Greenwood: Donald Byrd, Alvin Ailey and the Telling of a Tragedy - Michigan Opera Theatre

Greenwood: Donald Byrd, Alvin Ailey and the Telling of a Tragedy

By Jon Teeuwissen, Michigan Opera Theatre Artistic Advisor for Dance

Alvin Ailey is streaming its performance of Donald Byrd's Greenwood until Friday, June 26 as part of "Ailey All Access." Learn about this performance and watch below.

It is not unique for work of art to be inspired by injustice or born as a response to tragedy. But when Donald Byrd was commissioned by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to choreograph a new work and chose The Tulsa Race Massacre as his subject matter, he could not possibly have foreseen the relevance the piece would have six months later. 

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 resulted in the single deadliest and most destructive act of racial violence and domestic terrorism in the United States. Following a disputed incident in an elevator between a Black delivery man and a White elevator operator, nearly 40 square blocks of the Greenwood District, known as “Black Wall Street,” was burned to the ground, more than 2,000 businesses were destroyed, more than 300 African-Americans were killed and more than 9,000 African-Americans were left homeless. The massacre was erased from the nation’s history but resurfaced in recent years as its centennial approaches in 2021.  

In observance of Juneteenth, the celebration marking the end of slavery in the United States, last week the “Ailey All Access” streaming service released Donald Byrd’s Greenwood. Given the current Black Lives Matter awareness, the piece could not be timelier. 

This past weekend, CNN ran an interview (which aired multiple times on Saturday) with Robert Battle, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatreabout the relevance of GreenwoodThe New York Times on Sunday published a full-page article,” The Burning of Black Wall Street, Revisited.” And Sunday a week ago, CBS 60 Minutes aired a piece on Greenwood that detailed what happened on June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, how it was covered-up, and how not one person was held responsible for such an absolute atrocity. (To learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre, check out the CBS 60 Minutes piece “Uncovering the Greenwood Massacre, nearly a century later").

Byrd is an accomplished American choreographer of color. For years he directed the modern dance company he founded, Donald Byrd/The Group, in Los Angeles and New York, before moving to Seattle to direct Spectrum Dance Theater. Celebrated for exploring complex societal issues through danceByrd has created topical works, such as The Beastwhich dealt with domestic violence, and The Minstrel Show, which dealt with racism. Additionally, Byrd has created works for major ballet companies including the Joffrey Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet. (Hear Byrd's perspective on "confronting the uncomfortable"). 

For his fifth collaboration with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Donald Byrd created Greenwood, one in a series of works (including Shot and Strange Fruit) that Byrd has created as a response to the historical and current violence inflicted on Black people and Black communities. Set to music by Israeli violist and composer Emmanuel WitzthumGreenwood navigates through one of the worst incidents of racial violence in US history and explores the story through different lenses of those who were affected. 

Greenwood premiered at New York’s City Center this past December. I visited with Byrd backstage following the final dress rehearsal and got insights regarding his exploration of several vignettes of what might have happened between the white female elevator operator and the young black delivery man. This powerful work is deserving of multiple viewings.  

The New York Times article that previewed the premiere of Greenwood stated:   

Over the decades Mr. Byrd has more clearly underscored the potential of dance to enact social change, as a tool that can help us imagine new worlds and ways of thinking. His fifth and latest commission for Ailey reflects on the racist brutality that ravaged Greenwood, the prosperous black business district of Tulsa, OK, after an encounter between a young black man and a young white elevator operator. Through dramatic gesture and vigorous partnering, he depicts multiple versions of what might have occurred between the man and woman — a story still not fully understood — before the ensuing destruction.” 

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was born out of the Civil Rights Movement when visionary founder Alvin Ailey saw the need to celebrate the lives and stories of African-Americans and understood the power of dance as a weapon for social change. Dance is a vehicle to inspire, educate, and unite all in a universal celebration of the human spirit – especially in these most challenging of times. Michigan Opera Theatre has enjoyed an enduring partnership with Ailey, and we look forward to their return to the Detroit Opera House. 

Experience Ailey’s performance of Greenwood below. Make sure to watch the stream before it expires Friday, June 26!  

For more information please visit AlvinAiley.org/AileyAllAccess.  

See excerpts from Greenwood below: