Jean Butler: this is an Irish dance @ Danspace Project
A few weeks ago, Jean Butler performed this is an Irish dance at Danspace Project. Jean, a dancer and performer of forty years, began training as an Irish dancer. She and Michael Flatley are now well known for their role in defining a new era of Irish dance and culture through their creation of dance phenomenon Riverdance.
After several decades as a traditional Irish dance performer, Jean began approaching her relationship to Irish dance and identity in different ways than in former years. Her most recent collaboration and performance with musician Neil Martin, this is an Irish dance, reveals the latest series of questions Jean has sought to tackle regarding her personal journey with and global conversations surrounding Irish dance.
A: What does it mean to be Irish?
J: Growing up in New York, in many ways it defines you. You’re defined as much by what you’re not as by what you are. You grow up in school and you’re not Italian and you’re not Jewish, you’re Irish. And I think it’s different than being Irish-American. Irish-American meant being a part of community. I didn’t feel that. I didn’t really participate in that community.
My mom was from Ireland direct. So my connection to Ireland was through my mother directly, my grandmother directly. My connection to the country was really through them, outside of any community.
I feel equally Irish and equally American, but I don’t feel Irish-American. A bit like my work. I feel like on the periphery of something, Irish and American, but not Irish-American.
A: Do you feel that Irish and Modern dance vernaculars are quite distinct in your work?
J: The only training I’ve ever had is in Irish dancing. Anything that comes out of me comes out of that training. It doesn’t come out of any other training. It really comes from a foundation that is Irish dancing.
Now I’m presenting in a contemporary context. Looking at form, how form is presented, but that form is essentially a deconstruction of dance technique. I’m not trying to be a contemporary dancer, that’s not even a part of my thought process.
Even in Tere’s [Jean performed in a work by Tere O’Connor called DAY in 2010] work, I was even more so reminded of where I come from because it’s so different, so I had to understand my physical limitations. Everywhere I turn, my forty years of training are there.
A: You’ve spoken a little bit about your evolution as a performer. I’d love to hear more about that – how you feel you’ve evolved, what that evolution feels like to you.
J: I was a performer in the entertainment industry 20 years ago. Now I’m working in a place that is far more revealing and I’m asking different types of questions. As you mature as a dancer, you have to change how you’re looking at making work because the possibilities are different. You may not have some physical strengths you had at 21, but you have different capabilities and you can do a lot with those.
I’m curious about what’s next. I feel like already I have questions from this process [making this is an Irish dance] that will inform the next process.
I think one of the things that I really struggle with is the amount of work that goes into a small run of shows. You don’t really get to get into the piece until you’re performing. We don’t get to experience these things enough in performance. If we were performing again next week I would get a chance to dive more fully into the piece. I almost feel like it’s unmade at this point. It is made of course, but there’s a part that simply can’t be explored until we’re performing live. I’m very grateful for my upcoming engagements in the New Year. We’ll be performing versions of the piece again in 2016.
A: Do you experience Irish dancing as a component of your Irish identity?
J: It’s such a nuanced topic. When I was growing up as an Irish dancer, what we did was Irish dancing, but we didn’t know about the history. We didn’t know about other kinds of Irish dance. We were taught to dance. We spent our time learning to dance.
Again, it wasn’t really that I felt connected to Ireland through the dance. It was more that I felt connected to the country through my grandmother and mother. It was more about this place that my mom was born. I just felt very at home there from a very young age. But the connection wasn’t necessarily through dance.
For this piece, for the last year I’ve been traveling to Ireland once a month because my collaborators live there. We would have showings and share some things we worked on with friends and colleagues in Ireland throughout the process of building the piece. I think it very much holds a lot of that country [Ireland], simply because it was made there. When we performed last weekend, I would look out into the performance space, and I would see parts of the studio that we rehearsed in in Ireland.
But really, one of the questions I wanted to explore in this piece was, “what constitutes Irish dancing in a global context? Why isn’t this an Irish dance”?
A: When you watch videos of your rehearsals, do you feel like you can see Ireland?
