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American Ballet Theatre dancer Marian Butler talks about dancing the Cowgirl in Agnes de Mille's enchanting 1942 ballet Rodeo. After Rodeo, Agnes de Mille was chosen to choreograph Oklahoma! on Broadway. Marian Butler, the veteran American Ballet Theatre dancer, discusses what it takes to be in the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theatre and why she never gets sick of Swan Lake.
Does the idea of mixing the Wild West and ballet lift your spirits? It did for a lot of people in 1942, too, when Agnes de Mille unveiled Rodeo, a balletic adventure—really, a mini musical complete with an Aaron Copland score—about a tomboyish Cowgirl, the Head Wrangler she thinks she loves and the Champion Roper, her friend. This American tale is heartbreakingly funny, especially with Marian Butler, a veteran member of American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet, playing the lead. On Thursday 18, she transforms herself into the Cowgirl with a charming dose of Texas sass—it’s real—as well as the right degree of pathos. For Butler, who joined ABT in 1995 and recently took time off to have a child, the Cowgirl is an opportunity to relish. She spoke about the role and more at the company’s Broadway headquarters.
Time Out New York: You first performed Rodeo in 2006. Had you danced in a lot of Agnes de Mille’s ballets at that point?
Marian Butler: Yeah. When I first joined, I went right into her ballets. Even with Rodeo, I did other parts: I was a Country Lady and Eastern Lady. One year they asked me to learn the Cowgirl. I rehearsed it for a long time before I actually got to perform it. The first time I did was in a kids’ show in Cleveland at ten in the morning. That convinced Kevin [McKenzie] that I could perform it in New York.
Time Out New York: Who taught it to you?
Marian Butler: I worked with [ballet master] Susan Jones and Christine Sarry. Both had done the role before. I believe Susan learned it from Christine, who was not one of the originals, but she had worked with Agnes on it. I read that Agnes thought that she was even better at it than herself.
Time Out New York: Tell me about your Cowgirl. How do you see her?
Marian Butler: Well, I’m from Houston, so I grew up in the South. We had a farm as well, and every weekend we would go to it. I feel like having that background helped me understand the ballet. I think you have to know how to be on a horse. You have to know what cowboy boots feel like. To know how you’re not in a dress. You’re in pants, and then if you do put on a dress, it’s not the prettiest dress, because you’re not really into fashion. She wants to fit in. She just wants to walk around the farm, be on the horses—do all the things that the guys do. But what always ends up happening is that she ends up messing up. Either her horse goes wild or she just can’t control herself, and she ends up being this girl that you’re just like, Can you get it together?
Time Out New York: She’s so awkward.
Marian Butler: Yeah. And she falls in love with the Head Wrangler. He’s not a man of words, but he’s gorgeous. You know how, even today, there are guys like that? You just want to sit there and stare at them. [Laughs] But every time she gets a chance to show herself to him, something always happens. That awkwardness comes out. In the end, she ends up with her best friend. There’s a video of Freddie Franklin talking about the end of the ballet. The Champion Roper was choreographed on Freddie, and he was really good friends with Agnes. She decided that she was going to have the Cowgirl fall in love with the Head Wrangler, and he said, “I’m not going to be in the ballet if that happens.” She was taken aback, and Freddie said they didn’t speak for four or five days. She did a lot of thinking about it and decided that Freddie was right. It’s a good ending.
Time Out New York: I remember that you were so funny in the part, but that your portrayal was also full of sadness. How do you strike that bittersweet note?
Marian Butler: It’s tricky. A lot of the humorous parts are in the dancing already. And the sad part comes from the person. You just keep messing up, and I feel like you need to explode that when you perform. It’s interesting—in parts of the ballet, where there’s not a lot going on, that’s where you are to feel her sadness. Stillness is a way to express the sadness. And the thing that Susan Jones has helped me with is having a dialogue in my head, so throughout the whole ballet it’s like I’m reading a book about what’s happening, and how I’m feeling and my horse just started going berserk, and I don’t know what happened! I feel so bad, I’m so stupid…
Time Out New York: It’s amazing how your face transformed even as you were saying those lines.
Marian Butler: Yeah. [Laughs] Agnes told [Christine] a lot of times in the twilight [scene], “You don’t have to do much, but just be still because of everything else that’s going on.” It all ties together and that stillness makes more of an impact than anything. And it’s true, if you think about it: If you are on a farm, and you do mess up, you kind of just look into the sky and into the horizon and you just kind of think. You’re deep in your own thoughts, and you’re still.
