Heart of The Beast

Can Donald Byrd Make Art of True-Life Violence?

It won't be long before we get a national touring production of the O. J. Saga, complete with a white Blazer and cursing Christopher Darden. There will be buckets of fake blood and a stern moral about the dangers of spousal abuse. Soon Koresh! The Musical will open as well, with tap-dancing ATF agents and lyrics by Tim Rice. Everyone will leave the theatre feeling vaguely superior, as well as a little voyeuristic. Given both the success of heavy-handed TV melodramas about misguided kids who kill other misguided kids, all based on true stories and justified by the producers as a necessary evil designed to educate your average viewer, and the poor financial state of most theatres in this country, it is not difficult to imagine true crime dramas being adapted to the stage to rake in millions and keep struggling artists afloat, despite the moral cost.

There may be a way, however, to draw art from real-life tragedies without being exploitative. The Domestic Violence Project, created by Austin's Dance Umbrella (DU) and the New York City-based dance company Donald Byrd/The Group, is trying to do just that with The Beast, a dance piece about domestic violence. The piece's public performance May 10 at the B. Iden Payne Theatre is the culmination of three years' work in which artists and administrators have developed a theatrical comment on domestic violence through contact with victims of such violence and the people who serve them. All of the people involved have tried to avoid creating "victim art" by involving themselves within the community, creating new communication channels for social service providers, and using their skills as artists to create a piece that is both aesthetically and emotionally engaging. Most significantly, they have approached this issue as artists doing their jobs as responsible community members, in much the same way that journalists might expose graft or surgeons stitch wounds.

The Domestic Violence Project marries a subject from today's headlines and a dance company and as such is right up Dance Umbrella's alley. This organization's mission is to "serve as a bridge from the world of art and culture to our everyday lives" and the people who work for it believe that "the theatre is a place to inspire, educate, challenge, and confront who we are now." Run by Phyllis Slattery and Lisa Byrd (no relation to Donald Byrd), Dance Umbrella previously confronted social issues with The Minstrel Project, an exploration of racial stereotypes that gave Slattery her first opportunity to work with Donald Byrd.

Byrd is a nationally known dancer/choreographer who has created more than 80 works, many of them with other artists. His company, Donald Byrd/The Group, employs 12 dancers, has a season in New York, and tours the country. Byrd has received numerous grants and awards from, among others, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. Clearly, he is not a fly-by-night artist, looking to make a quick buck from his projects.

Slattery met Donald Byrd when he was brought to Austin in 1989 by the Black Arts Alliance. Two years later, the two collaborated on The Minstrel Project, an attempt to explore racial stereotypes through discussions with a group of Crockett High School students. Byrd facilitated the discussions and from them developed a performance piece called The Minstrel Show. The success of the project led to a national reputation for Dance Umbrella, which was lauded for its willingness to commit to community-based arts programs.

The Domestic Violence Project was a direct result of The Minstrel Project. Through all of Donald Byrd's interactions with the students in the first project, one theme kept emerging: all were dealing with violence in their environments, whether in the streets or in the home. As a result, according to Slattery, "Donald wanted to explore the genesis of violence. Is it learned in the streets and taken into the home or learned in the home and taken into the streets?" With this question, the Domestic Violence Project was born.

Byrd and DU chose to search for the answer by meeting with those directly involved with the issue, including social service providers, support group leaders, and domestic violence victims. Members of Byrd's dance company had the opportunity to meet and talk with both survivors of violence and counselors, and from those encounters Byrd and The Group would develop a single piece of dance. But the project grew to encompass more than that; it eventually involved an outreach program with Del Valle high school students in which the students produced their own visual, written, and performance pieces with the aid of Byrd, DU, and other Austin-based educators.

The project was one that could easily have toppled a small organization like Dance Umbrella. Not only did it have to contend with an artist who lives out of state and is routinely traveling, it had to devote three years to sitting on the Austin-Travis County Domestic Violence Task Force, an umbrella organization made up of representatives from law enforcement agencies, the District Attorney's office, the Center for Battered Women, and the Austin Rape Crisis Center. In addition, DU had to coordinate the many parts of the process, including a lecture series, several experiential workshops, as well as this week's performances of The Beast.

