The Beast: Spectrum’s Ferocious Debut

Written by Mariko Nagashima

Spectrum Dance Theater’s season opener, The Beast, teems with charged choreography depicting the unflinching details of a violently tainted love story. Originally created in 1996 for UW’s World Series, Artistic Director Donald Byrd’s reworking of his own choreography paints an uncompromising picture of domestic abuse. With moments sure to alarm some, it nevertheless makes a compelling statement intended to spur discussion about domestic violence, its causes, consequences, and the horrors in between. At once brutal and captivating, The Beast is stunning in its viciousness.

Spectrum Dance Theater’s Kate Monthy and Donald Jones Jr.
Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki

The narrative begins with the marriage of “the beast”(Donald Jones Jr.) to an innocent bride, danced by Kate Monthy. Inspired by the theater practices of Bertolt Brecht, Byrd uses terse megaphone announcements, shrill whistles, and smacking claps to divide the work into chapters like “The Beast Learns to Tango,” “The Beast is Sorry,” and the murderous, “She Takes Revenge.” The wedding, accompanied by bright camera flashes, plastered-on smiles and incessant clapping for the “happy” couple, quickly erodes as Jones’ gentle handholding becomes a vice grip. The savagery that colors their relationship is masterfully choreographed, each movement instilled with intention and narrative purpose. The dancers (five of who are new to Spectrum this season) seem to tense every muscle in order to navigate the abrupt direction changes, slicing battements, and visceral partnering with such meticulous precision. 

The story continues by delving into the cyclical nature of domestic violence; the beast merely parrots his father’s abuse of his mother and later uses this to justify his own heinous behavior. One jarring scene occurs when Ty Alexander Cheng, using a sinister white puppet head as the beasts’ conscious, barks directions goading Jones into ever more vile actions. Forming a chain behind them, the five female dancers attempt solidarity, each solemnly holds a rose that quivers as they flail their limbs, emanating fear. Four simultaneous duets are a barrage of cleverly depicted brutality; the men lounge smugly, rattling beer cans against their chairs while the women scurry about in heels, forcibly pushed and pulled by their partners. A frenzy of taut physicality, the movement allows no time for release. Every line is stretched to its limits and displays the prodigious skill and control of this fiercely talented troupe. 
The music, often discordant, but always fitting, is an original composition by New York’s Andy Teirstein. Judith Cohen, Jamie Maschler, Alicia Reinhart, and Tobi Stone make up the live quartet of eerie strings, percussive woodwinds, and pounding piano chords. 
Spectrum Dance Theater’s Kate Monthy, Donald Jones Jr.,
and Amber Mayberry. Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki

Equally as stunning as the dancing are the dramatic portrayals of the characters. In a piece requiring significant emotional investment, all of the dancers, but most notably Cheng, Jones, and Monthy, give committed performances. Conveying the gamut of subtly shifting emotions, their honest, not over-done facial expressions, never flinch at the depiction of the grimmest realities. This is where the subject matter becomes most affecting; in Spectrum’s intimate studio theater, every maniacally glinting eye and sorrow-filled countenance is plainly visible, lending added depth to this already multi-faceted work. The proximity also forces the audience to confront the unsettling subject matter head-on, with few moments for escape or relief from its sometimes hardly palatable scenes. 

Byrd offers no solutions to the problem, but hopes to create a starting point for productive discourse. And while a brief question and answer section following the hour-long performance provides a forum for this discussion, it begs the question: what good does such a troubling work necessarily do? While it shocks audiences into seeing these problems through a different, perhaps even cathartic lens, it does little to lessen the problem or change the status quo. The post-show conversation feels necessary, if only to allow the audience to process what they just viewed, but fails to show a way to make a difference. And while one sincerely hopes that ensuing discussions do become stepping stones to real-life actions to help to end the cycle of abuse, one wonders if concert dance viewers are necessarily the target audience for this grim message. 
Regardless, Byrd’s choreographic genius is electrifying, in all its raw details. By pushing the boundaries, he has created a formidable and thought-provoking work. The Beast continues through October 16. For more information and to purchase tickets please see www.spectrumdance.org.