By Siobhan Burke
Jean stood with her back to the pillar, her profile to the audience, looking into all that empty space in front of her. She extended one arm out behind her, lightly touching the grooves of the beam that reached from the floor to the ceiling, as if assuring herself of its presence. Her posture was as vertical as the pillar itself, her stance as resolute. I noticed the loose coil of her long red ponytail—imbued with its own kind of vertical energy—and also the clean, attractive fit of her costume (a silken, deep-blue shirt and pants, made by Sylvia Greiser). Later, my friend observed, and I concurred, that it’s really nice to see a costume that looks not quite like a costume but not quite like regular clothes, either. You don’t see those too often.
The first time I saw Jean Butler perform, I was eight or nine, and she must have been in her early twenties. I was sitting in the audience at Radio City Music Hall, and she was onstage, one-half of the lead couple in Riverdance. I had been studying Irish dance for maybe a year, and in retrospect, I realize that Jean, with her elegance and quiet confidence, embodied what I liked about the oddly severe form. I’ve done a lot of thinking about why I spent 15 years immersed in a style of dance that required many unpleasant things of me, and I often come back to this image of poise and precision and control, combined with lightness and freedom and speed. It was something to work toward.
Many years later, I was in Ireland writing about the Dublin Dance Festival, and Jean was one of a few artists presenting new work at a studio showing. She shared a brief solo-in-progress suggesting that, since Riverdance, she’d been trying out some other ways of moving. (By that time, she’d earned a masters in contemporary dance from the University of Limerick.)
There are certain hallmarks of Irish dance: you keep your limbs close to your center, especially your arms, which remain by your sides. Most of the footwork happens directly underneath your hips, and while you may lift your knees and kick your legs, your torso never veers from that central axis. It’s straight-up-and-down. Even while you pound into the floor or fly into the air, you’re holding on tight, always gathering, gathering, gathering in. You look where you’re going and nowhere else, and you know what’s coming next.
In that Dublin solo, thicker than this, Jean appeared to be unpacking all of that. Not tossing it away in favor of something new, not even holding it up for commentary or critique, but rifling around inside of those constraints, asking “What more is in here?” and churning up wonderfully awkward, off-kilter curiosities. She was finding something unfamiliar, while digging further into something ingrained, something not worth letting go of. And she was claiming her place as a serious soloist, unfettered by the ostentatious male partners that have become routine in commercial Irish dance, with its many Riverdance spinoffs. Even when she performed in Tere O’Connor’s Day, a solo that, supposedly, had nothing to do with Irish dance, she brought those qualities innate to the form and her interpretation of it: an alert focus, a regal bearing, an exacting physicality.
When Jean took her place next to that pillar at Danspace Project, she arrived, in my eyes, with all of this behind her. That moment of stillness was the opening of a new solo, hurry, which she created with the choreographer Jon Kinzel’s direction. What unfolded over the next fleeting half-hour—in the porous, contemplative atmosphere conjured by Jim Dawson’s score—struck me as a deepening of the playful sketch she had begun those years ago in Dublin. At once cultivating and tearing up the roots of a rigorous tradition, she revealed her own vocabulary, one of loosely snaking foot patterns, flamingo-like poses, and windswept skitters that tumbled out in the form of figure-eights. The subtle intensity of her exploration reached its peak when, from a soundscape of passing cars, murmuring voices, and galloping hooves emerged the hum of uillean pipes (played by Ivan Goff)—a welcome nod to her past. And present. Her stammering steps, inching backward on a zig-zagging diagonal, layered urgency on top of their plangent drone.
The prevailing impression in hurry was one of continuous discovery: a body’s thorough investigation of the space around it, its negotiation of what its arms and legs, its wrists and palms, its ankles and the soles of its feet can do. What does it mean to go down to the ground and stand up again? How does looking over my right shoulder compare with looking over my left? What if I balance on one leg and see where I can go from there, leaning off of center just a little?
And what would happen, I wonder, if Jean struck out fully on her own, without the input of another choreographer? Irish dance training is a system of being told what to do; that part might be worth leaving behind, just to see what lies beyond it.
Siobhan Burke writes for The Brooklyn Rail, The New York Times, and Dance Magazine.