Donald Byrd Jumps into the Debate over Women in Whim W’Him’s <em>3Seasons</em>

The reviews for Olivier Wevers’ 3Seasonsthe first full-length production by his company Whim W’himlast 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.

Kaori Nakamura of Whim W’Him. Photo by Marc von Borstel.

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 bigand somewhat surprisingvoice 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 factit 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 badI still disagree with Graves’ overall assessmentor 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.

15 thoughts on “Donald Byrd Jumps into the Debate over Women in Whim W’Him’s <em>3Seasons</em>

  1. Really. Save me from all this fussing and tongue wagging, finger pointing. The artists are thoughtful and experienced humans who wanted to present their work on stage.

    That you’ve taken so long to ponder it – and then only after a competitor brings up irrelevant information (after all – the off-stage relationships of the actors or performers or dancers is inconsequential to the performance on stage, once they decide to present it by their own choices)…

    What you are showcasing is your own inadequacy as a critic along with others in this community. Perhaps it’s time to think of a new career option.

    Artists are free to express their opinions, performers are free to interpret that and audiences are free to react and form opinions. Critics, on the other hand, aren’t free at all – but generally tied up in all manner of connective tissue to profit, ego and one-up-manship having to do with their capacity to blow smoke up one another’s arses.

    You have done so today. Thanks.

  2. It’s not a matter of finger-pointing, nor is it saying, “Oh my gosh! Upon reflection, that sucks!” It’s an acknowledgment that upon reflection, there were other elements that got missed in the first place. And I wouldn’t call Donald Byrd a “competitor.” And finally, I’m not saying that artists shouldn’t get to say what they want–where does that come up?

    My point is, I’ve talked to people, heard other things, and realized I missed something. Donald Byrd’s blog post is, I think, an important thing. This isn’t a good/bad post, it’s just treating a work of art that’s continued to generate discourse like…well…a work of art that’s continued to generate discourse. Which is precisely what I think most artists want. Would it be better to simply say, “Oh, that’s a couple weeks ago, it’s not worth talking about anymore”?

  3. barry: I believe you have missed every single point Jeremy was making. In fact, I’m sure of it.

  4. Weavers put some strong images out there — it’s true. He also displayed the most exquisite scene of loving female-male touch and embrace in the scene where one couple is standing and kissing while another rolls around intertwined at their feet. Why are we reading this dance as some kind of autobiographical statement? We know a lot about Picasso and his women but a painting is a painting in the end.

    Donald Byrd’s choreography literally hurts and injures women’s bodies. It’s a known fact. To have him make comments on this issue just stuns me.

  5. I suppose Donald Byrd might know misogyny in dance, having created some of the most misogynistic choreography i’ve ever seen.

    Jeremy, I wonder why, if Jen Graves and Catherine Cabeen both said it at the time of the show, it takes until Donald Byrd chimes in to start actually discussing it. Is it the gossipy tidbits he includes that finally make it fun to look critically at Oliver Wever’s work? I know you’ve been thinking about it since reading the posts by Graves and Cabeen, I just wonder why Byrd is the catalyst for writing about it.

  6. It’s a fair point, and a fair question to ask, Keely. To answer your question, I’d have to say it’s the opposite–what originally kept me from writing anything else was the gossipy angle. Until Donald Byrd wrote something, it was sort of like, okay, I’m hearing from other people that they’re surprised reviewers weren’t talking about this, there’s this personal relationship that’s all got them wondering (possibly intentionally on the part of Whim W’Him), and I’m re-thinking what I wrote and realizing that I treated “3Seasons” in a way I never would have treated a play.

    So Donald Byrd was the first one to write a really strong public statement, I think, and that’s the reason I wrote something. I’m not taking credit for originality here, I’m admitting turning a blind eye. I read Jen Graves’ post at the time, but she didn’t address the more shocking elements, rather some of the tamer statements which she found inadequate (the bra stuffing, for instance), and mostly takes issue with what Wevers said in a discussion she had afterward.

    Catherine Cabeen’s post was only pointed out to me recently, and of all of them, it’s the one I think is most insightful.

  7. Oh, reading this afterwards it seems like I may be disagreeing with your point or your even posting this. I’m not, I’m glad you posted this an I’m inclined to agree with you. I just had this question while reading it.

  8. So, when this piece travels elsewhere, or perhaps is performed by other dancers, is that going to make you all question their relationships “behind the scenes” and try to deconstruct them as well. Don’t dancers, as well as actors, play characters, not re-live their actual lives on stage?

    I think this has become a catty gossip-fest, honestly. I never considered the performance to be any reflection on who the dancers were, but rather, what they brought to the roles they played.

    Do we need to know who Jen Graves attended this performance with when writing her review? How about J. Barker? Does that color what you bring to your writing?

    That fact that Byrd couldn’t see the concept of our disposable society in the movement of “dumping” the dancer ( whom we all had had a relationship with for the previous 90 minutes) in a trash bin, no less…well…that makes me gasp.

  9. This is crazy. Puritanism – and literalism – are alive and well in Seattle, it seems. Next they will critique Wever’s performance in “The Sleeping Beauty” as being misogynistic.

  10. When I saw the piece and watched her being placed in the garbage I understood this as a rejection of the romantic image of the ballerina and a sign of Wever’s own transition from a ballet dancer to a choreographer of contemporary dance. I didn’t think of it as being misogynistic or a commentary on the dancer herself. But these sorts of subtleties were apparently lost on our so-called critics here.

  11. Would Byrd’s choreography hold up to his own criteria? There’s a question someone should ask him.

  12. Yes, I have to think that Donald’s response was in part conditioned by his own questions about the [intentional] use of autobiography in his dances.

  13. I’m not sure how any of this is Puritanical. As for literalism, that’s actually one of the interesting things I see in this: straight literalism is not good, but on the other hand, looking back over the reviews, there was so little attempt at interpretation it feels like writers are unwilling to actually treat the work as something deserving of real consideration.

    I see two distinct things here: one is the issue of gender, and the other is biography. The latter is an interesting question raised by Donald Byrd, and there was no way to discuss it without connecting back to “3Seasons,” which creates the gossip-y angle that keeps coming up. The former, though, I think is more interesting.

    I think that Graves has a really good point here–Wevers’ comment about how his idea of gender just must be more fluid strikes me as a dodge, or at least weak. What I think he’s getting at it is that he’s willing to play with gender in his work, and that showed up in both 3Seasons and Fragments, if not also X Stasis. However, it’s one thing to play with gender roles, and another to lose sight of sexuality altogether. In other words, an act of physical or sexual aggression and/or violence is going to read differently when done by a man to a woman, as opposed to a man to a man or whatever.

    It’s one thing to view gender fluidly as an artist, and another to lose sight of the fact that audience may interpret it differently from what you intended. In this case, I feel as though I didn’t consider that at the time, and I’ve heard enough (and enough has been said here) to suggest that plenty of other people saw it a different way, too.

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