Donald Byrd wants to traumatize you. At the very least, the Tony Award–nominated choreographer wants you to confront the physical and emotional trauma of the gay American experience in raw, explicit, excruciating detail. Nothing about (IM)PULSE, Spectrum Dance Theater's response to the Pulse nightclub shootings a year ago, softens sharp edges for the audience, or makes it okay at the end.
"Some of the piece is an assault," Byrd said in an interview the day before I saw the show. "It's meant to be an assault, to shake you up a bit, to keep the audience from being complacent. Not running away from the world, but learning to sit and deal with it."
Even knowing that going in, I was not prepared for what I had to sit there and deal with. On opening night, I kept thinking, "My god, this is brutal." At one point, a performer was on the ground being shot over and over, his body pulsing and writhing; my date flinched over and over. Other times we grabbed each other's hands, or held each other, or one of us would whisper to the other "Jesus."
(IM)PULSE doesn't depict the largest mass shooting in modern US history, though there are abstract echoes of it. It also echoes other major traumas in its sweeping view of LGBTQ history, namely gay-bashings and the AIDS crisis. The tensions of these traumas are embodied by Spectrum's captivating dancers.
"The body is really the content, always," Byrd said. "And people don't understand how the body communicates. We live in a culture that is body illiterate, or thinks dance is entertaining. And when it's not entertaining, they don't know what to do with it."
The first part of the piece is entirely dance, although there is recited and recorded text by the artist David Wojnarowicz, whose writings about the politics of queerness are so charged with rage, they practically vibrate (he died of AIDS in 1992). There is also music by Bob Ostertag that includes recordings of protests of anti-gay legislation in San Francisco when Harvey Milk was still alive, interposed with instrumentation by Kronos Quartet and Eric Gupton.
The horror at Pulse was not just an assault on LGBTQ people, it was an assault on people of color, and many of Spectrum's dancers are people of color. The impulse "to make people the other and then annihilate them" was one of the issues Byrd set out to address with this piece.
The second part of (IM)PULSE is a monologue performed by an actor on a gurney. The character has suffered brain damage from a gay bashing, and the actor switches between multiple speakers as his body absorbs the shock of what has happened. Presumably some of the speakers are characters in his head, some of them come from people who were involved in the incident, and some of them are the ones that surround him in the hospital. This text originally began as a traditional play about a gay bashing called Marrow by the New York playwright Brian Quirk. Byrd, who has known Quirk for years, asked if he would be willing to transform it into text for a single character to speak; Quirk added bits of Spanish dialogue to make the character more relevant to Pulse. Craig MacArthur brings the many-voiced monologue to bristling, unsettling life onstage—with live video of his brutalized face projected onto the wall behind him. Byrd's overall intention was to "create the hallucinogenic and feverish mind of a physically traumatized person(s) struggling to make sense of a horror."
"I hope it will wake people up, and break their hearts," Quirk told me. He added that the rage of Wojnarowicz reminds him of the rage in this character. For example: "There is a section of the piece that is an enormous 'fuck you' to Trump. The character is trying to grapple with this: How can you hate another person that much? And he makes a list of things he hates, and it ends in Trump."
Byrd said that sometimes when he watches MacArthur on the gurney, "in the hospital, I know that he's been bashed, but sometimes I think it was something else." He's referring to AIDS.
Even though there's a moment toward the end that's supposed to relieve some of the pressure, it doesn't last. The worst is yet to come. I wish the masculinist white guys who voted for Trump, the people who believe gays have it easy and guns are the answer—the people who need to be shaken up—would go see this piece, but something tells me they are not the people who are going to go.