In the online synopsis for Autopsy of Love, choreographer Donald Byrd gives us some handy study-guide questions: "Is romantic love a phantom state? Why do we crave myths that make us unhappy? How does our clinging behavior make real love impossible?"
Byrd's self-consciously philosophical approach has its pros and cons. While I'd much rather see a work of dance that asks serious questions than another classical story-ballet fairy tale, Byrd's thesis, staging, and presentation are so heavy-handed and theatrical, they distract from pristine choreography that could stand on its own.
The audience sits on opposite sides of the room in raised seats, purposefully designed to feel like the autopsy theater of a medical school. On the stage: a metal gurney, a drab office chair, seven freestanding white doors, and a baby grand piano and podium resting under white sheets.
Actor Andrew McGinn, pianist Judith Cohen, and bass-baritone Clayton Brainerd enter—wearing white lab coats, clipboards in hand—and McGinn delivers a monologue about love while the dancers take their places. An Amy Winehouse song plays while a stunning couple—Jade Solomon Curtis and Donald Jones Jr.—perform a sexy, sultry blues-style duet. Their eyes are bright, and they move with an ease that makes it seem as if they've been dancing this way forever. To respond to Byrd's primary question: How can passionate love be a phantom state when this display of passion is so freaking strong not 20 feet from where we're sitting?
The dances, set alternately to Winehouse and the music of Robert Schumann (with lyrics by Heinrich Heine), are varied stories on the theme of love. At the end of the first Winehouse number, Curtis abruptly leaves Jones and pairs up with someone else. At another point, frenzied dancers run around, crashing into and humping each other, eliciting nervous titters from the audience. Meanwhile, McGinn sits in the swivel chair or wanders the perimeter, frowning and taking notes, examining the state—or death—of love.
There's a good mix of solos, duets, and even a line dance to keep the evening moving. Ty Alexander Cheng moves with an athletic fluidity uncommon in many male dancers—flinging himself to the floor and peeling himself back up, rolling his torso so that each muscle and rib is perfectly defined. New company member Shadou Mintrone is full of attitude and punky power, her perfectly raised eyebrow matching her constant rebuffs as each of her partners fails to meet her romantic expectations. Mintrone's strong jazz dance background is a nice addition to Spectrum—her movement has just enough spitfire to match the balletic and lyrical styles of the others. The duets use each dancer's individual strengths to evoke the various emotions of a love affair. Despite the heavy-handedness of the lab coats, clipboards, and staging, Autopsy can be heartbreaking.
But that is Byrd's way. He wears his heart on his sleeve and presents his choreography through lofty themes and theses. During the postshow discussion, someone asked why the autopsy theme was necessary. "Well," Byrd said, "autopsy means 'to know for yourself.' And you only autopsy things that you know are dead."