Say what you will about choreographer Donald Byrd—and he's been lauded and heavily criticized by myself and Jen Graves and others at The Stranger over the years. But tonight he achieved something I've never, ever seen before with his free and outdoor performance of Miraculous Mandarin, a Bela Bartok ballet that Byrd has updated to be about modern-day drug dealers and a woman caught in the middle of their cash and dope and violence.
Byrd—and his Spectrum Dance Theater—performed it in a vacant space in a building in the International District, with viewers standing outside in the rain in Hing Hay park, watching it through the windows. We can discuss the choreography at another time, but right now I want to talk about audience reaction. Hing Hay is a hub of drug-dealing and sex work (neither of which I'm opposed to on principle—it's just a fact). I hung back by the corner, away from the folding chairs, to see how the dealers and the sex workers would deal with this intrusion on their marketplace.
The dealers (four or five African-American men, one Latino) were initially mesmerized by the African-American woman dancer doing sexy moves with the male dancers behind the second-floor windows, but they soon got down to business—there were too many people, too many disruptions, and after a brief meeting, they agreed to go sling their product on a corner across the street for the next few hours.
The lady sex workers were a different story. They were still soliciting, but some were torn between the performance (about a battle between dealers and how a lady is caught in the middle) and their business. I overheard one conversation between an older black woman and a middle-aged white woman that went like this:
White woman: Let's go across the street [to where the dealers were].
Black woman [watching the dance through the windows]: Nah.
White woman: C'mon! Walk with me!
Black woman: Nah! This is real. This is what is happening today.
They eventually went across the street to huddle with some dude. But the black woman came back to watch more. "Looks like she's in trouble," she said to me, during one of the sequences with the woman-dancer having conflict with some of the guys in the piece. "Looks like she's been having a good time, running around, and her boyfriend doesn't like it." The woman said she lived in Fremont, had watched part of a rehearsal the previous night, and came back for more.
But the point is this: Arts people tie themselves into pretzels wondering whether and how they should export their shit to folks who aren't the usual suspects. And they navel-gaze about how different races and classes will receive their work. To this I say: Don't be so goddamned precious. If you want to do it, just do it. You might be surprised by the results*.
If you want to get out of your theaters and your built-in demographics, get the fuck out of them. Or if you want to stay in them, stay in them. Either way, nobody's chaining you to a radiator.
This dance intrusion on business-as-usual in the park, of course, reminded me of the anarchist intrusion on business-as-usual downtown on May Day—there's more than one way to temporarily disrupt a workaday economy. Which, of course, dredges up an ethical question: If you disrupt an illegal economy with "art," is it better or worse as disrupting a legal economy with "vandalism"?
*In the late-1990s, I went to a hiphop house party (I think in the CD) and watched a bunch of white guys from the theater company Piece of Meat do an experimental gallows-humor play about Nazis and Jews in between sets for the classic group Source of Labor. I thought the crowd, which was primed for local hiphop, would eat these honkey dilettantes alive. Much to my (and my prejudice's) surprise, the crowd was receptive.