Jean Butler has the unique distinction of being at the core of the Riverdance “movement,” having been the original female lead in the Eurovision segment and having starred for years thereafter in the touring show. She went on to star in such programs as Dancing on Dangerous Ground, an innovative production which aesthetically tested the borders of Irish dance drama choreography. Jean Butler’s star-power has also been solidified by her appearances in such feature films as "The Brylcreem Boys", "Revengers Tragedy", "Goldfish Memory", and the short film "Old Friends". Through these films, Butler has expanded her range and avoided pigeonholing herself as a performer.
Jean Butler brings a level of analysis to Irish dancing which is apparent in both her choreography and in the other projects which she chooses. She has earned a Master’s Degree in Contemporary Dance and was the Artist in Residence for the Irish World Music Centre at the University of Limerick. In addition, her writing has been featured in publications such as Image and The Dubliner. Butler’s wide exposure to and success in various arenas of the dance world has helped her develop a sophisticated and intellectual approach to Irish dancing choreography.
Butler applies this approach to not only her creative works, but to her more practical projects as well. Her new DVD, Jean Butler's Irish Dance Masterclass, takes a challenging approach to the basic foundational movements of Irish dancing. The DVD leads the viewer through a continuous workout which stresses not only advanced movements but also technical competency. Although the DVD may be fast-paced for intermediate or beginner dancers, it seems a useful tool for the promotion of correct technique, carriage, lift, and presentation. In addition, the DVD features a new short choreography by Jean and a jam session with several other stars of Irish dancing such as Tara Barry, Cara Butler, Michael Patrick Gallagher, and Glenn Simpson. The DVD, which was formally released on June 21st, is available from Kultur International Films, Ltd, which has also released Dancing on Dangerous Ground.
After previewing the new DVD, I had the pleasure of having an online conversation with Jean Butler.
Elizabeth: What is the most choreographically exciting work that you have been a part of in the past 10 years, and what element of the choreography was most exciting for you to perform or create?
Jean: All of my professional work has been extremely exciting. I have enjoyed a varied career as an Irish dancer, each project presenting different challenges. Riverdance obviously holds a dear place in my heart as it was the first time I had an opportunity to work with such a creative and supportive team of professionals and dancers. Up until that point I had been working entirely as a solo dancer with the Chieftains, so working with a company was extremely rewarding. My own show, Dancing on Dangerous Ground was also extremely rewarding as choreographically and stylistically we were extending the natural line of the Irish Dancing ‘body.’ We were also working within the context of interpreting a narrative, which opened up the idea of physical characterization.
Elizabeth: What is the most exciting work that you have seen in the past 10 years that you haven't been directly involved with?
Jean: Last year at the Dublin International Dance Festival I went to see a contemporary work of stunning beauty and integrity by Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s company called ROSAS. It was truly inspiring.
Elizabeth: I noticed on the inside of the DVD materials that you are interested in working with Pina Bausch (modern/post-modern tanztheater). What elements of Pina Bausch's choreography are exciting to you and, if you could work with her, what would you like to do with her?
Jean: I have always been a huge fan of Pina Bausch, even as young dancer. I am drawn to her darker works because of their inherent theatricality and use of repetition. All of her productions are incredibly stylish, her set designs are truly innovative, and her aesthetic is one of ironic pared down complexity. Her dancers seem like vessels of this aesthetic. To be able to even observe her in a working environment would be truly amazing.
Elizabeth: Do you see yourself as incorporating modern dance technique, ballet technique, and other forms into the Irish dancing you perform? Are you interested in seeing more cross-technique choreography?
Jean: I am glad you asked me this question, as my contemporary dance work is not about any sort of fusion/cross-fertilization. My interest as a solo artist lies in creating a physical language and identity that is based on the direct application of contemporary principles to traditional Irish dance.
Elizabeth: In your mind, what are the biggest changes that you have seen in Irish dancing since Riverdance?
Jean: By far the biggest change in Irish dance in the last ten years is the fact that children of all nationalities are doing it. In my day there were very few dancers who were not of Irish decent. It is now very much an international art form.
Elizabeth: Realistically, what do you see in the future of Irish dance?
Jean: This is an interesting question. I think the two avenues that are presently in existence, the competitive world and the commercial show world, will continue to grow and prosper. I do however think there needs to be more support for individual expression within the form. A free-form dance category in competition may help foster individuality and creativity.
Elizabeth: The new Jean Butler's Irish Dance Masterclass DVD seems different from other "how-to" discs and tapes in that it both seems intended for a more advanced audience and in that it encourages a continuous, sustained workout. What was your intent in creating the DVD?
Jean: My intention with this DVD is to pass on some of the knowledge I have gathered over my career as a professional Irish dancer. Proper foundation technique is essential for any dancer and the exercises I have created foster a greater understanding of the mechanics of this technique. I believe, and am the living proof, that once you understand how to treble properly, or jump properly for instance, that the sky is the limit with how far you can interpret these moves. Many competitive dancers seem concerned with ‘jumping ahead’ to trickier moves that I feel are too advanced for where they are. My philosophy would be to make sure you can dance elegantly and cleanly in space before attempting something too advanced as this may foster bad habits, which are very hard to undo. Practicing can be a very lonely process at times and hopefully this DVD will act as a helping hand for young dancers to practice on their own with the help of great music and good fun.
Elizabeth: What is your strongest memory of Irish dancing from your childhood? What is your strongest memory of Donny Golden?
Jean: My earliest memories of Irish dancing are the strongest: my first feis in Gaelic Park in NY, the sound of pipers in the background, the excitement of seeing my number appear on the winners board, getting trophies, my first green dancing costume, and the fun my friends and I had watching the older dancers compete. I have so many memories of Donny: he is my teacher, mentor and inspiration all rolled into one. His patience with young dancers, his love for music and rhythm, his good sportsmanship and genuine love of dance of all forms are what I think about when I think of Donny.
Elizabeth: What has been the most rewarding aspect for you that you have gotten out of your work in the past 10 years?
Jean: There have been a million rewarding aspects to my work! The most rewarding though has to be the fact that I am still dancing. I have been able to maintain a career that continues to interest me. I feel very grateful that I am always learning and will continue to question and learn more and more. Dance is a life choice. It can not be done in halves. The minute you think you know it all is the minute you should hang up your shoes.
Author: Elizabeth Venable
About the Author:
Elizabeth Venable is a doctoral student in Dance History and Theory at the University of California, Riverside. She has trained in the Bracken School of Irish Dance and currently studies with the Celtic Gold Academy. She is interested in Irish dance in the western United States, globalization, and commodification of Irish dancing.