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Jean Butler is probably tired of being known as the former star of Riverdance. It has, after all, been 15 years since she first appeared in the Irish dancing extravaganza, alongside her far less humble—and far more infamous—partner, Michael Flatley. There was something about Flatley’s exhibitionism—the brazen grin, the bare chest protruding from one billowing shirt or another—that didn’t quite jive with Butler’s elegant, thoughtful poise. Revisiting the original Riverdance video, as I’ve done from time to time, one notes a rather forced chemistry. So it makes sense that while he would move on to increasingly glitzy, commercial endeavors (most recently Celtic Tiger, the only “history of Ireland” to feature a flight attendant performing a striptease), she would burrow deeply into explorations of contemporary dance, like the one that's showing at St. Mark’s Church this weekend.
DAY, a solo created for Butler by revered downtown choreographer Tere O’Connor, veers sharply away from her background in Irish dance. It unveils a transformed artist, who has, through O’Connor’s rigorous process, found for herself an entirely new and striking physicality. (The work makes its New York premiere tonight, November 11, and continues through Saturday.)
While this is her first collaboration with a contemporary artist of O’Connor’s stature, Butler has been quietly redefining her creative identity over the past decade. In 2005, she completed a masters in contemporary dance at the University of Limerick, and since then, she has choreographed several solo deconstructions of Irish dance (one of which I caught at the Dublin Dance Festival). When Dublin’s Abbey Theatre offered to commission her next piece, she felt compelled to approach O’Connor, whose work she had begun following in New York. As she told choreographer Jen Rosenblit in a recent interview for Critical Correspondence, “I knew immediately that I didn’t want to create this piece. Somehow, I knew what I needed to do was envelop myself in somebody else’s process to pull things out of me that I wasn’t aware of or that I wasn’t able to do. Immediately, I thought of Tere. I never in a million years expected him to say ‘yes.’ But he did. That’s how the whole piece started.”
During an in-progress showing at Joyce SoHo last March, a few weeks before DAY’s world premiere in Dublin (which garnered rave reviews from the Irish press), Butler talked about the challenge of embodying O’Connor’s complex vocabulary. It required some back-to-basics gruntwork: “When Tere first met me, the first thing he said was, ‘Girl, you gotta learn how to plié,’ ” she laughed. (In Irish dance, there is essentially no such thing as a plié; almost all of the footwork happens pulled up on the balls of the feet.) But there were also conceptual and emotional hurdles, such as learning to fully inhabit movement which, at first, felt uncomfortable or embarrassing. She recalled the words of Heather Olson, O’Connor’s rehearsal director and Bessie Award–winning dancer, with whom she worked closely on the project: “With Tere’s movement, if it doesn’t feel awkward, you’re probably not doing it right.”
I’m excited to see how DAY has evolved since March. Already, at that early stage, it was riveting. Butler shifted sporadically between states of awareness, fiercely attentive to every gesture. In her voraciousness, she evoked something mechanistic yet undeniably human. Pressure built in the space, as we witnessed the results of a true artistic chemistry, sparks from a collision of disparate worlds.
DAY: Nov. 11–12 at 8pm. Nov. 13 at 7:30 and 9:30pm. Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church. For tickets, visit http://www.danspaceproject.org/calendarandtickets/.