Time Out New York: What are you doing differently this time around?
Marian Butler: There are some details like when I walk, I’m a little bit more masculine. Another thing is I’m trying to slow everything down. Like I said, I have my lines, and when I express my lines I try to slow the words down—finish the line, have whoever I’m talking to say something. Hear it. And then react to it. Does that make sense? Susan has been helping me with that. You get excited and you’re anxious and you’re ready to perform, but the audience needs a second to register and sometimes their focus has been drawn and they need to come back to you and see what you say. I’m getting more comfortable in allowing myself to slow things down.
Time Out New York: What did people here say about your performance early on?
Marian Butler: I got great feedback from the artistic staff and Susan. She’s always been really positive. And from the company members, too. [Laughs] It’s sweet. Also, I think as a corps member—a lot of times we don’t get chances to perform such a big role, so it’s great to see one of your peers do something nice. It definitely brings up the moral. But for myself, it was rewarding. It’s a lot of fun. The whole ballet just builds and when you get to the hoedown at the very end, it’s fun.
Time Out New York: You felt good about it also?
Marian Butler: Yeah. There are things I’ve struggled with like the twilight scene. She’s just messed up everything throughout the beginning of the ballet. Her horse keeps going crazy, and she keeps falling off and every time the guys are riding, she just busts through and causes all this commotion, and they just really want her to get out. That’s basically what the Head Wrangler tells her to do after she’s made a complete fool of herself. After that, it calms down and that’s when she realizes that she’s really screwed up, and she tries to apologize, but at that point she sees the Head Wrangler go for the Rancher’s Daughter. So that’s when she makes the connection that he’s going for this beautiful woman that she definitely is not. She’s in a lot of pain. She’s really down on herself, and she starts to cry a bit—she gets pretty sad. Throughout the whole rest of the scene, she’s trying to reach out to the Head Wrangler, but he’s always going to the Rancher’s Daughter, so she’s just left with nothing. And then, almost toward the end, she remembers how it was to dance with somebody; she dances across the front of the stage and then the Roper pulls her in and puts his arm around her and that’s when they just look out into the horizon. And then she’s thinking, Okay, I’m feeling better, but then he leans on her shoulder like she’s one of the guys. And that just makes it worse.
Time Out New York: She doesn’t want to be one of the guys.
Marian Butler: No. She starts crying and he tries to pick her up and they do a little dance and she sees the Head Wrangler and the Rancher’s Daughter again and she wants to go over there and he slaps her on the butt and says, “Come on! Put your pretty dress on and let’s go!” So that whole section has been a challenge for me in a good way. I think because there’s no dancing. And I love to act, but you’re usually acting while you’re dancing.
Time Out New York: You’re kind of naked?
Marian Butler: Exactly.
Time Out New York: What else are you dancing this season?
Marian Butler: Drink to Me With Thine Eyes. That ballet is so musical. I was going to do Leaves [Are Fading], but I’m not going to do it anymore. I had been out for so long and the second day back, I pulled my calf, so I had a little setback. We decided that it’s better to focus on two ballets than three. And getting back into the swing of things with a baby takes a little bit of time.
Time Out New York: Why is Mark Morris’s Drink so musical?
Marian Butler: Mark comes into the room with the score; he has it in front of him like a musician, and he choreographs to the music. Sometimes you have choreographers that come in and do a step and you try to fit it to the music, or they play the music and try to make something up. I don’t know how he does it, but it comes together as one.
Time Out New York: Has he been to rehearsals?
Marian Butler: He hasn’t worked with us this time around, but he will come in before we do it at the Met. He’s really busy right now. I guess he said he wanted to come in for the dress rehearsal, and Tina [Fehlandt, who staged the ballet] said, “No, no, no, no.” [Laughs] He’s a character. He definitely controls the room when he comes in. But in a good way. He’s so much fun. And in his ballets, it’s like everything just clicks. You don’t have to think about anything. Your body and the music do it naturally.
Time Out New York: Why did you start dancing?
