Boulder choreographer Jerri Davis says she's a lily-white girl from Idaho who grew up knowing little about domestic violence and the damage it can do. But several years ago, while she was studying dance at the University of Colorado, she decided to base a work on the stories of battered women jailed for killing their violent partners. The project put a new, big-city spin on her admittedly sheltered view of life: After researching the subject for a good two years, she realized it would take more than a stack of statistics and courtroom histories to create a truly visceral work.
"I felt like my dance studies still didn't have a soul," Davis says. "I needed to talk to people who had actually lived the experience before it would seem honest or authentic." She knew she needed to interview women in prison for domestic-violence-related crimes, but it was only through perseverance and a lucky case of connecting with the right person at the right time that she eventually gained access to four such women doing time in Canon City. Terrified, Davis entered the prison for the first time to meet the women, hand-chosen by a prison project specialist for their readiness; each had gone through extensive rehabilitation while incarcerated. Ready or not, Davis--armed with nothing more than a Hollywood-influenced perception of how women in prison might behave--had no idea how they would react to her.
"One person told me, 'Don't expect them to look you in the eye,'" she recalls. "Well, they looked me in the eye. I explained that I wasn't there to teach them anything, that I wanted them to teach me so I could go out and be their voice. And they were not hard, tough women--that was a nice surprise. They were women--they were kind, they wanted to know about my children, they wanted to know things about my life."
Appreciative of her honesty, the women responded in kind. "In the beginning of our conversations, they were protective," Davis says. "But I didn't ask questions like an interviewer would--instead, we became friends. That got them talking about childhood, and then they told me about their whole lives. We cried together; sometimes it got pretty hard."
Equally difficult for Davis was her blossoming recognition of a faulty system that fails to recognize--or, more important, to treat--the warning signs: "I would ask them what would instigate violence in their homes, and it turned out it could be anything--there were weeds in the garden, they had the wrong kind of yogurt in the refrigerator. I had no idea a person could be so violent based on nothing. 'I was like a trained dog,' one women said that to me. If she deterred from the program at all, it meant trouble."
Davis also points out that all domestic violence isn't physical. "One woman was strapped to a chair and held at gunpoint," she notes. "There was no mark on her, but she still felt pain."
Regardless of their diverse backgrounds, the four women all agreed that the simple act of leaving it behind was easier said than done: Finding the financial means and raw courage to go underground can be an overwhelming venture.
Turning those hard moments into a work of art and motion became a whole new task for Davis, who struggled to preserve the guts of her conversations within the dance framework. In a sense, the women became collaborators in her artistic process, moved by their desire to help other women in similar situations. "I made the movements by listening to their voices," Davis explains. "Their voices inspired every single gesture. It's a whole aesthetic of movement that's different from ballet or modern dance--very raw, very thrown off-center. We fall. We hit walls. We use aggressive partnering--lots of falling and catching one another."
Work progressed. But nothing could make the process less painful, Davis notes. "Sometimes they would whisper to me, so you can't even hear what's being said on the tape. One stood up and sang to me--it was a beautiful gospel song that I use in the show. When she stood up to sing to me, she said, 'I have to do this for you. I have to sing for you because I'm tired of being locked up.' But she didn't mean it literally--it was just that she was tired of being locked up in her heart, and you can hear that tiredness in her."
Ultimately, Davis says, Ladies Doing Life is about the latitude for adjustment. The singing woman used religion as a means for rehabilitation. Her fellow inmates found other ways to cope with the consequences of their actions. "They never said 'I'm innocent,'" Davis stresses. "They said, 'I've changed. I've made myself better.'"
Davis's ensuing work, enhanced by the visual artwork of Denver artist Dania Pettus and the music of Boulder vocalist/composer Beth Quist, is also the product of an ongoing metamorphosis. First staged for Davis's CU thesis concert, Ladies Doing Life has evolved into a tighter, more fully realized piece. But the work has left its mark wherever and whenever it's been seen: A group from the DU Law School drafted the Battered Women's Clemency Reform Project after viewing Ladies Doing Life in 1998, and Governor Roy Romer, influenced by the petition, granted a parole date rollback to one of the women Davis profiled, shaving 23 years off of her original sentence. And a pair of performances staged for women at Canon City was more than inspiring. "Many women who saw it and came up to talk to us afterward would say, 'When you told that story, that was exactly what I went through--that movement was exactly what I felt like,'" the choreographer says.
Still, when Davis, who believes strongly in the social responsibility of artists to create work for and about people, brings Ladies Doing Life to the stage of Boulder's Nomad Theater this weekend, audiences may finally see the most polished, definitive version. But her central aim remains unchanged: "If one woman in the audience sees it and ends up changing her life," she notes, "we've done our job."
Ladies Doing Life, benefit performance for Boulder County Safehouse, 8 p.m. August 5, $15. Wide Awake Dance Theatre, performing Ladies Doing Life and other works by Jerri Davis, 8 p.m. August 6-7 and 7 p.m. August 8, $12. Nomad Theater, 1410 Quince Avenue, Boulder, 303-415-9942.