Jean Butler in DAY. Photo: Michael OConnor.
Movement, like feeling, is transitory. A child is on the brink of discovery. An arm stretches out to become an extension of light. In DAY, Jean Butler—well known for her Irish step dancing in Riverdance—has ventured into new terrain led by the exceptionally talented Tere O’Connor, who treats all of his performances like collaborations. Throughout the 40-minute solo, which premiered at Danspace Project on November 11, O’Connor keeps with his signature style without losing sight of Butler’s history—he executes his vision through challenging Butler’s previous training instead of simply catering towards her strengths. Whereas in Irish step dancing, movement is generally focused below the torso and the upper half of the body remains still, arms are essential to Butler’s constantly changing persona. Two arms immediately spring into parallel positions in the air, elbows at perfect 90-degree angles. Tick tock tick tock. DAY begins.
It’s the unexpected moments that make DAY most compelling. Childish facial expressions—winks, gasps, a hand held over her mouth concealing an impish grin—and witty sound effects paired with Michael O’Connor’s dramatic lighting make for subtle theatricality. James Baker’s sound collage—which bears a strong resemblance to The Books—is complementary, yet less interesting when directly in synch with Butler’s movement. Butler transitions among states of being—playful, mischievous, bored, indecisive, charming, cryptic, and vulnerable—as if unexpectedly thrown back to a childhood that has long been forgotten. A wind-up doll teeters over, paralyzed from the waist down. A busy telephone operator at a switchboard transforms into a ballet princess showing off onstage. A girl maniacally frolics in a field of flowers. Footsteps methodically enact fingers tapping on a typewriter. A glance is cast sideways towards a well-lit phenomenon.
“Almost all children have preternatural skills and a highly developed aesthetic sense,” Lyn Hejinian writes in her book-length poem, The Beginner. “Out of their sense of time emerges … the possibility of a sequence, a sentence, the point and period of which are yet to be discovered.” It is this effortless poeticism that underwrites O’Connor’s choreography. Movement organically evolves into experience without ever being forced. Series of events are carefully arranged so that Butler can heroically leap and tumble from place to place. She is like a child carefully exploring the world around her who has no limitations except the ones offered by habit and familiarity.
At the end, Butler’s morphing persona pauses at two memorable gestures. A hand is held out like a well-trained puppy’s paw. Soon after, two fingers elegantly pull an imaginary line from the opposite hand. The effect is quieting yet liberating, as if the accumulation of all these childhood experiences was just a simple line. It hovers in the air signifying neither progress nor growth, rather calm and endurance—a steady breath. Butler takes a final look at the audience and lets it go.
Christine Hou is a poet and arts writer living in Brooklyn.