In 1996, Donald Byrd was commissioned to create a ballet dealing with domestic violence. The resulting piece, Beast, was performed to wide acclaim in a number of cities by the company Byrd directed at the time — Donald Byrd/The Group. The work was heralded for blending a Bertolt Brecht-like intellectual coolness with the emotional intensity of German expressionism, and a score by Andy Teirstein that recalled the music of Kurt Weill.
Now, Byrd has revived Beast for Spectrum Dance Theatre, which is performing the work in October in honor of Domestic Violence Month. Based on Saturday night’s performance, it’s as absorbing and shocking now as it must have been 15 years ago. Although almost all of Spectrum’s dancers are new this year — only three of the nine are returning members — the entire troupe throws itself with gusto into Byrd’s demanding choreography and the emotional rawness that infuses the 55-minute piece.
Like much of Byrd’s work, there is a clear narrative — the story of an abusive husband and his victimized wife — intermingled with sections that are distinctly abstract, albeit it with a physical attack that challenges both the dancers and the audience. In his program notes, Byrd recognizes that Beast is not an easy ballet to watch and the work is so explicit in its depiction of domestic violence, that those with personal experience of the issue may find it to hard to sit through. For the rest of us, however, Beast conveys a physical and emotional truth about its subject that is important to acknowledge and understand, to the extent that anyone fully understands all the reasons why partners abuse and withstand abuse from each other.
Beast opens with an innocent-enough wedding scene, but from the start Teirstein’s biting score creates a sense of impending doom. The scaled-down group of four musicians — Judith Cohen on piano, Jamie Maschler on accordion and percussion, Alicia Rinehart on violin and viola, and Tobi Stone on woodwinds — did a masterful job with the sometimes-atonal, sometimes-melodic music, creating an undercurrent of unease. At the end of the wedding, when the groom smacks the bride in the face, the music swells, giving even greater visceral power to the shocking act.
For the remainder of the work, Byrd shows us ever-changing scenes of physical and psychological abuse, interspersed with the occasional tenderness or apology. Donald Jones Jr. is a riveting “beast” of a husband, as powerful an actor as a dancer. Trained in theater and musical theater, Jones is as comfortable and as terrifying when he stands screaming at his innocent wife as when he hurls himself around the stage in a fit of unprovoked fury.
Much of Byrd’s movement involves some form of hurling, whether it’s Ty Alexander Cheng and Amber Nicole Mayberry as the “beast’s” parents, locked in their own cycle of violence, or the Greek-chorus like ensemble of Derek Crescenti, Jade Solomon Curtis, Vincent Michael Lopez, and Shadou Mintrone, who reflect the abuse of the main action in a series of pure dance sequences. As the battered wife, Katy Monthy nearly matches Jones’ emotional ferocity, alternating between total defeat and murderous fantasies. When she finally does the deed, her collapse is as total and as believable as the anxiety that has enveloped her throughout the troubled marriage.
The final murder scene alludes to Kurt Jooss’ 1932 anti-war ballet, with the dancers squabbling around a long white table. Although in this case the shrieking is the culmination of the unprovoked rage that underlies all the relationships Byrd has shown us in the harsh duets that form the core of Beast’s choreography.
The table is just one of the theatrical elements that Byrd did not use in the original production. In other changes, there is now a video projection of blood-red paint dripping down a white background, rather than live dancers throwing paint. There’s also the birth of twelve baby dolls to the battered wife and a skull-like puppet head that eggs the husband on as he roars accusations at his wife. It’s a riveting theatrical device suggesting that there is a terrifying and terrified inner voice spurring the husband to even greater heights of attack.
Matthew Richter’s black and white set reflects the inner conflicts of all the characters and his neon-taped rectangles dotting the floor suggest the psychological boxes that enclose them all. Tom Sturge’s glaring lighting effects shock us into confronting the violence playing out before us, and an issue that is as pressing and as horrifying today as it was when Beast was created.
If you go: Beast, Spectrum Dance Theater, 800 Lake Washington Blvd., through October 16. Tickets $25, at the box office, by phone, 206.325.4161 or online at www.spectrumdance.org.