What my sister-by-Byrne, Lisa Lepionka, misses most is the level of art and culture that Byrne forced on Beaufort. “The world is flat without her, Boring.” Life was never boring when Byrne Miller was around. Which is not the same thing as saying it was always easy. Byrne could be hard – on herself and others. She readily admitted she was a dance snob, and more than a few of her children know that it extended to other art forms too.
I was in my 20s when I met Byrne – she could do no wrong in my eyes and if she did, I could no more have challenged her than stop admiring her. So I cherish the memory of when I first witnessed one of Byrne’s daughters stand up to her. It was Lisa – perhaps her most devoted and tireless supporter. We were watching a hip-hop dance performance at Spoleto in Charleston. The dancers were wearing street clothes in the drab colors of camouflage.
“Not terribly imaginative,” Byrne leaned forward and whispered.
I giggled. Hip hop is perhaps my least favorite form of dance. Each time I’ve tried a hip hop class I look like Heidi on a street corner in Harlem. Not even my gymnastics training helps; I am hopeless at an art form that looks easy. Byrne’s skepticism that night at Spoleto validated my wounded pride. She was passing judgment in the dark. The pre-recorded, over-modulated music of the first dance was a cacophony. Byrne took her hearing aids out of her ears, noisily.
“That’s better,” she muttered, “muted to a dull roar.”
For the second piece the dancers wore something close to prison garb and they swaggered across the stage, grabbing crotches and flashing gang symbols.
“When will they begin to dance?” Byrne grumbled. “This is half-hearted mime.”
Suddenly the stage was pummeled with patterns of light. Blood-red graffiti scrawled across the backdrop and side curtains. The dancers stopped to read each message as it illuminated, as if demanding the audience take notes.
“This doesn’t add anything. Is he trying to distract us from the lack of movement?” Byrne complained. Her voice muscled past a stage whisper. Her irritation was audible for rows around us.
Lisa drew her chin into her neck and the arm that shared the rest between us flinched with tension. Her feet were following the rhythm of the pounding music, and her fingers tapped the beat. She was making an attempt, at least, to feel the message.
“I’ve seen enough,” Byrne declared, drawing her feet out of the aisle. “I will never invite them to perform for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre. Let’s go.”
She was feeling around for the other end of her shoulder wrap when Lisa leaned over me and put a hand on Byrne’s arm.
“I am not leaving until the first act is over,” she said. Lisa has a thick Swiss-German accent. The measured staccato of her accent gave the declaration gravitas.
“Don’t you recognize the superficiality?” Byrne said. Her tone was somewhere between exasperation and incredulity.
“I agree it’s dreadful,” Lisa said. Byrne let out a sigh, relieved. “But there are people in the audience enjoying this performance and it shows disrespect for them to interrupt it.”
It was the longest sentence I had ever heard Lisa say and Byrne slouched back in her seat in resignation. At intermission, Byrne attempted to redeem herself.
“Shall we stay for the next half?” she asked, innocently. Lisa burst out laughing, seeing through it instantly. “I’d love to but there’s a bottle of Cabernet back at the apartment that must be close to room temperature by now,” Lisa said.
Here’s to speaking up when you need to!