Jean Butler

The star dancer finds a new direction.

How early did you start?
I was four. I was young.

Do you remember a time when you weren't dancing?
A couple of times. After Dangerous Ground closed, I didn't dance for a year and a half. And then just before I was at university, I didn't dance for six months. That was a moment of, Oh my gosh, what's next? I don't think I had a choice because I was pretty tired. [ Laughs ] It was a very emotional time. I put three years' work into the show, and when you invest so much in something and it doesn't work you re-evaluate your life on pretty much every level. 

How long was your master's program?
It was a year but I chose to carry on and do a second year. We started creating small solo works. We were also exposed to some company work, but my focus was really quite personal. At the end of the second year, I had maybe about 35 minutes worth of material that was a combination of simple studies. What was wonderful about it was that it wasn't about creating product in any way. Process was so valued; that can sound very open and anything-goes, but it wasn't because the process was hugely considered.

And that was different from your way of working?
Oh, on every level, yes. [ Laughs ] Process? I mean, the word process would never be mentioned in an Irish dancing class. You kind of press play and just go. It's a formal technique—there's a right way of doing things and everything is built after that. Style comes after a mastery of the basic principles.

Do you have any relationship to Irish dance now?
I wouldn't say I have a relationship to the practice of Irish dancing, but I also wouldn't say I don't have a relationship. It's a tricky one because it's with me wherever I go. It's in my body. I enjoy putting on my shoes and tapping around and making a lot of noise every once in a while. I'm still very close with my dancing teacher in Brooklyn [Donnie Golden] and occasionally I'll drop into class and make up a step with people but it's very casual. My sister still Irish dances and she tours with the Chieftans. When she's in town I'll get up and dance with them for an encore or something. It's not like I have obvious issues with the form; it's just not exactly where my interests are right now.

Do you have a relationship with the world?
Not really. I certainly don't have a relationship with the competitive world and I don't have a relationship with the commercial world. The colleagues and friends that I grew up with—that's still part of my life. And the dancing itself—when I hear a good tune, that makes me want to dance. My sister got married in Ireland in June, and she was laughing. She said, "I've never seen you dance so much in so many years" but there were great musicians around. Like most things, the relationship is complex. I do love, appreciate and enjoy the form itself, but I guess I am wary of the two worlds in which it exists, that of competition and the commercial dance shows. I certainly feel consciously unconnected to the these worlds and I question what purpose they serve the actual form. Irish dancing has played such a huge part in my life that it is natural to have a period of distance from it, especially if I ever want to work with it again. I will always be connected to it in some way, but my interests, for the moment, lie elsewhere.

How did the process of creating DAY begin?
It started with an e-mail [from O'Connor] saying, "I know you'll be nervous but don't be. I'll see you tomorrow." He just started moving and generating material; it was really straight in. No chat. The movement material began to develop in three ways. One was very straightforward—he would create a phrase that I would have to do verbatim. The second one is something he calls "mentioning," where he would dance for five to ten minutes, and I would watch and respond with what I remembered. And the third way was really task-based—simple things like, "There's a spot on the floor. I want you to get there in whatever way you want." Most of that happened on the first day. It was a long session, but some really interesting things happened as well. Once, he said, "You need to learn how to pli properly." He called me "tray head" for a while.

Because your head—?
Was very locked. It had been for about 15 years. We didn't really talk about my background. He never saw me dance. It became something that was part of the process, but not an issue. I felt like he was treating me as he would approach any other dancer really, except one that didn't know how to pli. There's no pli in Irish dance. [ Laughs ]