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Originally published February 28, 2011 at 10:20 PM | Page modified March 3, 2011 at 4:43 PM

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Spectrum Dance Theater explores Africa in Donald Byrd's 'The Mother of Us All'

In "The Mother of Us All," Spectrum Dance Theater's Donald Byrd delivers what he calls "a cheeky pratfall down the rabbit hole of contemporary Africa."

Seattle Times arts writer

Dance preview

'The Mother of Us All'

• 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $25 (877-784-4849 or www.stgpresents.org).

• Columbia City Gallery is hosting a tie-in exhibit, "Africa: The Mother of Us All," featuring work by 18 Kenyan artists. Noon-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays through March 13, Columbia City Gallery, 4864 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; free (206-760-9843 or www.columbiacitygallery.com).

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Outside Madrona Dance Studio on the shores of Lake Washington, it's a chilly, blustery day of rain squalls and sun breaks. But inside, where Spectrum Dance Theater is rehearsing its latest project, the heat is definitely on as rival trios of dancers fiercely clap and stomp at one another, trying to impress, trying to intimidate, radiating rhythmic aggression — and sweat.

This dance-off is just one passage from Spectrum artistic director Donald Byrd's new work, "The Mother of Us All," the third and final installment in his series, "Beyond Dance: Promoting Awareness and Mutual Understanding."

Byrd's "PAMU projects," as he calls them, all have focused on highly charged sociopolitical subject matter, starting with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in "A Chekhovian Resolution" (2008) and continuing with America's relations with China in "Farewell" (2010).

In "The Mother of Us All," he'll deliver what he calls "a cheeky pratfall down the rabbit hole of contemporary Africa."

"Mother" will combine dance with spoken text, visuals, live music and prerecorded sound collage, and takes much of its inspiration from Byrd's repeated visits to the continent as an artist, teacher and vacationer.

There are so many contradictions in modern Africa, he says during a rehearsal break, that you can feel like Alice adrift in Wonderland when you're there.

The poster for the show makes obvious reference to the Mad Hatter's tea party. But don't mistake the guests for Africans.

"The people at the party," Byrd says, "are all the crazy Western people analyzing what Africa is — but we don't listen to what Africans have to say."

The one directly African voice in the show will come from Zimbabwean performer Marsha Nyembesi Mutisi. And much of the text is by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathi.

Both the live score and prerecorded sound collage are by Seattle composer Byron Au Yong. Byrd wanted to sidestep the heavy percussion that most people associate with African music, so Young's live-score emphasis is on the kora, a 21-string West African harp to be played by local virtuoso Kane Mathis. The prerecorded score blends news reports with a miscellany of other sounds.

The multilayered action in "Mother" (as in "Farewell") is a direct outcome of its complicated subject matter, Byrd explains. He has even coined a term, "authentic structure," to describe what happens as the piece takes on a form that mimics the complexities of the issues it's addressing, to the point of appearing chaotic.

"I want people to gather the information however they can," Byrd says, "and make whatever sense out of it they can. ... But I don't want to come to a conclusion for them."

It's not just an aesthetic but an ethical stance on Byrd's part.

"It minimizes the complexity of the subject to simplify it so much that it's easy to follow," he says. "It would be presumptuous on my part to reduce it to something that's easily digested."

His hope is that, after leaving the theater, people will continue their own personal investigations into the subject matter and ideas raised on stage.

"Because I'm not an expert," he says. "I just have an opinion."

Slight pause.

"And my opinion," he says with a wry smile, "is that it's complicated."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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