As the children of two academics who met while studying theology, growing up in the Byrne clan meant that religion was always about more than simply going to church on Sunday.
It still is. Now adults, Mary Byrne, a rock guitarist and Clare Byrne, a modern dancer, say Catholicism, the search for God and a sense of enacting holy rituals infuses their art. The rest of the family is similarly engaged with faith. One sister is a writer and comedian, their brother—who is also a musician—and father are starting an organic farm and intentional community in North Carolina. The oldest sister is the chair of Catholic Studies at Hofstra University.
Sense of Celebration
“We definitely grew up with a lot of religion in the air,” Mary, front-woman for the band Hot Young Priest, said as she and Clare shared a cup of tea on a recent Friday afternoon in Manhattan.
“We were really very tied into the liturgical calendar. We grew up with a really active sense of celebration and holidays.”
“St. Francis, St. Nicholas,” Clare interjects.
Mary nods. “We didn’t have to be Swedish to celebrate St. Lucy’s feast day,” she said.
In fact, their grandmother wrote several books on children, sacraments and the liturgical seasons.
Liturgy and sacramentality still animate Mary and Clare’s pursuits. “My work has always, especially in the beginning, referenced Catholic matters, issues, upbringing,” said Clare, the director of her own modern dance troupe based in New York City.
As a child she learned liturgical dance at her church in central Pennsylvania from a professional choreographer. As an adult she brought that sense of dance as a form of prayer and worship to her artistic performances. The New York Times described a 2005 performance as “the joyous physical equivalent of church-service speaking in tongues.” The Gay City News wrote, “Clare Byrne …believes in the connection to God through dance” and The New Yorker called her “soulful.”
For a dancer raised in a religion that can often appear suspicious of the physical, Byrne’s pieces unapologetically explore the intersection of body and spirit. In her dance, the body is as much a conduit for God as the soul, as if to remind us of Christianity’s fundamental claim that God became flesh.
“I think I’m talking about the body’s sensuality and its senses and I guess sexuality,” she said of her current project, Rounds: The First Last Dance, or The Last First Dance or An Ordination, in which she collaborates with Mary’s band. “I think the dance came out because we were thinking about really heavy, entangled things,” she said.
The soul and the body, the soul in the body and her role as a dancer and a Catholic always occupy her thoughts and dances, Clare said. “Am I a professional choreographer or am I a spiritual seeker doing that full time? In this piece I’m stepping into the crack between them,” she said, pushing her hands close together to illustrate a narrow space. “Maybe it’s a little risky.”
Risk, Religion and Rock and Roll
For Mary, a writer and musician who has spent the past two years performing in dark rock clubs with Hot Young Priest, risk is an essential element of the religious quest. Religion, like rock and roll, is supposed to be dangerous. Mary may leave the crowd screaming in smoky music clubs at night, but she has a decidedly cerebral take on her occupation in the light of day. Hot Young Priest’s sound has been compared to The Breeders. Mary describes the current songs as stark, spare, stripped down. She takes some inspiration from the Desert Mothers and Fathers, fifth century monastic mystics who left an increasingly institutional church to find God in the emptiness of the desert.
She sees in a rock show certain sacramental echoes of religious ritual. A space and time set apart where the spirit is released from the bonds of convention. “It’s not so much that I am trying to say: I am bringing the theme of such and such to rock and roll,” she said. “But I do enjoy with these band members that it’s possible to make explicit something that is going on in rock and roll already: something transformative for everybody,” she said carefully. “There’s an exchange between the performer and audience [in a show], a sense of entering a space separate from everyday life. A space where you are able to do things you can’t do in ordinary life. I feel like you are transformed when you connect with the sacred.”
The band struck upon its evocative name in a conversation about growing up Catholic between Mary Byrne, drummer Chris Jansen and bassist Daniel Winn.
“It becomes a directive, when you name yourself something,” Mary smiled. “The name calls you to do what rock and roll should do at its best: combine fervor and intensity and swagger and youth and sex and mix the elements.”