1. Last Thursday, I saw a dance performance by Spectrum at Hing Hay Park in the International District. The idea was to stand or sit in the park and watch the show through the second-story windows of a building. The park is well-known for its drug dealing and prostitution. The performance, The Miraculous Mandarin, is a longtime-banned ballet by Bela Bartok, updated by Donald Byrd to be about drug dealers and a woman—maybe a prostitute, maybe not—caught between them. You can read about how Hing Hay's dealers and sex workers reacted to Mandarin here.
2. The Storefronts Seattle program—which convinces local landlords to loan their currently vacant properties as venues for public art, and which presented Miraculous Mandarin—cancelled the rest of the performances, saying the simulated sex was too graphic for the public arena. (It did have graphic simulated sex.)
3. Matthew Richter (formerly of The Stranger and ConWorks) said that he had explicitly discussed Mandarin with representatives of Spectrum, insisting that it had to be PG (or tamer), or that the whole Storefronts program would risk being shuttered. Storefronts depends on landlords agreeing to loan their spaces, and many of them are economically and culturally conservative. No more landlord buy-in, no more program. Richter and Storefronts also worried on their blog that they had been misled about the content of Mandarin.
4. On the phone this morning, Spectrum choreographer Donald Byrd described the situation as a misunderstanding that blew up into a controversy. He strenuously objected to the idea that he was trying to pull a fast one on Storefronts. "I'm not an adolescent!" he said. "I'm 62 years old! I don't operate like that. I'm not trying to shock anyone. I don't have anything to prove.... The thought that I would put energy into deceiving anyone? This will sound condescending and nasty, I guess, but nobody is important enough to me to deceive them. There's a lot of effort in that—and I'm lazy!"
Byrd also said that he was glad to see that some regular inhabitants of the park—those peddling in the black market—responded to the piece and that he didn't think children would be exposed to or traumatized by the work. In another phone conversation I had this morning, Richter argued that the public arena is the public arena and you have to think of everyone (not just the drug dealers and sex workers and the people who are familiar with them) when throwing public money and landlord-loaned space at an art project.
5. My take, after spending hours on the phone with the concerned parties: misunderstanding. Byrd is a controversy magnet. (Remember Oklahoma?) He's a smart, sharp-edged, black, suffer-no-fools, take-no-prisoners choreographer who can barely walk into a room without pissing somebody off. (He has been publicly accused of pretty much any social crime you can think of, from racism to misogyny to—perhaps worst of all for art nerds—literalism.)
Byrd put up a show he thought was fine, but his barometer of "fine" and the Storefronts barometer of "fine" were nowhere near calibrated. Some of the Hing Hay regulars loved it. Some of the Storefronts constituents objected. (And Richter acknowledged the pain for the artists. "The worst thing that could happen to an artist," he said, "is to make work, believe in it, and then not get to share it.")
Ultimately, it seems like a tempest in a teapot, where strong personalities with good intentions sat down with different expectations and then had some friction when their barometers didn't line up. As Byrd said, this could be "a real opportunity to engage in dialogue about the community, who occupies that park, and do people want to change that? That could've been really interesting. And now we're all distracted with was there some other agenda? and that's all peripheral."
Onward and upward, everybody. Onward and upward.
* Full disclosure, for what it's worth: I've known Matthew Richter for many years. And I've had several conversations—on the record and off the record—with Donald Byrd over the years. They can each be kooky from time to time, but I'm glad that both of them live and work in Seattle. Here's hoping the gents can kiss and make up soon. And I'll let you know when and where you can see Mandarin ASAP. I'm sure it'll have a remount—especially after this controversy.
I forgot to add that Richter has worked with Byrd this year in designing some of the sets for Spectrum dance pieces—which only indicates that they're aesthetically closer than this "controversy" suggests.