Friday, March 8, 2013

Jean Butler premieres "hurry"

Jean Butler (photo by Ian Douglas)
Jean Butler--it should come as no surprise--has a great sense of presentation and self-presentation. In fact, she most reminds me of penmanship--the exacting kind I learned in Catholic grammar school and which inevitably loosened and drained away with time. A tall switch of a woman, Butler does not so much dance as write and etch her way across the floor and space, making the existence of thought and will starkly visible.

Her body as well as her intense focus define having everything in its place, and it's hard to look at her and forget her world-famous career in traditional Irish dance. As a recent sojourner in the world of New York's contemporary dance, she herself wants to forget none of this but, rather, burrow into it and see where grounded tradition and identity can lead her. With her new solo hurry, directed by Jon Kinzel, she's on her way, and that, for now, must be enough.

What can be done with rigidity and precision? Arms once constrained to this dancer's sides now jut and lock in place at a sharp angle as she cocks and twists one foot against the floor. Or they form an elegant wingspan which, after all, would have to be held taut as a bird takes to a thermal. When she scoops her torso or allows hips to wriggle and knees to be spongy, she measures out each move so nothing's ever wasted. She acknowledges gravity, and the body's core, never once losing the look of one invisibly suspended from above.

Her palpable self-consciousness keeps us from slipping into the trance of watching a body dance. We're watching a mind dance--not to be forgotten. There's instruction in this, even if it is a tad distancing (like the similarly alienating sound score with its overt and covert disturbances, friction and haunting reverb). Perhaps it's good to be held, for a time, in this place of wanting but not being able to just let go. There's something to be learned here.

As Butler addresses the space at St. Mark's--treading, sometimes just nearly tripping along a loop of infinity--Michael O'Connor's lighting, melancholy in its glow, emphasizes the exposure and the loneliness of her position.

The solo's title, hurry, derives from an Irish ballad, but there's only one tiny, ethereal suggestion of Irish music--courtesy of Ivan Goff on uilleann pipes--late in the score. Nor does hurry seem particularly hurried. Although it lasts just 35 minutes, it appears to exist in a place of memory and contemplation removed from the rush of time.

Near hurry's end, the barefoot Butler, turned away from us and toward a far corner of the church, suddenly channels the old Irish steps. How strange--and, at last, emotionally engaging--to gaze at this star from behind as she appears to dance into the lights of a familiar stage. For the viewer, it skews the perspective, raising questions: Who could see Butler from behind except another dancer? That would mean you're also dancing on that stage, would it not? If so, how does it feel to face those lights?

Music by Jim Dawson. Sound design by Jim Dawson and Jon Kinzel. Costume by Sylvia Grieser.

hurry continues at Danspace Project tonight or Saturday at 8pm. Click here for program information and here for tickets.

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

Related: Jean Butler prepares a new solo for Danspace Project

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