On the Rise: Rena Butler

PC Sunny Shokrae

As the only woman in choreographer Kyle Abraham's Pavement, Rena Butler is hard to overlook. Not that you would: She's visually striking, with long limbs that seem to carve up space. Pavement is based loosely on the 1991 film, Boyz n the Hood, and Butler's character weaves her way through a forest of macho posturing with a physical vocabulary that ranges from sly and streetwise to piercing.

“She's a wonderful mix of soft and hard," Abraham says. “She's so defined, but very fluid in her movement. When she gives you an attack rather than that delicate movement, it goes against what people might assume."

At left: In Kyle Abraham's Pavement. Photo by Steven Schreiber, Courtesy

The 23-year-old Butler thinks of that fluidity as part of what a dancer must bring to the table. “When people ask, 'What kind of dance do you do?' I think: Everything," Butler says. “Especially in New York, you have to be able to speak in a lot of ways and languages."

The Chicago native started dancing when she was 7, taking ballet and modern classes at a neighborhood studio. “My parents just threw me into dance class to give me something to do," she says. She didn't focus seriously on dance until she was about 12, though; even then, dance lessons competed with swimming and water polo practice.

As she approached high school age, she knew she had to choose between dance and sports. She was accepted at the prestigious Chicago Academy for the Arts, where she studied with Randy Duncan and Anna Paskevska. “I really started dancing seriously there," she says. “I was learning Graham, all the classical techniques—finding out what my body was doing." Her move to New York, for college at SUNY Purchase, set her on her current path. An emphasis on choreography helped her develop as a dancer, she says. “Making student work really helps you develop your artistry, your style, your quality of movement."

Then instructor Kevin Wynn suggested that dancer Amber Lee Parker create a solo piece for Butler's senior project. So one day in the summer of 2010, Butler ended up working with Parker across the studio from Abraham, who was rehearsing The Radio Show (see “Taking Off," April 2011).

At the time, he was looking for temporary replacement dancers—and when he glanced across the room, he was struck. “I saw her doing a phrase, and thought, This girl's amazing," Abraham says now. “That was all I needed. I didn't even know what role I'd put her in."

He also adds: “She had this great intuitive response to the movement that Amber was teaching her. She wasn't getting frustrated. She just learned the material, and was able to show something midway through rehearsal. I was sold."

Butler worked with throughout her senior year, touring with the company intermittently. She missed her senior week for a performance in Jordan. Now a full member, Butler finds she has little downtime. She has become interested in choreographing as well, and is creating a solo for Ailey/Fordham senior Janelle Jones, which will be performed this month at the senior showcase.

Abraham has only praise for Butler, and the regard is mutual. “I think Kyle speaks for the people," Butler says. “He's really aware of social issues, of cultural issues. I want to make sure that whether I'm dancing or choreographing, my voice is there and it's strong. I want to have that impact on the world."

Rachel F. Elson is a NYC-based writer.

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