Amid floor-shaking violence and depictions of brutal, un-consenting sex acts – the scariest moment in Spectrum Dance Theater’s The Beast is when the lead woman (Kate Monthy), visibly panting from physical abuse she has suffered at the hand of her husband (Donald Jones, Jr.), closes her eyes and accepts his apologetic embrace—relief and contentment settling across her face.
Donald Byrd originally created The Beast as a commission in 1996. The piece follows the story of domestic violence as a latent disease living inside a man; we learn how it first infects and we see what happens as it spreads.
According to the program note, Byrd reprised the work this year as part of an ongoing “self-interrogation” into his past work and current practices—a process partly inspired by his recent role as stage director for other local theatre and opera productions. Looking at his own work with new eyes, Byrd invites us to reinvestigate too.
Having not seen The Beast before, I cannot compare this restaging to the original. But I do see in the choreography clear evidence of the fierce talent that initially put Byrd on the map, something a newbie to Seattle like me should take advantage of seeing firsthand. (Byrd explained this piece came out the same year as his famous Harlem Nutcracker.)
Entering the theater at Spectrum (in the attic of Madrona’s beach-side bathhouse), a first look finds squares of neon colored tape covering the stage floor, which the company members are crouched over, pretending to meticulously maintain.
Once the show begins, the squares reveal themselves to function both literally and metaphorically. On one hand, the spike tape tells actors where to be and where to set the furniture. On the other hand, the tape warns we have seen this story of abuse before – and we’ll see it again tomorrow night. In case you didn’t catch that: domestic violence is a cyclical pattern.
If that feels a little cliché, well, I don’t disagree. But unfortunately, the frightening statistics* make it so. And the carnival-like epic theatre elements (complemented by fantastic live music composed by Andy Teirstein) sort of demand heavy-handedness.
Anyway, regardless of whether A Streetcar Named Desire or Law & Order make it to the top of your cultural canon, narratives of domestic violence take on scarily standard script. But where Lifetime movies may have anesthetized our emotional response to realities of domestic violence, Donald Byrd’s company shakes us awake.
The choreography is so riveting—so physically unrelenting—that I can look past the crushed beer cans, the tighty-whities, the angry puppet, the weird singing and the slow drip of blood playing on a video screen. I could even let go of reading too much into the—unintentional, Byrd says—loaded implications of the leads representing a biracial marriage.
When the women link hands and perform in synch (similar to these dancers performing in Swan Lake), it’s stunning how a subtle shift in tempo transforms the otherwise dainty display of mastery into a humiliating hazing march.
In this way, the dances of The Beast are most exciting because they seem to be criticizing classical dance itself.
Let me digress for a minute:
Looking at a professional female dancer, ballerina or no, I see an American gladiator. Strength, grace and control possess this person’s movements as easily as sluggishness and bad posture possess mine. If we ever arm-wrestled, let’s just say I’d be the guy who was not played by Jeff Goldblum in that gross scene in The Fly.
My inferiority complex aside, these are serious athletes with amazing capabilities. It’s truly a thrill to witness in their performances the full potential of the otherwise flummoxing functions of the human body.
But at the sight of a traditional pas de deux for a man and woman, I bristle.
When the male counterpart proceeds to spin, bend, hoist and promenade the ballerina like she’s Kim Cattrall in Mannequin, I begin to wonder why this form of dance is still around…and why are we cheering so loudly for it? I get it, her toe is up high, her hips are obviously made of rubber…but why is his hand where his hand is?
Back to this show:
In the opening of The Beast, a section announced as “The Wedding,” the choreography suggests all the joy and splendor of a marriage scene in a Shakespearian comedy. Men and women pair off, smiling. They are sickeningly happy. Everyone dances in unison.
But slowly, a sinister element emerges. The repetition in the dance begins to feel labored—exhausting. Nervousness is starting to register on the faces of the women as they are lifted and turned by their aggressively happy, and uncommonly strong male partners. And the tension continues to ratchet up throughout the different scenes until one of the women rises all the way up in a grand lift above her partner’s head – and is purposefully dropped straight to the floor.
This feels like the backstory behind a classical pas de deux – told honestly for a change: a woman operates at the mercy of her partner, despite her own innate strength, because something programmed her to think his hand should go whereever his hand should fall.
Just when you think the dance has gotten rough enough in The Beast and the woman will gain her revenge Thelma & Louise-style, everything gets worse.
From Amber Nicole Mayberry’s death-defying tabletop maneuvers, to Ty Alexander Cheng’s intimidating grappling of his female partners like they are bales of hay, to the sickening rounds of humiliation performed by company members in “The Dance About the Joke About the Perfect Wife” – you aren’t allowed a hope that these violent acts will be resolved.
Just that they will somehow end.
The Beast. Remaining shows October 14-16. Times and prices vary. Madrona Dance Studio, 800 Lake Washington Blwd.; 206.325.4161; spectrumdance.org.
*From the Domestic Violence Resource Center website:
One in four women (25%) has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime.
Nearly three out of four (74%) of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence.
On average, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day.