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Time Out New York Interview with Jean Butler

The Star Dancer Finds a New Direction

by Gia Kourlas
Time Out New York
November 11-17, 2010
Issue 789

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.

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.

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 plié 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 plié. There’s no plié in Irish dance. [Laughs]

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.

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.

Read the extended version of the interview here

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