Rena Butler: The Epitome of Contemporary Cool

October 25, 2021

As a rising senior at the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, Rena Butler asked Amber Lee Parker to create her graduation solo. Parker, a Purchase alumna, was then dancing with choreographer Kyle Abraham’s company. To suss out Butler’s ways of working, Parker invited the 21-year-old to a rehearsal on a hot summer day in 2010.

“I think I hired her right then and there. There wasn’t much debate about the decision,” says Abraham. “She is very aware of the energy she receives and puts out, which drew us together.” While she finished her degree, Butler skipped senior week to perform Abraham’s The Radio Show in Jordan. She flew to Pittsburgh the day of graduation for another gig with the company, known today as A.I.M by Kyle Abraham. Cast in the only part for a woman in his Pavement, Butler “performed with a kind of unabashed, teen naïveté at times, and with the vulnerability of a lover in other aspects,” Abraham says.

The two shared a good cry outside a studio in 2013, when Butler informed Abraham she was leaving A.I.M for Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. The lone hire from an audition that drew hundreds of dancers across multiple days, Butler “stands out in a room,” says Janet Wong, associate artistic director of the company and New York Live Arts. Reflecting on Butler’s discipline for memorizing text and willingness to sing, Wong adds that “she can handle much more than just dance.”

Abraham and Butler remained close and have since reunited professionally: He is her mentor of choice in a newly created dual role at Gibney, where Butler performs and creates as the company’s first choreographic associate.

“We’ve never had a resident choreographer,” says artistic director and CEO Gina Gibney, “but it’s been in the back of my mind for years. I’d always admired Rena from afar, and I have tremendous regard for her as an artist, as a leader and as a person who just exudes potential and desire.”

Rena Butler lunges to the side in a long blue dress, the paper behind her ripping and curling around her feet.
Jayme Thornton

Butler’s parents nurtured that potential and fed that desire. From Beverly on Chicago’s South Side, they drove more than two hours to Butler’s rehearsals with a children’s theater company; supported her diving, swimming and water polo lessons, plus Girl Scouts and student council; and enlivened weekend chores by playing “Soul Train”episodes in the background. As a teenager, Butler attended salsa congresos in Puerto Rico with Chicago’s Pasos Con Sabor. The Butler family also belonged to American Coaster Enthusiasts, the world’s largest organization of roller-coaster fans. “They were fun-loving parents,” says Butler.

On the fence between dance and theater tracks at the Chicago Academy for the Arts—a high school 90 minutes and two train rides from home—Butler chose dance “because I knew it was harder and a more extreme way of expressing myself,” she says. A film and art history buff who took acting and voice lessons as electives, “Rena was so charming and such a hard worker,” remembers Randy Duncan, now chair of the Academy’s dance department.

In her first six years as a professional dancer, Butler somehow fit in four seasons each with A.I.M and Bill T. Jones, shows with David Dorfman Dance, and other projects. Butler credits Abraham and choreographer Manuel Vignoulle—now her partner—for encouraging her to create work for the 2014 Young Choreographer’s Festival at Symphony Space. That project facilitated Butler’s first paid commission, from Melanie Person for senior students in the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, “and it kept growing from there,” she says.

In 2017, Butler joined Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, which offered 52-week contracts and a diverse repertoire. Choreographic oppor­tunities followed, along with a better work–life balance. “I missed my grandmother’s funeral for a tour with Bill T., because taking time for that just wasn’t the culture,” says Butler. “I think we’re having more conversations now about how to make space for people to be human, but, at the time, that wasn’t happening.”

Hubbard Street, however, was in the throes of transition, preparing to relocate while dancers’ contracts shrank to 44 weeks. Noting it was her first time working in a predominantly white space, Butler experienced what she describes as a series of microaggressions and “conversations about hair,” while requests for costume pieces and undergarments that matched her skin color were addressed slowly.

“It was difficult to move past those moments because she felt completely misunderstood, as one of two Black women in the company,” says Butler’s friend Jonathan Alsberry, artistic liaison at Hubbard Street. When reached for comment, current artistic director Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell said, “As a Hubbard Street alum and as a woman of color in dance, I hear Rena. Her experience underscores the need for diversity within Hubbard Street and the broader dance community, which we are actively working to change.”

Rena Butler holds one bent leg close to her ear, leaning over and peeking under her elbow at the camera
Jayme Thornton

Yet Butler expresses appreciation for much of what happened over three seasons with Hubbard Street, including one virtual and two main-stage premieres of her own choreography, plus community engagement work with youth empowerment organization My Block, My Hood, My City. She was also a consortium member for Chicago Dancemakers Forum, on a panel for Black Girls Dance and, with Kathryn Humphreys, was co-creator of Dance Lab, a free choreographic lab for teens. Onstage, she shone in works by Abraham, Alejandro Cerrudo, Peter Chu, Ohad Naharin, Crystal Pite and Emma Portner.

“I was not upset at all by Rena going to Gibney,” says Alsberry. “We just couldn’t offer enough change, and not soon enough.” In February 2021, a year after Butler’s conversations with Gibney began, Hubbard Street announced Fisher-Harrell would be its first Black and female artistic director. At one point a candidate for the position herself, Butler says she was “elated” to hear Fisher-Harrell landed the role. “She’s an incredible force.”

Butler “knows she deserves to sit at the table even when it doesn’t welcome her,” says Jie-Hung Connie Shiau, a classmate from Purchase with whom Butler overlapped at A.I.M and Hubbard Street before they both joined Gibney Company in September 2020. “She’s explosive, she covers so much ground, she eats up space. And now, she is able to capture nuance and subtlety and tenderness, as well. That’s something I’ve seen develop in her.”

Calling it a process distinguished by a “phenomenal amount of reciprocity,” Gibney took time to negotiate and fine-tune a new job description for Butler. “We created it together based on my needs as well as the company’s,” says Butler, “which in my experience was unheard of.”

The contract includes what both describe as a healthy amount of wiggle room for side projects, which are coming Butler’s way with increasing frequency. Before the pandemic, BalletX announced a July 2020 mixed bill featuring new work by Butler considering Philadelphia’s Johnson House, an historic Underground Railroad site. Reconfigured as a composite of footage from Zoom and cell phones with text, Butler’s The Under Way (working title) embraces aesthetics of confinement endemic to virtual performance, refocused on racist violence and white privilege in the present. “She didn’t gloss over what was happening,” says BalletX artistic and executive director Christine Cox. “She was creating in the midst of protests and everything feeling like it was unraveling, and she was not afraid to ask difficult questions.”

In addition to her first European premiere, for Sweden’s Norrdans, and a third creation for Gibney this spring, Butler looks forward to commissions from Charlotte Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, GroundWorks DanceTheater, Whim W’Him and the Juilliard School, plus a collaboration with filmmaker and fellow Princess Grace Award–winner Daniela Repas.

Gibney’s commitment to Butler is total, with an eye toward the future. “We need mechanisms that keep people in the field and keep them supported,” Gibney says. “This expansion, with Rena, was about seeding leadership into the field. Watching her work is phenomenal because you don’t just see a strong, self-possessed, confident woman at work. You see equity in the process.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Hubbard Street Dance Chicago offers 44-week contracts, not 41.