching and clinging in the dance movements between Alewine and Keppel (the Cobain, Courtney Love stand-ins) reflect that yearning for unconditional love.

"It's like sometimes when you're watching 'Romeo and Juliet,' you think, if they had just waited. You want to say, hold on, everything changes. Even if it seems unbearable, it's going to change," added the artistic director.

Byrd emphasizes that the dance is not meant to be a biographical study. "His life is just an inspirational departure point." Byrd has long been interested in narrative dance, especially dance based on American stories. It is the music, however, that drives the piece.

Byrd only recently began listening seriously to Nirvana and becoming fascinated with it. "One of the things I was struck by was how many contradictions there were in the music, from the sweet and tender to the loud and angry," he said. "There's the big loud rock that grew out of the punk movement, and then there's the sweet kind of introspective side."

The choreography incorporates some of the club dance styles of that period. "I was in L.A. during the punk era, a bit earlier, so I knew that style. Then it kind of mutated when it moved up to the Northwest." Byrd characterizes the movement of that period as "... very abandoned and personal."

When Byrd first came to Seattle he intended to bring with him dancers form New York whom he had known and worked with. However, he has chosen mostly Northwest- trained dancers.

"They have an emotional and theatrical quality that I'm very excited and inspired by. So it's not just abstract dancing. They are engaged like human beings."

When asked if the Spectrum dancers always go all out in rehearsal, or only when there are visitors, Byrd laughed. "Always. It's the job," he said. The energy of their overdrive commitment helps fuel his choreography.

Byrd headed back to the upstairs studio for the next round of rehearsals, where the dancers, as always, would be ready to throw themselves into anything he asked. Outside, along the lake-front path to the parking lot, Kurt Cobain's lashing, raw music could be heard through the wind in the trees. Taking on the sad story of this Northwest rock icon and his music might be seen as a rite of passage for Donald Byrd. He has now become a true Northwesterner.

Mary Murfin Bayley:


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