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A Vermont Choreographer Creates Playful Communion in Dance

State of the Arts


Published June 1, 2011 at 8:32 a.m.

"The Poor Sister Clare's Traveling Monk Dance Show"
  • "The Poor Sister Clare's Traveling Monk Dance Show"

When choreographer Clare Byrne walks into a church, she often gets the feeling the place is crying out for naughtiness. “I want to blast AC/DC in there,” she says. Or dissect a roast chicken and serve it up as communion (which she did in a “monastic dance” performance at New York City’s Dance New Amsterdam, with a churchlike set, in 2007). Or dress her dancers as bimbo cheerleaders who chant about their sexuality (that was part of a show at Burlington’s Christ Church Presbyterian last month).

These aren’t acts of defiance, Byrne explains, but rather playful acts of communion. “I love churches,” she says. “I feel at home in them.”

Raised Catholic, she has been incorporating religious ritual into her dance — and dance into her religion — since she was a child. But only now has she begun fusing the two so completely.

Next week, Byrne will hit the road with four other dancers to present “The Poor Sister Clare’s Traveling Dancing Monk Show” in Richmond, Burlington, Montpelier and Mystic, Ct. She promises “wild, untamed prayer, dancing rosaries, death-defying pauses, blindfolded blessings.”

This isn’t a dance company, Byrne stresses, but a “dance order,” a concept she began to develop when she left New York City four years ago to teach dance at the University of Vermont. The intention is for the dancers to engage in an ongoing cycle of chanting and prayer, both privately and in front of an audience. Byrne takes inspiration from medieval bands of actors who traveled from village to village performing “miracle plays,” “which had both secular and moral themes running through them, sacred and sensual,” says Byrne.

“What I’m doing is danced prayer,” she explains, “but it will certainly be ‘irreverently reverent.’”

The dancers, Sarah Carlson, Sharon Estacio, Patrick Ferreri and Jeffrey Peterson, who hail from all over the country — one lives in Italy — will gather not just for the performances but for a week of semimonastic living. Byrne has created temporary “cells” for each of them in her Huntington home, and is in the beginning stages of building an “abbey” in her greenhouse for future orders. The performers will garden, practice yoga and, of course, create the dance that will become the traveling show.

Byrne is interested in the ritual of dance, whether or not people are there to watch. It’s something she’s practiced for about four years on her blog at clarebyrneweeklyrites.blogspot.com. Each Friday, she improvises a solo, which she films and uploads to the site.

She credits her father, who taught religious studies at a small college in Pennsylvania, with her playful approach to Catholicism, which Byrne admits is contrary to most people’s experience with the religion. Her dad would cast plays based on Bible stories with Byrne and her siblings, and at church she participated in liturgical dance, which she loved.

In recent years, she says, the dance program was discontinued at the church where she grew up. Byrne sees it as a sign of the increasing conservatism in the Catholic Church. “All the more reason for agitators within,” she says.

As an artist, Byrne is particularly drawn to religion. “In secular art, all the ground has been dug up,” she says. “You can do anything: You can show your titties, you can shit on stage.” When a performer steps into a church — or into a religious ritual — the ground is still relatively hallowed, and, as a result, the audience isn’t as desensitized. “People will get pissed off at you for transgressing their beliefs.”

Still, Byrne says she isn’t trying to anger people, just to provoke questions and reflection. “So much of religion is rote,” she says. “It needs to be more playful.”