Theater archives

Of Various Princesses


What is it with the “Sleeping Beauty”story?

Why would being left off the guest list for a royal christening engender such rage in a fairy that she’d condemn the baby princess to teenage death? This isn’t a question Donald Byrd wants to answer in his The Sleeping Beauty Notebook; it’s one he wants to pose. And pose and pose. His is no transplanted version of a ballet classic, like his 1996 The Harlem Nutcracker. This violently deconstructed version of Beauty for Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater is meant to set the story rocketing around in our brains. Is the wicked fairy Carabosse a terrorist? asks dramaturge Thomas DeFrantz, bounding down the aisle to stop some scrupulously constructed mayhem. No, respond audience members—no political agenda here. Perhaps her anger is the take-no-prisoners rage of the marginalized.

What is beauty? Byrd likes that question. And the members of Spectrum relish embodying it. Byrd took over the company in 2002, transforming it from a light-jazz ensemble into a spunky, muscular bunch of dancers unafraid to get down and dirty. He uses Tchaikovsky’s score for the 1890 ballet and some of Marius Petipa’s choreography, but Lara Seefeldt, his Aurora (or one of them?), is a blunt little powerhouse who aces the “Rose Adagio” high-heeled in a bar with suitors who drink a lot and find her very, very hot. Carabosse isn’t just mop-haired harridan Danielle Wilkins, who invades the christening shrieking “motherfucker!”; she’s also tall, sexy Julia Wilkins in purple satin (and one of the piece’s commentators), who tauntingly hurls the infant Aurora doll to the floor and later pricks a voodoo Barbie, making the princess writhe. In the end it’s Wilkins, one of a heap of white-tutu-clad “sleepers” on a huge bed (set by Craig Wollam), who gets the prince. Or not. He (David Alewine) bangs his head trying to get away from the horny bevy of awakened women, and the two perform a powerful, erotic pas de deux on the floor with him semi-conscious. The famous kiss becomes her attempt to rouse him with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Byrd’s construction is a patchwork quilt of references that riff entertainingly or provocatively off one another. The main scenes happen on the elegant faux-mosaic floorcloth (lit by Jack Mehler), as do mime summations of the plot’s crux, the seven-minute condensed version, and three quickie retellings by various street types. The bawdy, finger-pricking birthday feast seems to be set in Renaissance Venice (great costumes by Nancy Brous), but the Lilac Fairy (Christina Cooley), arriving to prescribe sleep instead of death, is pushed in on the DTW stage crew’s telescoping “Genie.” The two-hour piece, which too often rambles as it digresses, is stuffed with dancing. Everyone in the powerful cast has outbursts of Byrd’s style of brute ballet—fast, strident, dense with brusque footwork, and studded with raunchy pantomime. Traditional concepts of beauty and grace enter only as irony. Entertaining Beauty might be a good title.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Jodi Melnick!” Melnick isn’t that kind of star, but her riveting performance arouses a similar excitement at DTW. She crashes onto the stage to begin her solo Wanderlust, Kentucky—running here and there as if looking for the right street or a forgotten trail. We can’t know the details of her journey, real or imagined. We respond to the subtle imprint on her body of all that she sees and thinks. Her behavior, however mysterious, is indefinably right. We don’t know why she sits and bangs her forehead against her knee, lies on her back kicking her legs, stares at something, sobs and wipes her eyes, nods, lets fanning gestures run amok, or jumps into the arms of a man who unexpectedly emerges from the audience. She embeds
all this into a nuanced, occasionally pausing flow of fascinating choreography, in which human awkwardness bespeaks profound grace.

Sharing the program with Melnick, Scott Heron introduces himself with fanfare, albeit ironic fanfare. This pomo clown stumbles down the aisle disguised as a box of dental floss; an offstage hand pulling out a length of floss induces erotic ecstasy. We’re in the land of scratchy records, imperfect acts, and absurd sights. Heron dons a hat with one big ear and one little one affixed and dances while flossing elaborately. Chanting, marching, leaping, he’s a study in skinny angles. In Gumdrops and Cupcakes, the songs Corey Dargel sings are as screwy as Heron’s deeds, containing lines like “I’ve become so resilient from getting mixed up with you.” (This number begins right after Heron hopscotches over a row of cupcakes.) Dargel addresses a song about a lover’s grooming and habits to one of several glowing disks on the floor, while Heron, seated, tries to pick up one leg with the other.

He thrives on frumpy disguises. In Big Lake, a film co-created with Thomas Little, he wears Theda Bara eye makeup and a straggly black wig to thrash in a storm-tossed black-and-white ocean. At the end of the evening, pen cap between teeth, he makes rapid sketches of which he’s very proud: an audience member, his own foot, his buttocks (surveying them involves quite a twist). Terrible and entrancing!