J: I just see Irish dancing because I know where the choreography came from. And I see music. I also think Irish dancing is about restraint, and a lot of the piece is about those restraints. Playing with notions of rightness and wrongness is part of what I’m asking myself. And that relates directly back to the question of what is Irish dance and what does it mean?
I realized that there’s a whole other list of rules that goes on in contemporary dance, so I’m really – I feel like I’m between these different worlds, and I really have to search for my way through. I remember a lot of conversations about the use of music in contemporary dance. Some people would say, “you can’t have dance describe the music! The music must describe the dance!” So my question is, “what is my relationship with music?”
A: I’d love to hear more about the relationship you explored with music through your collaboration with Neil Martin.
J: Well, to start with, I didn’t know a lot about the cello; I don’t listen to a lot of cello music. I did know that it wasn’t going to be about me making a dance in isolation, him making a piece of music in isolation. I didn’t know how open he was going to be. He’s a classical musician, so he reads sheet music. At one point the sheet music really came between us during the rehearsal process, so for this piece we decided he had to memorize the music. That’s not something that he’s done before.
He plays the uilleann pipes as well, which would be very Irish traditional. That meant that we started by sharing a musical language, and we shared it because of his traditional playing and my traditional dancing. At the same time, we were kind of thrown into the deep end because here was this instrument that I didn’t know a lot about.
Also, the whole point of competitive Irish dancing is about being in time, dancing in between the music, interpreting Irish music. And when I started performing with the Chieftains, I really felt like a side note to the musicians. It was discussed that I would come out on numbers 1, 3 and 4, on the reel and this and that. So it felt very subservient. And then there was Riverdance, I remember hanging on to the music like a life jacket. And my goal was to become one with the music on stage because the music was made for the dance. That was a very different relationship.
Hurry, my last piece, was made in silence because I wasn’t ready to tackle that question of music yet since music has such an incredible pull over me. So, I wanted to explore what that silence was.
With this is an Irish dance it became very clear to me that the piece with Neil would be about the relationship of what can happen. That’s what I came out of the last year really thinking about; that really intimate relationship of doing a score on stage and what can happen. There was absolutely no preparation of material outside of rehearsal whatsoever. Everything came out of improvisation that we filmed and recreated.
A: You’ve mentioned that you received a degree in theater before you became involved in dance. Have you found that elements of your experience in acting have featured in your work as a dancer and choreographer?
J: I would say, using the voice, using the body, something that feels authentic that can be believed in. I’m very interested in this idea of presence. So I guess in some ways it comes from how I look at theater but in others it just comes from being a dancer. You know, witnessing somebody really grounded or really trying to express something.
A: Why did you pursue modern dance specifically after your experience as an Irish dancer? Why not hip hop, Ballet Folklorico, Indian Classical, some other dance form?
J: I think first and foremost because of the many different types of choreographers that are out there. There’s a strong value of the idiosyncratic. When I think about all these people who are making all this different work, it just, it’s an environment where I feel comfortable to explore because exploration is part of the fabric of the contemporary dance world. I think that is just something that fits nicely with what I want to do with the physical form.
I sometimes feel like as much new dance form is being created maybe a new language needs to be created to talk about this form in some way. There’s a lot of nuance that is not readable to people who don’t know what Irish dancing is. One of the things that always comes up in conversations about Irish dance is pageantry and competition: Riverdance. I think there are different reference points that need to be articulated in some way. Those pageantry components, though they’re there, there are other ways to talk about them. How do we talk about Irish dance in a global context?
I think a nerve gets hit when Irish dance is talked about in a certain way and not in another way because dance disappears and what remains is the conversation about it, how we talk about it.
A: Are there other things you may like to share that I haven’t asked about?
J: I think this idea of being a crossover artist in some way sort of strikes me as very odd, like that I’ve successfully crossed over into the modern dance world. I don’t always see reference to my past work as relevant… I’m sort of hoping that some of that will disappear as time goes on. I think that if Riverdance hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be so passionate about reminding people that Irish dance can be something else. And the irony for me is that I helped to create that – Riverdance – and I guess I’m now trying to un-create it. In the world that we live in right now, how do you push up against something so big?
At the end of the day, I love moving. I love making work, I love sweating, and most of all, I love moving.