When Donald Byrd choreographed Dance at the Gym for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1991, he took inspiration from a film choreographed 30 years earlier - Jerome Robbins' 1961 West Side Story. Using the "Dance at the Gym" number from the movie as a counterpoint, Byrd created his dance to explore the idea of how young people in a charged environment look at each other and interact. "The Robbins ballet is placed in a particular period," explains Byrd, "and I think my ballet says 'how has the world changed in some ways - the value system and the mores? How do young people interact with each other now (or when the ballet was made in the 1990s) as opposed to in the 1950s? And what is it about our society that says what is acceptable behavior now as opposed to then?'
What struck Byrd in the movie is the fact that despite the potential for violence, the characters in West Side Story came to the dance at the gym with a sense of hopefulness; they came to have a good time. "Now there's a kind of cynicism in young people," he says. "Their sense of violence - that violence is around them all the time - makes it an acceptable environment. So the kids are edgier; they're not as affected by those kinds of things. But what they are affected by, and what they display differently, are their hormones. The kids back then were affected by the same things, but there were a set of mores and ways of behavior in terms of how you displayed it. And I think in my ballet, that's the biggest contrast - there's a kind of open, overt display of sensuality, and an acceptability in being aggressive and forward. The girls don't play second fiddle to the boys. In some ways, one of the interesting things about the 1990s was that women kind of embraced being objects. They turned it into a position of power, using sexuality as a weapon, as a tool for accomplishing things. So I think that's what my Dance at the Gym suggests and I think ultimately where the two people in the Robbins piece find love, the kids in my piece kind of discover tenderness in a world, in some ways, where there's none. At the end of the ballet there's a sense that they've said, 'oh, maybe there's this thing called tenderness.'"
While Byrd doesn't consider Dance at the Gym an "issue piece," he does hope that the ballet will encourage dialog among viewers. "If people start talking about the evening, if they actually stop for a moment, they might start asking questions. I think that maybe some of the things they will be struck by are the movement and the theatricality of the piece. So you don't have to have a thinking experience with Dance at the Gym if you don't want to. But if you choose to really look beyond or include in your observation or your experience of it some serious questions about mores and behavior and young people, then there's something to talk about."