Art in Dark Places: Artists Sans Frontières comforts a world in crisis with the healing power of performing arts

In 2017, Dallas-based dancer and choreographer Katie Burks felt compelled to offer aid and assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Upon arrival in Houston, however, she quickly realized that she was well-meaning but ill-prepared, and not trained as a first responder or member of the military. But she became hooked on helping people and continued her humanitarian efforts until leaving the next year for grad school in London. Multiple performance and teaching opportunities across Europe, Asia, and Central America followed until the pandemic sent her back to Texas. Then, in 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.

“I felt strongly called to respond, but my limited tactical background didn’t merit my presence on the frontlines,” Burks says. “And I also felt—and I still presently feel—very strongly against burdening any crisis situation by necessitating one more body take food, water, and shelter away from those that need it most. I searched for performing arts-based volunteer opportunities serving Ukrainian refugees and came up short, so I searched globally. At the time, there was no such thing as a humanitarian performing arts nonprofit—not just in the U.S.A., but anywhere in the world. It just didn’t exist.”

And so after countless phone calls and messages with friends and mentors, and far too much time reading Texas state nonprofit incorporation law books, Artists Sans Frontières was born. Its mission is performing arts for all, using dance, music, and theater to provide mental, emotional, and situational stability during times of war, ecological disaster, and economic disparity.

“For me, movement and music are not supplemental,” says Burks. “Everything ASF facilitates and accomplishes—coordinating with international teachers, performers, and creatives; collaborating with churches, partners, and donors; providing performing arts outreach to children, adults, families, refugees, asylum seekers, displaced persons, and more; putting smiles on faces; celebrating laughter and happiness—it comes from one simple articulation. Each day, I wake up and I need the following: food, water, shelter, safety, and art.”

A recent restructuring will now facilitate three separate programs by the end of 2024: NGO, EDU, and LIVE.

ASF NGO is the OG, providing free classes, workshops, performance opportunities, and professional performances and concerts in areas impacted by war, violence, and disaster. So far, ASF has provided programming in Eastern Europe to more than 1,200 refugees impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Plans for another location at the U.S.-Mexican border are also in process.

ASF EDU facilitates low-cost classes, workshops, and performance opportunities to Dallas County Title I schools, and has impacted nearly 400 students so far. Expansion plans include recreational community centers and senior care facilities directly impacted by economic disparagement.

ASF LIVE is the newest, and arguably biggest, program. It’s the creation of a professional, live performance-based entertainment company which employs, houses, and supports performing artists from all over the world, especially those impacted by war, violence, natural disaster, and/or persecution.

To officially kick off ASF LIVE, the group’s first full-length production, HAZARDS, will premiere locally in Dallas. The production aims to be a catalyst for open discussion and action surrounding the topic of forced displacement, and ASF will work with North Texas shelters and centers to employ, represent, and give voices to Texas-based performing artists impacted by that issue.

“ASF has been my dream since I first began working in Poland and Ukraine,” Burks says. “There was this massive need for a medium to funnel our intense passion for helping and the urge to do something incredibly active, but traditional venues for volunteering didn’t solve that necessity. We found, through the mediums of dance, music, theater, and visual art, and through presenting live performance to the public, that we were able to transcend boundaries of communication and expression that war tends to create in order to have open, honest discussions about the current crisis and reality. Most importantly, we heard firsthand from shelter residents, refugees, aid center staff and volunteers, and even audience bystanders that this piece of the healing puzzle was entirely lacking in humanitarian response. Facilitating live shows solidified just how incredibly essential the performing arts are to every community, even if war-torn.”

Burks calls ASF “tiny but mighty,” with a core team of 12—including her own determined mother—coordinating with dozens more volunteers all over the world. The constant threat of instability looms, from funding to location to even communication.

“I once planned and confirmed six or seven workshops in Ukraine, and when I physically showed up to the city all had to be canceled because the ‘centers’ were underground bomb shelters, filled wall-to-wall with bunk beds and zero space to facilitate any kind of programming,” she recalls. “But I continue through a steadfast amount of faith and prayer, liquor and tiramisu consumption, a sense of humor, and humility that people are, more often than not, exceptionally kind and willing to help when asked to do so. And, oh my goodness, the precious smiles and giggles and the sigh of a parent’s relief—I just can’t help but to keep sharing the arts with anyone who will let me.”