If you were in a generous mood, you could say that In a Different Light: Duke Ellington proves that Donald Byrd, its choreographer, can put on a show. The three-part, program-length dance, recently on view at the Joyce, falls into the category of entertainment – a byway of the performing arts that offers respite from thinking and feeling, suspends consciousness instead of awakening and expanding it. Given its feebleness in pure dance and music terms, the piece certainly waives any claim it might have to the high-art end of lyric theater.
In a program note, Byrd declares that he wanted to open relatively unfamiliar Ellington scores to the possibilities of dance. In actuality, the music serves as nothing more than heady atmospheric background; the choreography barely acknowledges the beat, let alone the shape and texture of a phrase. Like his musical response, Byrd’s dance invention is superficial. For the doomed romance of his opening section, this choreographer, like so many before him, has looked lasciviously – ah, mysterious beauty, let me possess you! – at Balanchine’s Serenade. He has glanced at the master’s haunting La Valse as well. Yet he creates no context for the fragments he co-opts, and he takes them nowhere. Lacking structure and development, flitting from one object of interest to another, Byrd’s concoction seems to have no point.
In the second section, no doubt with the excuse of providing variety, Byrd revels in his let’s-be-outrageous mode. With tinsel and flashing lightbulbs, he sets up a club scene where garishly outfitted figures, their demeanor alternately spaced-out and insolent, perform raunchy moves. It’s not surprising that the effect isn’t sensual; it’s almost as difficult to be erotic in concert dancing as it is to be funny. Still, Byrd might have provided an attitude, like irony, to lend the material some significance. It has absolutely none in dance terms. By the time In a Different Light concludes with a modern-dance-meets-jazz section, a frustrated, worn-out viewer does well to take what comfort he can in the occasional colorful moments and the considerable talents of Byrd’s dedicated performers.