Jean Butler

The star dancer finds a new direction.

What drew you to Tere's work?
I went to see Rammed Earth at Chocolate Factory, and I was like, I'm in Queens. This is weird. [ Laughs ] By the end I was kind of gob-smacked. It took me a long time to articulate that what struck me most was that I forgot I was looking at dance. All the movement was recognizable, but you couldn't place it; it wasn't derivative of anything. I knew these dancers were ridiculous virtuosos, but it was all subverted. It was just so exciting that there wasn't a display happening. It washed right over me and I just thought, I'm interested in this. I'm not sure why I'm interested, but this is something I'd like to do. I'd never felt that before. And then I kind of became the show mascot. I saw it five times in three countries. [ Laughs ] At the end of it, that's when the commission came up.

And you said you'd taken a couple of workshops?
I did. I took Tere's Melt workshop after seeing that piece. It was remarkable. You got to understand the man behind the piece a little bit and what struck me most—in the Irish dancing world, there is very much an authoritative kind of level and there's a lot of speaking, not down but there are levels. And what I found really interesting about Tere is that he just met everybody else in that room on the same level, saying "This is what I think and I'm happy to share it with you and I'm happy if you disagree or challenge—this is about a mutual research moment." It is the idea that his career wasn't about arriving at something he knows and repeating it, but continuing to put that information back into his process and see what comes out the other side. That's inspiring and rewarding. He is somebody who has come to this through years and years of consideration. That was another reason I wanted to work Tere—I wanted to work with somebody who had been doing this for a very long time.

Could you talk about performing the piece?
It's super challenging. It's as mentally draining as it is physically draining, and that's because of the amount of detail that has to go into being present at every single moment and the layers that are involved. It's not one thing, it's an amalgamation of a thousand things—some you might recognize, some you might not. Some feel pedestrian, gestural, and some feel cartoonish. It's very weighted. It's funny. It's awkward. A lot of questions have come up about how I get through it for myself. There's a fluidity to the performance that Tere encourages. Not to leave yourself at the door but to bring everything you're feeling onto the stage.

How hard is that?
It's hard but it's also becoming really kind of essential. It's not a great analogy, but it feels like an Alice in Wonderland meets Hamlet or something. It has that kind of complexity, especially in the beginning—I'm pushing into the floor, so I do feel like I'm falling into another land. It also feels like an amazing roller-coaster ride. It also feels like climbing Kilimanjaro. [ Laughs ] On one leg. It's really interesting what it does to your nervous system. I just don't think as a performer, I have experienced such a complex embodiment. We layered and layered all this movement, plus I did so much layering on my own and all of that goes into each moment. There's also the moment you're having at that moment and the functionality of just remembering what's next. The vocabulary itself is so dense and then what you do to that dance vocabulary to let it sing is something that I had never experienced before and am certainly still finding my way into. It's taken me a while to really bring all the history of each moment back into it and allow it to also be present. And [rehearsal assistant and O'Connor company member] Heather Olson was really wonderful at clueing me in on a lot of that. She combed the piece with me; she got on the floor and helped me with some of the technical stuff that I found very difficult.

What is your training now?
I do Bikram yoga, but in terms of constant, continual somatic study, I haven't really committed to one. I'm pretty excited about trying a longer-term commitment to either Alexander or Feldenkrais and I'm also really excited to see how that will inform my movement. But generally speaking, right now, I will do yoga about five times a week. DAY still feels like it's taking up a lot of my time—and that's in a good way. A lot of questions have come up about how I get through it for myself so I spent a lot of time meditating around the piece. There's a fluidity to the performance that Tere encourages. Not to leave yourself at the door but bring everything you're feeling onto the stage.

When did you last perform in New York?
Oh my God. Like properly perform? Like when you have to buy a ticket to come see me? Well, I did an open studio at Movement Research. I must have done that in 2007.

Why haven't you been performing?
Because I haven't been working with anybody. I had my own solo show in Ireland in 2007, but in New York I wasn't maybe as confident about putting my work out there. I wanted to feel around and see, How does this world work? I was anxious to do does she take sugar? —which was the solo show—in New York. I met with loads of people and they said, "Well it's that catch-22—until we see your work, we're not going to program your work," which is understandable. I met with Vallejo [Gantner, artistic director of P.S. 122], who used to run the Fringe Festival in Ireland. He said, "Moving forward, if you get one show a year you'd be really lucky." So I didn't know how the downtown dance world worked and I didn't know where the funding came from, and I'm still working all of those things out. Judy [Hussie-Taylor, executive director of Danspace Project] was involved in this project pretty much from the start of the commission. We met and she said, "I have a week for you. In November." I said, "In 2010?" And she was like, "Jean, yeah—this November" and I nearly wanted to cry because I was like, Wow—I thought I'd be hanging around for a year to do this somewhere. I feel really grateful for that because I understand how hard it is to get work out there.

Had you been trying?
A couple of years ago I was invited to [audition] for Fresh Tracks at DTW. I said I would and a really interesting thing happened to me; I started working on a piece that I had already worked on and I thought, I'll make this into what I'll do at the audition—and there was something in me. Every time I went to the studio, I was just blocked. I was just stopped, and I started examining why this was happening. I started getting really stressed out. It was bringing up trauma of competition and of auditioning for things. It did not feel like my work. So that was a big moment for me and I remember talking to Jodi [Melnick], who said, "If that's what you think, then don't do it. That's great. Because now you know." The other reason why I haven't been dancing in New York is because the other thing I found out is that people dance with people they know and like and share an aesthetic with. It took me a while, even though I have a few great, key friends, it takes awhile. It's funny because now I'm working with Jen Rosenblitt on her DTW studio series, and I'm really excited about that.

You've made a new artistic life for yourself. Are you embarrassed by your connection to Riverdance?
No, I'm not embarrassed by it, but I get uncomfortable because there's a lot of different connotations that come up when Riverdance is mentioned. I just sometimes get a little bit uncomfortable when I'm defined by it. That's been really hard to be defined by something that was quite big.

And that happened such a long time ago?
And it was a long time ago as well, so when you hear, "You're the girl who did Riverdance ," it's like, "You're kidding, right?" Yes, I did and I can tell you it was wonderful at the time, but it's the definition and its relationship to me that I'm uncomfortable with. I understand what that show is about and what that world is about. And it was a very conscious choice to exit that. The other thing about Riverdance was that it was a really, really complex time. Over the space of three years, this small thing that was there to celebrate Irish dancing and Irish culture had become this kind of train and to be part of that and to be swept up in the wave of that in a way was interesting—there were a lot of conflicting things going on. On one hand, I was really delighted that Irish dance was somehow liberated from its stereotype, but also not aware that we were going to create a different stereotype. I had no idea that that was to come. But what was also really amazing is that I was being paid to dance, so I was allowed to work everyday in the theater as a dancer on my own—I had this incredible developmental time as a dancer and what it meant to be a professional dancer and to look after yourself and to harness the right energy each night for a performance. Although it's about display, I went into a different place to try and support that in another way so it wasn't just a singular moment of technique. I like to work. I would go into the theater before everybody else and all of a sudden I had an enormous sprung floor to dance on and that was personally so fulfilling. But it was obvious to me that what started as a celebration of something turned into a different type of stereotype.

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