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Originally published October 26, 2012 at 8:04 AM | Page modified October 26, 2012 at 2:01 PM

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Tough, transcendent 'Talents' from Spectrum Dance Theater

Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theater revives "Theater of Needless Talents," a 2008 work by Donald Byrd, that's a meditation on the plight of artists and entertainers imprisoned and killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Through Oct. 28, 2012.

Seattle Times arts writer

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

'The Theater of Needless Talents'

8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday, Spectrum Dance Theater studio, 800 Lake Washington Blvd, Seattle; $20-$25 Saturday-Sunday, $50 for Friday show and season-opening party (206-325-4161 or www.spectrumdance.org).
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It's been 10 years since choreographer Donald Byrd was lured to Seattle to take the helm of Spectrum Dance Theater. In that decade, half-hidden away in Madrona Dance Studio on the shores of Lake Washington, he's created some extraordinary works.

Spectrum's 2012-13 season, billed as "Byrd at 10," opens with one of them. "The Theater of Needless Talents" (2008) parlays the music of Erwin Schulhoff into a keen meditation on the plight of artists and entertainers imprisoned and killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

As Byrd noted in a post-performance discussion on Thursday night, "These people were performing for their lives. They were performing for their sanity."

The piece's powerful yet paradoxical tone stems from the dilemma these captives faced: finding solace in what they did best — entertaining — under the most nightmarish conditions.

Spectrum has a number of brilliant new dancers taking on the piece for the first time, and Byrd has subtly tightened the show and sharpened its focus. Those two factors make this revival of "Talents," which has been touring the country this fall, a must-see. The live music — especially pianist Judith Cohen, tapping into both the jaunty and shadowy sides of Schulhoff's jazz-tinged scores — is another big draw.

The show begins and ends with fiercely recited litanies of genocide figures — from World War II at the start, from the more recent past at the close. With foot stomps and body slaps, the dancers become a tightly regimented percussion ensemble as they bark their dire figures out.

But the heart of the piece is its long central section: a series of solos, duets and trios triggered equally by snippets of Holocaust memory and Schulhoff's turn-on-a-dime shifts in keyboard mood.

The anecdotes can be horrific: twin Roma girls sewn together back to back as part of a malevolent scientific experiment; a Nazi guard telling a youngster searching for his mother to look at the smoke coming out of a chimney ("That's probably her").

But Byrd doesn't illustrate them directly. Instead, he draws obliquely from them, creating echoes distanced enough from the unbearable actuality to let you take them in.

In that "twins" passage, for instance, Jade Solomon Curtis and Stacie L. Williams focus on dancing child's play of the girls at first. Only in the last moment, do they wind up back-to-back — and instantly collapse, annihilated.

Lopsided waltzes, ragtime grotesqueries and vaudeville flourishes pepper this whole central section: life-insistent rebellions against a world where a single sharp piano note, seemingly can drop you like a gunshot.

The dancers' partnering is often extraordinary. Arm in arm with Ty Alexander Cheng, Cara-May Marcus somehow repeatedly levitates over his right shoulder and into a cartwheel. Donald Jones Jr. and Vincent Michael Lopez become a single tango-gripped creature as they play a man who, able to sing as both tenor and soprano, was forced to entertain his captors in half-male, half-female guise.

As narrator Derek Crescenti coolly notes, "You sing and dance for the devil because you will not let him kill you."

"The Theater of Needless Talents" is a tough piece. But it's also a transcendent one.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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