Working Out With Rena Butler

How the Bill T. Jones dancer finds balance between lengthening and strengthening

Butler, here in Jones’ Duet x 2, recovers after rehearsals in savasana (corpse pose). Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy BTJ/AZDC

Rena Butler needs an unusual amount of strength. As a dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, she says, “I know at any minute Bill is going to ask for something crazy with me lifting God-knows-who”—including, possibly, a male dancer as tall as 6' 4".

But at the same time, she’s also careful to sculpt a lean physique. “My body was super-bulky when I was younger,” says the former competitive swimmer, who also played water polo and soccer growing up. “I have to work on keeping my muscles lean.”

Her secret to achieving both strength and length? Hot yoga. “It’s groomed my body in a way that keeps me from looking like a football player,” she says. Butler discovered Bikram at age 18, then converted to heated vinyasa flow a few years later. “Bikram’s mantra is to keep pushing and pushing, and while that’s great for some people, I like to take my time to reach a goal in a certain pose, or to sit down if the heat is bothering me.” Still, the challenge of the heat is part of what attracts her to the practice: “Dancers are all masochists. This feeds that.”

Today, Butler practices yoga up to four times a week, depending on her rehearsal and touring schedule. She seeks out local studios while on tour, sometimes catching a 6 am class along with the company manager (also a hot yoga fanatic) before rehearsal. “By taking yoga before dancing, I’m able to quickly gauge what’s hurting that day, what’s limited,” she says. “I can feel my joints and tap into my body as it cools down from the heat.”

The philosophy of yoga—staying in the moment, and letting it go once you’ve completed it—has informed Butler’s approach to performance, especially when something doesn’t work as planned. She’s learned, she says, “it’s not about how perfect you can be, but how much you give.”

But as much as she relies on yoga, Butler hasn’t lost her love of swimming. When she has access to a pool, she’ll whip out 8 to 20 laps. “I’ll do freestyle, or maybe breaststroke to work my turnout. But my favorite is butterfly. It makes my back super-strong. And as much as I care about the aesthetic of my body and the lengthening of my muscles, my first priority is always strength.”  


Post-Yoga Juice

“I get a fresh grapefruit, mango, pineapple juice with spirulina, chia seeds and a little ginger after yoga class. It revs me up for the day.”


Vacation Workout Strategy

“I take a backpacking trip every December with my boyfriend, who’s also a dancer, to places like Nicaragua and Thailand. On vacation we try to do things to stay in shape in a very lazy way: hiking or doing anything outside in warm weather. Just enjoying life and letting your body work out naturally.”

Broadway

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But a recent Vogue story gives us a taste of just how nontraditional the Broadway revival will be. Most notably, van Hove is cutting "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, condensing the show into one act to better reflect the urgency of the 48-hour plot. (The choice has been approved by the West Side Story estate, including Sondheim, who has "long been uncomfortable" with some of the "I Feel Pretty" lyrics.)

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Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

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Cover Story
Jayme Thornton

It's a much-repeated part of Francesca Hayward's origin story that she discovered ballet at age 3, when her grandparents bought a video of The Nutcracker to keep her occupied and she immediately started dancing around the room. What's less well-known is that there was another video lined up next to The Nutcracker that Hayward liked to dance along to: Cats. "I really just did the White Cat bit and fast-forwarded the rest," she remembers. "I'd make my friends who came around be the other cats."

Twenty-four years later, she's not only become a Royal Ballet principal, but has been cast as Victoria the White Cat in Tom Hooper's new movie adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, out in theaters on December 20. "I remember the director telling me I'd got the part: 'Just to let you know you're the lead in a Hollywood film,' he said." Hayward laughs. "This is crazy!"

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Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

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