Spectrum's dazzling new dancers: Jade Solomon Curtis and Donald Jones Jr.
Newcomers to Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theater, Jade Solomon Curtis and Donald Jones Jr., make a big impression their first year here.
Seattle Times arts writer
Spectrum Dance Theater: 'Love'8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, June 21-23 and June 28-30, Daniels Recital Hall, 811 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $5-$25 (206-325-4161 or www.spectrumdance.org). "Love" includes live accompaniment of Britten's three cello suites by Denise Djokic (Thursday-Saturday) and Wendy Sutter (June 28-30).
When Spectrum Dance Theater premiered Donald Byrd's "Euclidean Space" at Bumbershoot last year, Jade Solomon Curtis — one of the troupe's new dancers — immediately leapt out as a slim, cool, slippery geometry unto herself onstage. You couldn't take your eyes off her.
Another Spectrum newcomer, Donald Jones Jr., loomed into powerful view in the title role of "The Beast" (Byrd's piece on domestic violence) and as Judd in the dream ballet in the 5th Avenue Theatre's recent production of "Oklahoma!" (which Byrd choreographed).
Since then, Curtis and Jones (who'll appear in the world premiere of Byrd's "Love," set to Benjamin Britten's cello suites, performed live by cellists Denise Djokic and Wendy Sutter) have become star attractions at Spectrum. In Byrd's "Petruchska," Jones' smiling, sneering, flamboyantly seedy emcee went a long way toward holding a shaky production together. And Curtis, with her regal presence and formidable technique, has proved fearless in throwing herself into the raw challenges of Byrd's work.
Watching them, you can't help wondering: Where did they come from? And what brought them here?
Curtis, 25, started dancing while attending a performing-arts high school in Jacksonville, Fla.
"To be honest," she said in an interview with her, Jones and Byrd earlier this month, "dance was recreational. It was fun and something I enjoyed doing."
She won a dance scholarship to Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But she wasn't sure she wanted to make a career of it, "knowing everything that comes with being a dancer — not necessarily great things always."
Then, in her junior year in college, she took a workshop with Byrd and was captivated by his movement.
"I actually auditioned for him, and he didn't take me," she says. "I was heartbroken, of course. But eventually I got here."
Jones, 24, is originally from New Orleans and started dancing, he says, in church.
"My mom brought me to our liturgical praise-dance ministry," he explains, "and that's how she introduced me to dance." He started taking formal training in a studio in New Orleans in his freshman year in high school and got his theater degree at Louisiana's Northwestern State University. Within a year after graduation, he joined the ensemble in the second national tour of "The Color Purple." There he met Byrd, whose choreography for the show had earned a 2006 Tony Award nomination.
"That was the first time that I had ever done a musical where the dancing was really, really hard," Jones says. "It's pretty much concert dance in a musical-theater piece."
The last week of the tour, Jones got a call from Byrd asking whether he'd be interested in workshopping "Oklahoma!" Jones took up the offer, booked a flight and went straight into the studio the day he got here. And after doing the "Oklahoma!" workshop, he stuck around for a Spectrum workshop with Byrd.
"I wanted to see what his technique was like," he says, "and I fell in love."
Deciding he wanted to be part of Spectrum, Jones made his move. He met with Byrd and told him he wanted to pursue a career in concert dance, but that he had some worries about his body.
"I was always a big guy, not necessarily slim and toned," Jones explains, "and I'd gotten away with that in musical theater. But in concert dance, you have to be in shape. I told him, 'I think you could turn me into the dancer that I never thought I could be.' And I think he took that and he ran with it."
Jones' fine speaking/singing voice also was an attraction to Byrd.
"As you know from my work," Byrd says, "sometimes the dancers are asked to do things that ordinarily dancers aren't asked to do, like talk or sing. So Donald has that kind of experience."
Byrd was drawn to Curtis, he says, because she's "extremely charismatic. And she's striking looking. ... There's a kind of desire to be really outstanding. With both of them there's been a steady progression in their technical ability, in their artistry. It just keeps growing. They don't settle."
Curtis and Jones seem to be adjusting happily to Seattle, despite Byrd's sardonic take on the city's gray climate, lack of nightlife and decidedly un-Manhattanlike people-watching opportunities.
"Every dancer that comes here from someplace else," Byrd smiles, "I give them the worst story."
The only thing to do in Seattle, he declares, is to work hard.
Curtis and Jones don't find it quite as bad as that. They appreciate the Northwest's natural beauty. And, Curtis says, "It smells good everywhere!"
The city's cultural climate, during Spectrum's controversial 2011-12 season, has sometimes given them pause, however — especially in connection with the 5th Avenue Theatre and Spectrum's production of "Oklahoma!" where the casting of two African Americans as the troubled Judd (Jones in the dream ballet, Kyle Scatliffe in the rest of the show) felt racist to some and like a comment on racism to others.
Jones theorizes that people wanting to see "a happy uplifting show" came away from it thinking, "Oh my goodness, this is a lot heavier than I thought."
Jones understood how the racial tensions depicted could have hit a nerve. Still, he felt the novel casting offered "an opportunity to do something new with the show." He cites Byrd's comment that when Agnes de Mille choreographed the debut production's dream ballet, it was really overtly sexual for its time. "So if you're going to produce it on a big scale again, why not push the envelope like she did?"
"People have this idea of what dance should be," Curtis comments. "It should be this ethereal whimsical dream world, when in reality, at least from my perspective, it should reflect reality. It should reflect what it is that people deal with on a regular basis. It's another form of communication. And being here, I feel like that's exactly what Donald Byrd does. I don't think he would do it any other way."
"It's exciting," Jones says, "to be part of it — to have people talking about what you're doing."
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org