Donald Byrd + Spectrum Dance Theater
The Theater of Needless Talents

Donald Byrd & Spectrum Dance Theater

The Theater of Needless Talents


For two nights in February 2009, Donald Byrd and the Seattle-based Spectrum Dance Theater presented The Theater of Needless Talents at Reynolds Industries Theater, the work’s East Coast premiere, with live music by Durham’s Mallarmé Chamber Players, and the culmination of a weeklong residency at Duke. Byrd, a “choreographer with multiple personalities” (The New York Times), spun together the movements for The Theatre of Needless Talents, a theatrical dance piece that inhabits the Terezin ghetto-camp in Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia.

In Terezin, condemned artists kept composing, writing, painting, and performing — it was part Nazi propaganda program, part spiritual necessity. Byrd’s dancers move in time to a jaunty, ragtime score by Erwin Schulhoff, a Jewish composer killed in the Holocaust. Co-commissioned by Duke Performances, the evening length cabaret — which borrows from ballet, folk, and modern dance — probes how art responds to state oppression, from Nazi Germany to Darfur. 

How can a citizen of a free country not pay attention? How can anyone, anywhere not feel outraged? How can a person, whether religious or secular, not be moved by compassion? And above all, how can anyone who remembers remain silent?

Elie Wiesel

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Genocide still occurs in the twenty-first century. More than sixty years after the end of World War II when the Holocaust occurred — the most profound act of genocide of the twentieth century — we are almost daily reminded by news media of its evil presence. At the premiere of The Theater of Needless Talents, I wrote: “Developing this work has been challenging…. Perhaps most importantly, we are deeply rewarded that Spectrum Dance Theater takes, with this production, an important step in advancing our new vision: to expand ‘conversation’ on how the arts/artists might contribute to our community’s awareness and understanding of complex and difficult human issues.” And that conversation should include: what do we, the people do, to turn “Never again” — an anthem for the end of genocide — into reality.

While The Theater of Needless Talents uses genocide and the Holocaust as its starting place, perhaps this work is really about Erwin Schulhoff, the composer of the magnificent music for this production, who died at the Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942. This choreography is my response to his complex and multifaceted music. A deep, deep desire to honor Schulhoff’s unique talent and spirit led me each step of the way. His death as a victim of genocide reminds me of what might have been, how our world might have been different, if all those millions had lived.

Donald Byrd, Choreographer & Director

There is something so regal about Erwin Schulhoff, so gracefully refined and nuanced. I can see him appearing like a grand seigneur at a Viennese club, dancing the night away while letting his muse take root, one sublime note after another. Schulhoff was a bon vivant no doubt, and his final days at the Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942, ravaged by tuberculosis, must have been all the more annihilating. Schulhoff loved beauty too much to transcend oblivion. As a creator of some of the most life-affirming music of his time, his silencing is simply unbearable. One can only wonder in sad contemplation what other masterpieces Schulhoff’s pen would have graced a world desperate for redeeming beauty and atonement. 

Born in Prague of Jewish-German origin, Schulhoff studied piano and composition. His mentors included Reger and Debussy, the avant-garde and jazz. In his glory days, he was held as a brilliant virtuoso pianist whose playing style matched his unmistakable compositional aesthetic: at once vibrant and poetic, supremely confident and unpredictable. The thirties robbed Schulhoff of his righteous place in the great pantheon of twentieth century essential composers. As a Jew and communist sympathizer, he was blacklisted and his music, along with other masterpieces by Berg, Schoenberg and Gershwin, was catalogued by the Nazis as “degenerate.” Ah! If only Schulhoff and his family had made it in time to Russia where his petition for citizenship had been approved… By June 1941, it was too late. While playing incognito in Czechoslovakia, he was arrested and after fourteen months, one of the brightest figures in a generation of European musicians was forever silenced. May we find solace in his timeless creation.

Christophe Chagnard, Former Music Director, Northwest Sinfonietta

In 1941, Winston Churchill declared that the world was in the presence of “a crime without a name.” By 1948, a young Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin had persuaded the halls of power to adopt the term “genocide” to describe the ultimate horror of widespread murder along ethnic, racial, religious, or national lines. The Holocaust was not the first genocide, but it changed the way the world views human rights, convinced the world of the need for the term “genocide,” and inspired the creation of the United Nations. The Holocaust changed the way humanity perceived its own capacity for evil, and provoked the resounding promise of “never again.”

Now, over sixty years after the Holocaust, the phrase “never again” has become humanity’s most vacant plea. We have witnessed genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and now in Darfur. We have seen human rights violations occur on almost every continent, and have witnessed the subjugation of people who have been disempowered simply because of their race, ethnicity, religion, or even thoughts. As the world moves forward into the twenty-first century, we acknowledge a need for greater compassion towards humankind, yet prejudice, injustices, and inequalities are still pervasive. 

By confronting the legacy of the Holocaust and of genocide in our recent past, we challenge ourselves to explore what it means to be human, and the capacity for both good and evil within each one of us. 

An artistic production such as The Theater of Needless Talents creates a context for incorporating the relevance of the Holocaust into our lives.  Through remembrance, we endeavor to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, while vowing to never forget.

Marie Berry, Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center


The Theater of Needless Talents was co-commissioned by The University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center; Duke Performances at Duke University; and Russ and Tricia Stromberg. A later reconstruction of The Theater of Needless Talents was co-commissioned by Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.


  • CVNC, A Full Spectrum of Needless Talents
  • The Herald-Sun, Byrd offers positive provocation through dance troupe
  • Duke Chronicle, Moved by genocides, Byrd seeks to provoke