Marian Butler: I was about six when I started in Houston. My sister is eight years older than me and was in ballet because of Highland dancing—Scottish dancing. Her teacher told her to take ballet lessons to help her Scottish dancing, so my mom found Houston Ballet and she ended up loving it a lot more than Highland dancing so she quit. My mom put me in ballet for an extra activity and I just fell in love with it. I never stopped. I saw, as I was growing up, the people in my class—you get to a point in your age, where you’re like, Should I do this or should I go to school and have sleepovers and all that stuff? And I always wanted to dance. I never questioned it. My sister was with Houston Ballet, and she decided to make a change. She came to ABT and was here for about six months and called me up and said, “You have to come.” [Laughs] Her name is Martha Butler; she was only here for four years. She said the Met season was coming up and that they needed girls. I came and took one class and Ross Stretton, who was here at that time, said, “Can you start on Tuesday?” It was Saturday.
Time Out New York: And you were already in the Houston Ballet?
Marian Butler: [Laughs] Yes. I grew up there; that was my home, my life. I was very comfortable there. I think [director] Ben Stevenson was a little bit surprised, because I called him and was like, “I got this opportunity, and I can’t pass it up.” I think he understood after a while. And I had just started out; I was just a body. I wasn’t established. I don’t think it even mattered that I had left. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t make a huge impact. My sister was a principal and she told him in advance that she was leaving, but I had only been in the company six months and I just called him up and said, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got this great opportunity to dance at ABT, and it’s the best company, and I’m going to go.” I’ve been here ever since.
Time Out New York: How did you find your training in Houston?
Marian Butler: Great. I had really nice training. Very placed. And also having worked with Ben has helped me as a performer. He was always a huge advocate of when you’re in the studio, you act. A lot of dancers save it for the stage, but even when I was a child in Nutcracker—if I was a Party Girl, I would be acting the whole time, even if I didn’t have props and there wasn’t a Christmas tree. You’d have to pretend like the tree was there and that the presents were there. I feel like that gave me a lot of confidence, and as I grew up and experienced different scenarios when a choreographer comes in and maybe they want to choreograph a theatrical ballet and they need to see it. I do credit him for that.
Time Out New York: Was it a huge adjustment when you moved here?
Marian Butler: [Laughs] They called me “Deer in the Headlights.” I was 18, and I had visited New York, but I hadn’t lived here. My sister helped me a lot; we lived together, so I pretty much just stayed by her side for the first four years I was here. [Laughs] We had a great time. But living in the city is one thing. I joined the company right before the Met season and, as you know, we do seven full-lengths and however many reps, and I had three weeks to learn all these different ballets. I was trying to learn all the ballets and adjusting to the city and living in an apartment—it was a big deal. It just happened so fast. I wouldn’t go back and change it, but I needed a little bit of time to settle in.
Time Out New York: Aren’t you known for helping newer members of the corps de ballet now?
Marian Butler: Yes, I try to. I do it because I know how it feels. It’s tough, coming in here learning all the ballets and being in the city, and it really helped me to have my sister there. That’s why I feel like I could do the same for somebody else. Also, I know all the ballets and I know what the hair is and how the makeup should be. It’s something that has naturally fallen on my shoulders as well for being here for so long.
Time Out New York: I recently interviewed a bunch of ABT dancers and they spoke about how your absence was felt when you were on maternity leave.
Marian Butler: I feel like there are usually one or two people that kind of ground everybody in the room and when that person’s not there, there can be an emptiness.
Time Out New York: But it’s an unspoken-leader thing, right?
Marian Butler: Oh yeah. And that’s fine. [Laughs] It’s okay. Also, I’ve been here for so long that I have a different relationship with the staff than maybe somebody who’s only been here for a year. I can bring up something that is maybe bothering somebody who isn’t able to say it.
Time Out New York: When did that shift happen for you?
Marian Butler: It doesn’t happen overnight. The older people that were like that when I was here left, and you just move up to that position. It’s a natural, gradual thing. My sister was that for me. In the corps, there were a couple of girls who would help me. Normally in the corps, there are small girls and tall girls, and they kind of stick together. There were some small girls that would help me with choreography. When I first got to the Met and I didn’t know where to sit, there was one girl, Johanna Snyder Butow, who was like, “Marian, come here, come sit next to me.” That just is comforting. So I try to help people in that way, like, “It’s okay, come on,” or “Go on, get up there and do it.”
Time Out New York: How much longer do you think you’ll dance?
Marian Butler: I feel like I’m toward the end. A couple of more years, I think. I’m 37.
Time Out New York: You joined the company in 1995, and obviously a lot of those people have left. How do you deal with that?
