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Originally published Sunday, October 4, 2009 at 12:05 AM

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Byrd Retrospective Festival: A chance to remember — or learn about — Donald Byrd's dazzling artistry

Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theater serves up a generous mix of past and present with its "Byrd Retrospective Festival," highlighting works by Spectrum artistic director Donald Byrd.

Seattle Times arts writer

Dance preview

Byrd Retrospective Festival

Spectrum Dance Theater performs three different programs over three weekends, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. Sundays, Friday-Oct. 25, Madrona Dance Studio, 800 Lake Washington Blvd., Seattle; tickets $15 advance, $18 at the door, except Friday, which is $30 for show/party; festival pass is $40, but doesn't include Friday's show/party (206-325-4161, brownpapertickets.com or e-mail ticket@ spectrumdance.org).

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Something old, something new, with a few things borrowed — but most items on the program springing from the twisting, torquing dance imagination of Donald Byrd.

Spectrum Dance Theater's Byrd Retrospective Festival is a three-week survey of the Spectrum artistic director's dance-making career, with some glimpses at a handful of non-Byrd pieces brought into the company's repertoire in the last several years.

If you've never ventured to Madrona Dance Studio to see these dancers up close in all their fiery, sweaty glory, this is your chance. And if you're a longtime fan wanting to revisit Byrd favorites — or excerpts from old favorites, in the case of "Bhangra Fever" and "The Sleeping Beauty Notebook" — you probably already have your tickets.

"Retrospective" showcases 16 pieces drawn from Byrd's work with Spectrum (2002-09) and his New York-based company, Donald Byrd/The Group (1978-2002). That includes Byrd's "Sentimental Cannibalism" from 1993, a techno-driven war of the sexes that blew off the roof at the Moore Theatre earlier this year. Byrd's more recent "Klavierstucke" (2008) is another highlight, as it teases — or sometimes yanks — richly contradictory moves and meanings from a Brahms piano score, while "... and their souls will understand" (2004), a Portuguese fado-inspired piece, imposes pleasurably formal constraints on erupting dance energies.

Revivals of work by Merce Cunningham, Gus Solomons Jr., Thaddeus Davis and Pacific Northwest Ballet's Olivier Wevers are also on the program. Guest artists include former Spectrum dancer Allison Keppel and former Donald Byrd/The Group dancer Jamal Storey — both stunning performers.

There will be Friday-night "surprises," in terms of both dances and guest musicians and dancers, on Oct. 16 and 23. At Friday's festival kickoff benefit, Spectrum fans can get their first look at the sexy, athletic things Byrd is doing with "The Rite of Spring," set to a piano-and-percussion transcription of Stravinsky's masterpiece by the Trio Diaghilev.

The retrospective, Byrd says, is intended to show how Spectrum is growing some "institutional roots" as it fosters local choreographic talent and acquires work by past masters.

Still, it's Byrd's own dazzling pieces that are the draw here. The spicing of Spectrum's repertoire with work by outside choreographers sometimes only highlights just how striking Byrd's own artistry is. ("Sentimental Cannibalism," frankly, eclipsed the Cunningham and Solomons pieces that were billed with it at the Moore.)

Spectrum has seen some significant turnover this year. Two key performers, Hannah Lagerway and Lara Seefeldt, have moved onto other dance opportunities — but for Byrd, even the unexpected departure of a dancer can have its upside.

"Whenever I got too focused on one or two dancers," he says, "it actually seemed to work to the detriment, in some ways, of the company."

He cites the example of David Alewine, who was the company's male star during his 2003-07 tenure with Spectrum. "I was just so enamored of David as a performer," Byrd recalls. "His level of artistry and expressiveness, I thought, were so extraordinary ... It was like there was no room for anyone else: 'Well, let me do this for David.' So it took David leaving, in some ways, for me to see that there were other gifted and talented people here, people that I could nurture and support."

New dancers, Byrd adds, inherently bring with them a "different way of looking" at old work. And the introduction of old pieces by Donald Byrd/The Group into Spectrum's repertoire provides the company's current lineup of dancers with "useful information" about the pieces they're doing now.

Byrd is reluctant to identify specific dancers he feels are doing breakthrough work. Instead, he tries to challenge everybody: "What I've said to them is that when a dancer leaves, there's an opportunity that exists then for somebody to step forward."

Keppel, along with two dancers from Donald Byrd/The Group, have been in town, helping Byrd stage the retrospective. What do dancers from his old troupe think of some of his newer work?

"I think it does kind of surprise them, because the physicality is different."

His New York work, he says, was "much more centered inside balletic technique." When he came to Seattle, he started exploring "a more full-bodied physicality. There's a lot more stuff on the ground. It's athletic in a different kind of way. ... Sometimes the Donald Byrd/The Group dancers, when they see it, they'll say, 'That's some crazy stuff you're doing.' "

Along with trying new things, Byrd has his choreographic legacy in mind with "Retrospective." "Each group of dancers at Spectrum has to be able to embody the history of the organization since I've been here and the aesthetics that I'm working with. So this is a great way to give them a crash course in all of that."

It should prove an invigorating crash course for Seattle dance fans, too.

Check www.spectrumdance.org for details on each weekend's program.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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