DU was not alone, however, in committing lots of time and energy to the project. Donald Byrd did his fieldwork as well, going on domestic violence calls with the police, sitting in on cases in court, talking with counselors, visiting anger management classes in which some of the folks were there under the orders of a court, and speaking with both the battered and the batterers. The choreographer was amazed by the willingness of battered women to talk about their experiences; at least, he adds, those that sought help were willing to talk about it.

His conversations with the people most intimately involved in domestic violence were key to the development of Byrd's 75-minute dance. In them, Byrd heard the same two comments about domestic violence again and again, comments that influenced The Beast's structure: Flowers can be a threat, and battered women don't marry jerks. To Byrd, all his research illustrated one thing about domestic violence. "It's about power," he says. "Power and who has the ability to dominate other people."

To some critics of Byrd's work, he is the person with the power in this situation: an artist using the experiences of others in order to make a living and build his reputation. Some critics of this process also see Slattery and Lisa Byrd using this issue to rake in grant and foundation monies, obtaining support for their organization by exploiting an issue. While it is true that both Byrd and DU are being compensated for their work on this project and that publicity will accrue around it, neither the amount of money nor the press are large enough to justify the amount of time and energy either has invested in the project.

In terms of the people at the heart of The Beast, Donald Byrd believes that he is not exploiting the domestic violence survivors who have spoken with him. His piece does not tell the story of a specific individual; rather, the characters are amalgams of the many different people with whom he has spoken. "We simply invented another story," he says. In addition, the story is presented within a Brechtian frame, with the audience aware of the presentation as theatre and the dancers commenting upon the action as it occurs. In his opinion, this distancing from the events keeps the piece from being "victim art."

Also, The Beast, unlike the latest TV melodrama, does not have tremendous sex appeal. It does not tell the story of a famous couple trapped in a cycle of abuse or a murdered child beauty queen, and it does not sensationalize violence. To Slattery, this is not a piece that will make buckets of money and keep DU solvent for years. It is a piece that needs to be performed in order to expose an audience to Donald Byrd's work and a relevant social problem.

And in terms of power, Dance Umbrella and Donald Byrd have shared whatever control they have as creators with the folks who deal with the issue on a daily basis. The thoughts of many on the Austin-Travis County Domestic Violence Task Force and the dialogues that this process allowed them to have keep this piece from being a shallow look at a trendy topic. Gail Rice, the Community Outreach Director for the Task Force, is "proud of the forum" that they have created. And while the artistic merits of the piece may take years to identify, there are some benefits that can be felt now within the organizations involved.

"A really varied group came together and responded," Rice continues. "The exchange of thoughts and feelings was very interesting." Perhaps most interesting were the experiential workshops, sessions in which counselors, police officers, judges, and other care providers were able to roll around on the floor, let their hair down, and use movement and improvisational dialogue in an effort to explore the issue from a new perspective. The workshops brought participants out from behind their desks and Day-Runners and forced them to interact in a different way and, for Rice, the sessions were able to "bring us back alive to the heart of the work."

Slattery herself has seen the positive effect that this project has had on those working within social services, a broad categorization for all organizations that exist to call attention and provide resources for people in need within a society. After one of the presentations in the lecture series, Slattery was approached by a woman from the constable's department. "She looked at me and said, `I understand how this [issue] affects my everyday life. I see the connection.'" In a way, this project has provided a social service for those who deal with this issue on a daily basis and may have become immune to it. This project has provided the opportunity for them to become reconnected to their reasons for becoming involved in the first place.

Lisa Byrd clearly believes that artists cannot and should not escape the community in which they live. She spent her childhood in Philadelphia living in a community that was as rich in artists as it was "regular" people. "Artists weren't seen as something more special than the janitor," she says. "That's just what that person did. People supported this person just as much as they supported that person. What they did was part of who they were and part of the community they came out of."

Donald Byrd echoes this view. "Artists need to acknowledge that they are part of the community." To him, they fulfill the same role as doctors or lawyers; artists are just as civic-minded and their creations are simply their way of contributing and supporting the standards of the community. In using Donald Byrd's idea of the artist as a functioning member of the society from which he or she comes, it is much easier to see how The Beast escapes the label of "victim art." Byrd simply felt the need to address the issues that a group of high school students called to his attention, issues that exist within his community despite repeated attempts to drown out their clarion call.

The Beast will be performed Saturday, May 10, 8pm, in the B. Iden Payne Theatre on the UT campus. Call 471-1444.

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