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Home-grown dance steps

Donald Byrd remembers when he knew he wanted to be involved in dance.

"One of the most important events that happened to me was when I saw Revelations for the first time," he says, recalling a 1969 performance of Alvin Ailey's signature piece, which is choreographed to Negro spirituals and folk songs.

"The idea that out of slave culture came something that was profoundly beautiful and moving was really important to me emotionally. I remember thinking to myself at the time that I'd like to be involved in something that could have that kind of impact on people and move them on a visceral level."

More than 20 years later, Byrd is a dancer and choreographer in New York, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater includes two of his works in its repertory.

Tonight, the company is scheduled to perform his new Dance at the Gym, along with Ailey's classic Revelations, as part of a program at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. On Saturday, it has afternoon and evening performances there. Byrd's earlier dance Shards is slated for the afternoon show.

On March 2 and 3, the Ailey company will be at Van Wezel Hall in Sarasota. At one performance there, it will dance Forgotten Time, a piece to taped music by the astonishing Bulgarian women's choir, Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares, choreographed by artistic director Judith Jamison. The company's founder, Ailey, died in 1989.

The Ruth Eckerd Hall performances represent a homecoming of sorts for Byrd, who grew up in Clearwater. As he explained in a phone interview from his office in lower Manhattan, Byrd lived at his grandparents' home off U.S. 19 near the Philadelphia Phillies' spring training ballpark from fifth grade until his graduation in 1967 from Pinellas High School, a black school that doesn't exist anymore. Byrd didn't dance in high school, but he played the flute and was drum major of the marching band.

Byrd, who went on to Yale and then Tufts University in Boston, has good memories from his childhood in Clearwater.

"I actually liked it very much," he says. "I thought there was a tremendous amount of opportunity and a lot of people who were concerned about the quality of education and the quality of life and about equality. They seemed to be very moral people without being moralistic. In some ways, I don't think I could have been happier anyplace else."

Byrd credits support from his family and a tutorial program for black youngsters run by a group of what he describes as "liberal women," including Phyllis Busansky, now chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Commission, as crucial factors in his getting a good education.

"I was in the program for four years. Phyllis made a lot of demands and always reminded you of what you were committed to doing. She cared a lot for the kids who were in the program."

Byrd, who still has family in Tampa and Safety Harbor, returns to visit about once a year.

"The biggest difference I've noticed from when I was growing up is that there's much more ease between the races. The black children seem to have a general sense that they can go after whatever they want to pursue, that they're not excluded from certain experiences."

Byrd, 42, concentrates more on choreography than performing nowadays, although he still appears with his own 11-member dance company, called Donald Byrd/The Group, which started in 1978. He has choreographed more than 40 dances.

Recently, he signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to work with John Singleton, director of the hit movie Boyz N The Hood, on developing a musical. Says Byrd, "I'm interested in exploring the viability of the Hollywood musical, and what I can bring to it as an African-American artist."

Dance at the Gym, with a musical score by Byrd's longtime collaborator Mio Morales, was premiered by the Ailey troupe last December in New York. For the most part it received rave reviews, although a correspondent for Dance magazine complained about the "unkind, angry, urgent style of moving" in the piece for four men and four women.

"In some ways, you might say the origin of the piece is an abstracted update of the dance at the gym section of West Side Story," Byrd says.

"But its real starting point was the idea of the nature of contemporary relationships and the thing that makes people tick, which is usually sex."

He's not surprised that some people find the dance unsettling.

"A lot of my work deals with the kind of tension involved in relationships. Dance at the Gym is about strong sexual impulses that don't have as much of an outlet as they used to have because of AIDS and other things. In the 1960s, there was a lot of sexual freedom. There's more restraint now, but when young males and females are around each other there is still a certain amount of hormones that go into play."

Up next:Julie Kavner