Donald Byrd Jumps into the Debate over Women in Whim W’Him’s <em>3Seasons</em>
The reviews for Olivier Wevers’ 3Seasons—the first full-length production by his company Whim W’him—last month were nearly all glowing and positive (including mine). A surrealist exploration of the consequences of consumer culture, executed with charming aplomb by Whim W’him’s crew of Spectrum and PNB dancers, it largely won over audiences and critics alike.
One of the few dissenting voices was The Stranger‘s art (and sometimes dance) critic Jen Graves, who, in a Jan. 20 Slog post, criticized Wevers’ representation of women in the piece, saying he was like a “novelist who can’t quite write women, or who isn’t that interested in trying.” Aside from a guest post on the OtB blog by dancer/choreographer Catherine Cabeen, Graves was the only critic to tackle the piece from a feminist angle.
But yesterday, a big—and somewhat surprising—voice in the dance community threw down: Spectrum Dance’s artistic director and choreographer Donald Byrd, who’s been accused of sexist representations himself (as he admits). Writing in his blog on the Spectrum site, Byrd described (without directly naming the piece or the choreographer) his experience watching 3Seasons:
There were two moments in particular that were startling and caused me to gasp (and those of you that know me, know that it takes a lot to make me gasp). In the first, a woman was being violently “humped” by a man in the center of the stage just before the lights went to black ending one of the sections of the piece. The second involved the same woman being tossed upside down in a waste dumpster with her legs sticking straight up, just before another black out, this time signaling the end of the piece and the program.
Inside the dance community, based on a number of conversations I’ve had since 3Seasons ran, tongues have been wagging over these images and sequences, performed by PNB’s Kaori Nakamura, who plays a sort of Mother Earth role and is frequently the object of abuse by the madcap consumers in the rest of the corps. Many described the “humping,”
performed by PNB’s Lucien Postelwaite [Postlewaite is the one who places her in the trash], as “rape,” with which I agree (rape of Mother Earth, get it?). Byrd also fails to mention that Nakamura was smeared with fake blood before being dumped in the garbage can.
But here’s the kicker, and something I didn’t know until after the fact (due to a lack of research and interest), which is why so many people are talking about Nakamura’s treatment: she’s Wevers’ ex-wife, from before he came out. Postlewaite, who humps her onstage, is Wevers’ current husband, the two having married in California before Prop. 8 overturned gay marriage.
This is the center of Byrd’s critique, the “biographical” angle.
“With this additional information, other questions cascaded. What is he saying about his relationship with his ex? How does he really feel about her? What does he think of his current life with his current partner in relationship to his old married life? Does he realize that these kinds of questions might arise for viewers? How does the ex feel about what was happening to her on stage?” Byrd writes, before acknowledging: “I could go on but I won’t because what this points out is that none of these questions have anything to do with whether what happened on stage succeeded as a piece of good dance or not.”
Byrd has something of a point there at the end, but it’s an evasive one. Someone who’s produced a work based on Baudrillard’s Seduction should surely be aware of Barthes’ critique of authorship; anyone in the audience who saw 3Seasons and knew those relationships saw something drastically different in that piece, as will anyone who reads Byrd’s post or this article (or who paid attention to some of the preview press; Wevers & co. hardly hid the fact—it was noted at least in Michael Upchurch’s Seattle Times preview).
At the time, insofar as I noted the casually misogynistic representations of femininity, I wrote them off as in keeping with the work’s overall themes, and, of course, sexist representations are hardly unusual in the arts. But with a few weeks’ reflection and discussion, I see the largely fawning critical response to Wevers’ work as a dramatic failure to address the questions the work raises.
This isn’t to say 3Seasons was bad—I still disagree with Graves’ overall assessment—or that Wevers is a jerk (he and Nakamura remain close, obviously; she is in his company, as is described as his “best friend”), but if not a single critic besides Graves even discussed gender, and it took Donald Byrd to semi-publicly discuss the biography, what are the rest of us doing but writing pull-quotes for Whim W’Him’s future grant applications? Seriously, we didn’t even get the real story.