Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"this is an Irish dance": Jean Butler at Danspace Project

Neil Martin and Jean Butler
perform this is an Irish dance at Danspace Project.
(photos: Ian Douglas)


Jean Butler might still be best known for Riverdance--the global Irish dance phenomenon she starred in with Michael Flatley--but she has moved on to a new level of inquiry in contemporary dance. this is an Irish dance, her thoughtful and poetic performance with cellist/composer Neil Martin at Danspace Project, helps us hear music not only in the duet of instrument and movement but also in the sensitive aliveness within silence, stillness and near darkness.

To make this work, the two artists collaborated through simultaneous improvisation. We read the living record of those explorations as they perform or even just regard each other across space, or as Butler quietly holds the cello for Martin as he busies himself with pushing a white cube a short distance. The warmth of his cello's voice contrasts with her sculpted serenity. Its heartful earthiness creates a trusty base for her still-very-Irish lightfootedness.

In an essay for this production, Butler writes of the supremely controlled form of Irish dancing as "a gesture of defiance," meant to elevate the Irish stereotyped by the English as "uncivilized, unruly, and of questionable character." I tried to understand this notion of physical self-restraint as a form of defiance. As a Black woman, I know how, under similar racist conditions, self-restraint can be a strategy for survival, if a self-erasing one. But an act of defiance? Nevertheless, Butler's birdlike physicality does reveal the powerful presence and strength within cool control, a self-awareness and a witty, mercurial facility that could as readily be turned to battle as to fanciful play.

Frank Conway's set further complicates things, evoking the aftermath of some unidentified disaster the two performers have survived. Upon first entering the church sanctuary and seeing his arrangement, I flashed back to the time I passed through my wife's art studio and closed its door behind me just as its ceiling collapsed.

Aside from a narrow, plain white table and a few white cubes, Conway has spilled jagged chunks of white foamcore down two sides of the floor--heavy piles near the altar steps tapering down into lighter remains and finally single pieces close to the audience. Although Butler and Martin rarely interact with this wreckage, it's hard to not be aware of its presence as they interact with each other.

Are we not all living with the wreckage of past injury and, quite likely in these times, foreboding? And do we not all, despite our first misgivings, hope to move beyond these things and find ways to connect and to heal?

this is an Irish dance continues through November 21 with performances at 8pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Danspace Project
St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery
131 East 10th Street (at Second Avenue), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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