Monday, February 11, 2013

Jean Butler prepares a new solo for Danspace Project

Jean Butler in hurry (photo by Ian Douglas)
For many people in the US and abroad, New York-born and raised Jean Butler became the beloved face of Irish traditional dance, most notably through her star role in the megahit musical Riverdance, her partnership with Colin Dunne in Dancing on Dangerous Ground, as well as many appearances on tour with The Chieftains. Most of her fans might not be aware that this highly disciplined artist, so strongly rooted in her Irish ancestral culture, continues to challenge herself through forging impressive connections to New York's postmodern dance community.

In 2010, Butler made her Danspace Project debut, premiering Day, a solo work she commissioned from acclaimed choreographer Tere O’Connor. This winter (Thursday-Saturday, March 7-9), she returns to Danspace Project with a work of her own creation–a solo entitled hurry--that she has developed with Jon Kinzel as her director.

With O'Connor, Butler felt comfortable settling into the role of dancer. "There was a very clear-cut understanding that Tere was the choreographer," she says. "He had the last say, and I was there to put myself firmly in his process."

After decades of excelling in traditional dance, she was ready to try a new path.

"I wanted to challenge myself physically and also performatively, because his work is so nuanced in terms of how you perform it. I was very attracted to Tere’s aesthetic and still am. That felt like a very natural choice for me, especially to introduce myself to New York in a completely different way from my history."
Jean Butler (photo by Conor Horgan)
So, what prompted Butler to look to Irish traditions, once again, for her next solo? It seems to have come out of a desire to understand her identity as a woman and a sharp, specifically-trained instrument of art.

"I thought, It’s time to go back now and start re-evaluating how that experience with Tere affected my approach towards dancemaking, my approach towards vocabulary, my sensibilities–or not, as the case may be. It was time for me to go back into my history and my own body.

"It would be a solo, but I wanted an outside eye. I wanted the director working with me. I’m so close to what I do, and my body is so codified within a particular traditional lexicon, that sometimes I can’t see the woods for the trees. I wanted someone to be a translator to push me deeper into the work, because that’s my interest–going deeper into the body.

"Some of the things Jon brought to the table were things that I had taken for granted. He started taking apart my understanding of rhythm. He recognized that I had an innate sense of duration: How long is a minute? How long is a few minutes? How long is fifteen seconds? We started looking at time in that way. Jon also has a huge improvisation background, and that was something that I wanted to dive into a little bit, specifically with the musical elements in creating this form.

"Sometimes I feel I’m a little island in the New York dance world. Because I work on myself and I work on solos, having Jon in the dialogue, he’s been able to put language on ideas that I haven’t been able to find language for. That’s extremely helpful, invaluable. He helps me identify what I’m trying to talk about and what I’m trying to do, and that becomes a dialogue rather than simply a reflection.

"This does not come out of any conceptual ideas or any outside ideas. It starts with the body, dealing with things that define me physically–my verticality, the innate rhythm and timing that exist within my body, footwork, the idea of stepping, the fact that I’m most comfortable with my limbs close to my center. I’m less comfortable when they’re further away. I’m less comfortable when I’m off my center.

"Instead of ignoring those things, this piece would be about going as deep into them as I possibly can at this moment, finding the dance language that is idiosyncratic to me, and not imposing other techniques or other ideas on top of that, going deeper to locate what motivates me to move."

hurry grew out of a 16-minute draft or, as she also calls it, a "flavor palette of different ideas" that Butler presented for APAP last year. The impetus was a traditional Irish tune, one she had danced to for many years.

"I could sing it to you now, I can sing it in my sleep, like a lot of music that’s in my head. The title of that was 'Hurry the Jug,' and I shortened that to hurry. It really doesn’t mean anything, doesn't symbolize anything. Like 'The Blackbird': In traditional Irish music, they are just names of tunes.

"I took the music's structure as a compositional starting point and created a circular phrase that I could use while this music was going on in my head that nobody else could hear. That was the architecture of one tiny section, the seed to the entire piece. Ironically, as we’re making the piece, more music has come up and embedded itself compositionally, though the audience would be unaware of this.

"I don’t want to impose anything on the title but, from a personal point of view, there’s a lot you can read into it: It’s about age, about an older dancer, about the speed at which I can move and working against that as a counterpoint. So, ironically, it became this very relevant word. As the piece goes on, you find more and more connections."

In recent months, Butler has begun lecturing on Irish studies at New York University, offering an introductory survey of the history of Irish dance, its competitions and spectacles and current master performers, such as her colleague Dunne. She rejects the popular notion of "pushing the boundaries" of tradition. Instead, she says, her course material focuses on artists who innovate by "going deeper into it as opposed to pushing away from it; analyzing what is, not putting things on top of it so that it becomes something else."

Clearly, her own work in hurry springs from this quest to find more of the dance that is already there, to see it and show it as if for the first time.

See hurry at Danspace Project, Thursday-Saturday, March 7-9 (8pm). Click here for program information and here for tickets.

Danspace Project
131 East 10th Street (at 2nd Avenue, Manhattan

and a few more things...

In the course of preparing for my talk with Butler, I made a surprising discovery: For a few years now, she has maintained a jewelry business filled with elegant, lyrical designs inspired by her Irish heritage. She describes her interest in jewelry as “an opportunity to be creative in something that is not ephemeral, something completely solid in front of you.” Visit Jean Butler Jewellery at this link.

Also, click here for a lovely portrait of Butler in a video series for The Gathering Ireland 2013, a year-long celebration of Ireland and all things Irish.

Jean Butler has been dancing for over thirty years. Trained in Traditional Irish Dance under revered NY based teacher Donny Golden, Jean  spent her childhood on the competitive circuit winning regional, national, and world awards. As soloist, Jean has toured with many Irish recording artists, most notably the Chieftains for a period of 6 years. In 1994 she joined the original production team of Riverdance as co-choreographer, creating and performing the principal female role. Jean performed with the company for three years before leaving to team up with colleague Colin Dunne to produce and choreograph Dancing on Dangerous Ground, which had exclusive engagements at Drury Lane, London (1999) and Radio City Music Hall, New York. (2000). In April 1999 she was awarded the prestigious Irish Post Award for her outstanding contribution to Irish Dance. Jean holds a BA in Theatre Studies from Birmingham University, England and in 2003 completed a Masters in Contemporary Dance Performance at The World Academy, Limerick University where she was also Artist in Residence between 2003-2005. During this time, Jean became interested in a different physicality. 
In 2007, Jean choreographed her first contemporary solo piece, does she take sugar? which ran at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. The show was awarded ‘most innovative production’ in the critics’ survey in Ballet-Tanz Magazine Yearbook 2007 and was remounted at the Dublin Dance Festival 2008, mentored by Jodi Melnick. Her  solo works have been commissioned and supported by The Arts Council of Ireland,The Dublin Dance Festival, Culture Ireland, The Project Arts Centre (Dublin), Daghdha Dance Company (Limerick), Plankton Productions (Japan), Movement Research (New York), the Abbey Theatre (Dublin), Danspace Project (New York), Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Lower Manhattan Cultural  Council.
Jean is also a 2012 Project CATALYST, an initiative of Project Arts Centre. Recently Jean had the privilege of working with Tere O’Conner on DAY, a solo, choreographed by Tere. Commissioned by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, DAY was first co-presented at the Dublin Dance Festival 2010 and at Danspace Project in Nov. 2010. 
Jean currently lives in New York and lectures in Irish Studies at NYU.

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