Jean Butler

The star dancer finds a new direction.

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It's easy to forget that Jean Butler is American—the famed dancer who helped put Riverdance on the map has spent much of her career in Ireland. But during the past several years, she has had a change of artistic heart; for her latest show, Butler asked Tere O'Connor to create a solo for her. In the resulting DAY, she shows a side of herself more like the person who obtained a master's degree in contemporary dance and performance at the University of Limerick. The solo, which will be performed at Danspace Project this weekend, is a rarity for O'Connor, too, who seldom creates work outside of his company. "I always notice that there are people who select an aesthetic and people who locate one, and the latter is more interesting to me," he says. "She was in this process of trying to unearth a new aesthetic, and I found a lot of depth in that. It's not unlike Misha"—referring to Mikhail Baryshnikov's yearning for modern dance—"in different way. There's a big choice in it that really doesn't reject her history—it's just new direction." Butler, who now lives in Brooklyn, discussed her next step. 

How did this piece develop?
It was remarkably simple actually. I moved to New York five years ago; I was brought up in New York, but most of my work and certainly any interest I have in contemporary dance started in Ireland because that's where I was living at the time and most of my work has been funded through Ireland. So I did a master's degree in contemporary dance and performance in 2003 at the University of Limerick and started creating solo projects based on that research. The Abbey Theatre [in Dublin, Ireland] came to me to commission my next piece—that was in 2009. Immediately, I knew that I didn't want to choreograph it and in the interim I had seen Tere's work and was really attracted to it. I started following him in terms of after-show talks and I took a couple of his Melt composition classes. This was before the commission. So when the commission came up, I said, "I know who I'd like to work with, but I'm not sure that it's going to work." I was encouraged by a few really good friends in New York, who are really close to Tere and who understand what I'm about; one said, "All he can do is say no." That's kind of what happened. We met and he said yes.

You're a famous Irish step dancer who has embraced a very different kind of dance and performance. What happened?
First of all, ironically, I never really expected to be a dancer. As an Irish dancer, there was nowhere, really, to perform. You became a teacher or an adjudicator, and I was certainly not interested in that and staying within that world. I always had theatrical aspirations, so I knew I wanted to be performing in some capacity, but I never expected it to be through dance. And then obviously Riverdance happened and it had quite an impact on the [Laughs]—what's the word?

Popular culture?
On popular culture, but also on the reputation of Irish dance and what Irish dance represented, which was exciting in the beginning, because you study something for many years and all of a sudden there's some sense of recognition for something that was normally pushed into the closet of folky. But I was also very aware of the limitations of the commercial world. I wanted to explore other things. After Riverdance, I went on to work on my own show [Dancing on Dangerous Ground] with my colleague Colin Dunne, and that was our version of the commercial dance show. It looked far more closely and intensely at the form, as opposed to adding decoration onto it. Although it had some critical success in New York, it failed. I wanted to keep dancing, and I think I had a shift in perspective in terms of, Maybe this isn't about "product." Maybe this exploration that I need to go through is going to be about something that's not commercial.

Did the show fail in New York or in Europe?
We came to New York pretty hemorrhaging. Put it that way. It opened too early. There were a lot of problems with it and without going into the details of the array of problems, we probably took off more than we could chew in terms of what we wanted to achieve. That also was unfortunately not in alignment with the general public's craving for what they wanted to see in Irish dance.

That's elegantly put.
It's like Pepsi or Coke: How do you introduce a new kind of Coca-Cola that actually tastes better? [Laughs] But that's my personal opinion. When that finished, I took some time out to recharge the batteries a little bit and to reevaluate where I was and where I might go, I certainly entered the master's program thinking, This may be the end of your dancing career. You might not know what to do after this. But it was also a clear intention that I didn't want to impose another technique upon myself—I wasn't leaving one world to brand myself on another world. When I did this I was about 33, and I was pretty aware that was impossible. I didn't want to become a contemporary dancer in terms of a specific style, and luckily the course really supported individual exploration, although we were exposed to lots of names that now I know but at the time I didn't. We were exposed to loads of different types of technique and somatic practices; we were also really encouraged to figure out where we stood as possible artists and whatever history we had—how we could work with that history moving forward. My course director had done a lot of workshops with Trisha Brown in the '70s in New York.

Did you know of Trisha Brown's work?
I didn't really know anybody at the time. If you had said to me Trisha Brown in 2003, I wouldn't have known whom you were talking about. I'm really serious. I knew about Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch because I was living in Europe. Even when I was studying theater as a B.A., Pina Bausch was in my consciousness. And I heard about Mark Morris because of his musicality and Irish dancing is very connected to the music, so immediately I went to see what he was doing. But the university was really like entering a foreign culture.

What was your focus?
I think that evolved. The questions that arose in the first part of the course were more about the mind and the body connection, and that forced me to go in on myself as an Irish dancer—go deeper into that practice rather than ignoring it or trying to deny it. It was really about deconstructing the body for the first time and figuring out what the connection was between the mind and the body when one is performing or when one is Irish dancing. Where are the weight shifts? Really basic principles that I didn't have a vocabulary for. It was deepening my understanding of how my body worked and it somehow saved me in a way.

How so?
I think if I had ignored that and had no interest in that I would have become a version of something as opposed to bringing that all with me. I can't undo it. It's still there.

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