Food & Drink

Seattle Choreographer Stages a Fresh Take on ‘Carmina Burana’

Nancy Guppy takes flight with Seattle choreographer Donald Byrd

By Nancy Guppy March 25, 2015


This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Seattle choreographer Donald Byrd has been artistic director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater since 2002. Before that, he was a revered contemporary dance director in New York City, perhaps best known for choreographing The Harlem Nutcracker and the Broadway musical version of The Color Purple (for which he earned a Tony nomination). This month he stages a fresh take on the iconic Carmina Burana, promising a stripped-down, intimate approach to the feverish masterpiece (4/23–4/26 at The Moore Theatre;
Location: The 5th Avenue Theatre, on a day of pouring rain in February
Drinks: Byrd: French press coffee with half & half. Guppy: three-shot Americano

Nancy Guppy: Finish this sentence: Donald Byrd is…   
Donald Byrd: A director, a choreographer and a person who believes that the arts are everything.  

NG: How would you coach an audience member to approach dance performance?         
DB: You have to enter it like the state just before falling asleep. Your mind floats off and images come to you. With dance, images are flowing in front of you, and you can use words to describe what you are seeing…but there is no right answer.   

NG: What do you look for in a dancer?       
DB: Their level of training has to be really high. I also look for open-mindedness, ambition, kinetic intelligence and people who, I believe, can get over being afraid of me.    

NG: Do people have misconceptions about you?
DB: That I’m angry and egotistical. Not true. What is true is that I have a lot of passion, and if there is something I believe in, I go down fighting.  

NG: Who were you in high school?        
DB: The outrageous drum major. People still tell me, “You were the best drum major ever!”       

NG: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?           
DB: When I was 18 or 19, I saw the Alvin Ailey company perform and at the end of the performance, as I stood cheering with tears streaming down my face, I remember thinking, “Anything that can have this kind of effect on people, that’s what I want to do.”

NG: What’s your biggest regret?             
DB: When Julie Taymor asked me if I wanted to [choreograph] The Lion King. It’s not really a regret, because I chose to develop The Harlem Nutcracker, which was very close to my heart, but my financial situation would be quite different today if I had said yes. [Big laugh]  

NG: Is there anything you’d like to change about your life?            
DB: I would change my attitude about health. I carried that invincibility thing that teenagers have way too long.     

NG: What do you find sexy?             
DB: Minds that work are sexy. Dancers that have brilliant kinetic intelligence are sexy. A kind of “knowing” is sexy to me.   

NG: Which four guests would make for the perfect dinner party?             
DB: Alvin Ailey, George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and Anna Deavere Smith.  

Nancy Guppy showcases Seattle artists on her TV series, Art Zone (


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