Oh, what a night! Spectrum Dance Theater’s “Farewell” at Seattle’s Moore Theatre was nothing short of spectacular. (Or to use the phrase I used immediately following the show: “That was so freaking good!”)
Farewell is based on the novel, Beijing Coma, written by Ma Jian, an exiled Chinese author. The story’s male protagonist (played by Joel Meyer) is shot during the protests in Tiananmen Square, and then suffers a "waking coma"; alert yet paralyzed and unable to communicate. While lying in this state, his mind drifts back to the tragic events that put him there and the violent state of his country. The story juxtaposes with the relationship between China and America and their strong financial ties. It then shifts to our own cultural/social tragedy of Sept. 11th and the similarities between the two.
The audio backdrop to this piece consists of part live music by local Chinese-American composer Byron Au Yong, part speaking (the dancers recited various speeches about democracy and economics through megaphones), and part recordings from emergency responders and news reports. This overlapping onslaught of sound which comes at you from all directions was at times very difficult to listen to. The people’s cries for change barely rose above the din of media coverage and political propaganda, which I felt symbolized how the media often confuses and drowns out the truth.
During “Farewell”, audience members sit directly on and around the stage, either in chairs or on metal bleachers, which provides an intimate—or in the case of the bleachers—a deliberately uncomfortable feel. The scenery is comprised of a large photograph of China’s Chairman Mao which hangs above the stage’s large podium. On this podium sits Spectrum’s Artistic Director, Donald Byrd who signals the dancers with the word “Go” throughout the show. Oversized imagery featuring Tiananmen Square and September 11th are suspended from the ceiling, most of which are difficult to look at.
But then, that’s the point.
Yet for all the pain and heartbreak, there were several moments of sheer beauty provided by the Spectrum dancers. Their stretching, yearning, cowering and writhing—their hands and legs creating shape upon beautiful shape. Every one of them managed to add their own unique stroke of color to this intricate canvas, leaving many of us alternately gasping or wiping away a tear.
Speaking of tears; as the performance moved into the September 11th attacks and the audio recordings made by New York emergency responders were played, there was hardly a dry eye around. I personally choked back tears as my mind was suddenly whisked back to the memories of that horrible morning. Toward the end on the audio, a witness describes the scene of people jumping from the windows of the Twin Towers to their deaths. Then shortly thereafter, the dancers (who've been using these wooden benches during the entire performance) stand the benches on-end and then slowly knock them over, one by one. SLAM!...SLAM!...SLAM!..SLAM! While Joel Meyer’s character lies center stage, cringing and crying on the floor. To me, this seemed to symbolize the sounds of those bodies falling from the burning sky above.
In the final moments, what looks like a dead, soot and ash covered dove is placed on our comatose story teller’s chest. Perhaps this symbolizes the death of peace or how peace can rise from the ashes of tragedy? I can’t say for certain. But either way, the entire performance was very powerful, extremely moving and beautifully heartbreaking.
Thank you, Spectrum and Donald Byrd for providing this serious, thought-provoking evening. It was a night I will remember and cherish for a very long time.
by Denise Opper
All photos by Gabriel Bienczycki, Zebra Visual
Costumes by CJDL Design.