Marian Butler: It’s a very different company now. You change with it. You adjust to things that maybe you weren’t used to before. And it’s 2012. Dance has evolved. It’s not 1995.
Time Out New York: It’s so impressive that you’ve been able to dance for so long. What is it about your training and your head?
Marian Butler: With my training at the Houston Ballet, I just feel like it’s placed. That’s what’s helped keep me away from injuries. And for my head—I really enjoy it. Yeah, I’ve done Swan Lake millions of times. But for some reason, every time I go out there, I just love it again. I don’t get sick of being part of it. I don’t know what makes me different from others. Some people just get tied up with the politics. I’m not that type of person. I don’t allow myself to go there.
Time Out New York: What are your favorite story ballets to perform?
Marian Butler: Giselle. I love doing the corps de ballet in the second act. I just feel like we’re a real part of it. This goes to say in every ballet, but especially Giselle—you really feel like you are a part of the stage, and you need to be there to hold the ballet together. You are rewarded with the dancing—there’s quite a bit of dancing. Some ballets are hard with the standing.
Time Out New York: What is it like to dance in the corps de ballet?
Marian Butler: For me, it’s very comforting to have one person on one side and another person on the other side. [Laughs] Some people find it claustrophobic; it’s probably because I’ve been at it for so long. But it’s really something special when you all move and breathe at the same time. It feels like you’re dancing alone, but you’re not.
Time Out New York: What does it take to be in the corps de ballet here?
Marian Butler: Strong will. The less injuries you can get, the better. It definitely takes a certain individual, because you’re here from 10am to 7pm. You’re in every show, so you really have to be ready to dance and to be a part of the ballet even if you’re just standing there. A lot of people have trouble with that. You’ve probably seen Swan Lake before without girls on the side standing there. Having us stand there makes the complete picture, and you have to remember that you’re a huge part of the ballet. You’re keeping the ballet together. You’re painting the picture. It may seem like a small role, but it’s not. I think if you have that mentality, it helps. If you don’t understand that, that’s when I see people struggle.
Time Out New York: After Jennifer Alexander died in a car crash, ABT named you the first Jennifer Alexander Dancer. What did that mean?
Marian Butler: I don’t know if you knew Jenny, but she was always very professional. She took care of herself and her dancing and the roles that she was given, no matter how big or small. She loved to be here every day dancing. That award is for that. Somebody that has her professionalism; it was a huge honor for me, but also it was very emotional because I was very close to her. She joined a year before I did, so I looked up to her. And just having her gone like that so suddenly and then giving that award to me was a very emotional moment. I’m glad it still lives on and people still know who she is. Hopefully, it will continue like that. Sarah Smith is the current one and every January they choose a new dancer to honor. For a while people thought, Oh, if you got the Jenny Alexander award, it means you would never be promoted. It has nothing to do with that. You can still go on to be a great ballet dancer; it’s more an honor toward her. Who she was and what she was. And your receiving that award is an honor for that.
Time Out New York: Are you interested in becoming a ballet mistress or a teacher?
Marian Butler: I don’t know. I’m not exactly sure if it’s something I want to go into. Susan Jones has asked me. It’s something that’s there. I think I might have to step away and then see.
Time Out New York: Don’t you do some of that anyway in terms of helping people?
Marian Butler: True. [Laughs] Are you trying to make me go into it? It’s a tough job. You have to deal with everybody’s personality—I don’t know if I could do that.
Time Out New York: What made you decide to have a baby now?
Marian Butler: I’ve always wanted to have a family, and it’s the right time in my life. I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to have a kid. And I want to have another one. I’ve been very fortunate that they gave me as much time off as I wanted. I had him in January and I just came back in September. I just wanted to be at home with him and the beginning goes by so fast; I didn’t want to miss anything. I’m sure I’m missing stuff right now, but I feel better that I had those first months with him.
Time Out New York: Is it weird being here?
Marian Butler: It is a little bit. My focus is a little bit different, but when I’m here, I’m focused on ballet. I feel like I can bring different things to the art than I could have before. You get a lot of joy out of it because you’re here dancing and then you get to go home to a nice family. Hopefully he’ll see me dance. I have a wonderful nanny, and that’s been helping. He loves her. Knowing that he’s in good hands and in good care makes it easier to leave. And we all leave. We all have to continue on with our lives—we just bring another one in and continue on.
American Ballet Theatre continues at New York City Center through Oct 20.