Transcript, Episode 58: The Fate of the Corps, Writing Dance from Prison, and Rena Butler

[Jump to Rena Butler interview]


Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Cadence Neenan:
And I’m Cadence Neenan.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And on the docket today, we have a part two on the “Tonight Show” Addison Rae controversy—this time we’re going to highlight the voices of the original TikTok dance creators. We are going to talk about what the future of the corps de ballet looks like, and more broadly what the dance ensemble’s future is, now that the pandemic has kept large groups off stage for more than a year. We will discuss a prison dance project that, rather than shutting down during the pandemic, became a written choreography project. And then we’ll have our interview with Rena Butler, the dancer and choreographer who just became Gibney Company’s first ever choreographic associate—a position that’s sort of quietly revolutionary in the way it’s designed.

Rena is incredibly thoughtful and compassionate in her practices, both inside and outside of the dance studio. We talked about how her dance work intertwines with her advocacy work, and the profound power of mentoring and being mentored, which is such an important part of her practice too. There was a lot of laughing, there’s a little bit of crying—it was a great conversation.

Before we start this week’s episode, though, I want to take a minute to address an oversight from our conversation last episode about collective dance company models. We discussed Pointe magazine’s story on Ballet Co.Laboratory, which has a dual contract system that provides company members with both administrative and artistic employment. We were really impressed by the way, its collaborative structure has kept its dancers paid and fulfilled throughout the pandemic.

And then after the episode aired, I got a note from last week’s interview, guest Sydnie Mosley. And Sydnie, I know you don’t want to center yourself in this conversation, so thank you for letting me mention your email. But Sydnie pointed out that we needed more context in that discussion. Because Ballet Co.Laboratory—it’s striking that a ballet company, usually ballet companies are so rigidly hierarchical, it’s striking for a ballet company to use this kind of model. But they are far from the first company to implement this kind of thing. In fact, Sydnie’s own collective, SLMDances, has a similar system, which I should have at least nodded to during the round table conversation, because yes, of course! And then there’s a long legacy of organizations with these kinds of structures, which includes Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange, Christal Brown’s INSPIRIT, some of the iterations of Urban Bush Women and Gibney Company—there’s plenty of precedent here.

And I think recognizing that legacy is especially important because we don’t want to perpetuate this trend of ballet-world stories dominating dance conversations that go well beyond ballet. So, later in the episode, you will hear Rena Butler talk about her experience that Gibney and the freedom and the balance that she’s found in her unconventionally structured position there—the conversation continues. But going forward, we will do a better job locating that conversation within both dance history and then also today’s wider dance world.

All right. So now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, and Courtney, you’re up first.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right. So this past weekend marked the first where indoor performing arts venues in New York City could open for live performances, at a maximum of 33% capacity with audiences of no more than 100, or 150 if all provide proof of a negative COVID test. Of particular note was the first performance in a Broadway house since the Great White Way shuttered on March 12th, 2020: a double bill featuring a monologue from Tony winner Nathan Lane and an improvised song and dance number from tap luminary Savion Glover.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Signs of spring! Signs of returning to life.

Courtney Escoyne:
Another sign of returning to life is the Vail Dance Festival announcing it will return with live performances this summer, with Calvin Royal III serving as the festival’s artist in residence. Royal was slated to serve in the position last year, but wasn’t able to take up his appointment when the pandemic forced the festival to cancel live performances. This year’s festival will be held entirely outdoors, conforming to current COVID protocols, and will feature new works by Jamar Roberts, Tiler Peck, Michelle Dorrance, Justin Peck, and more.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s a lot of familiar Vail faces. I know that we’ve been talking a lot about how the dance world can’t just be business as usual as we start to reopen, but there is something a little comforting about the fact that Vail’s going to look much as it always has this summer.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. The thought of Vail being Vail is so nice.

In an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dance Data Project founder Elizabeth Yntema decried Pennsylvania Ballet’s announcement that its digital spring season would honor founder Barbara Weisberger without a single work by a female choreographer. The three programs showcase 11 works, all by male choreographers. As Yntema pointed out, with rehearsals and performances taking place digitally, access to women choreographers has never been easier. So, what gives?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. This unsurprisingly generated a lot of buzz, especially because Pennsylvania Ballet has done better by women choreographers in the recent past. We’re going to link to the letter in the show notes. Please give it a read.

Cadence Neenan:
Cinephiles, this next one is for you. Sofia Coppola will direct a film featuring choreography by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins for New York City Ballet’s virtual gala this spring. The film will be shot entirely on location at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, and will feature members of New York City Ballet performing five works, including a world premiere by the company’s current resident choreographer and artistic advisor, Justin Peck.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Connecting this to the previous headline item: I think we would be a little bit more excited about this project if it included work by even one female choreographer, but it will be interesting to see these older pieces through Sofia Coppola’s eyes.

Courtney Escoyne:
For sure. All right, I cannot believe I’m making this reference in 2021, but: Winter is coming to Broadway, the West End, and Australia. A play based in the world of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the basis for Game of Thrones, is in development, aiming for a 2023 premiere. It’s reportedly going to be set 16 years before the Westeros known to Game of Thrones fans, and will dramatize The Great Tourney at Harrenhal, an event that precipitated the rebellion that would see the Targaryen overthrown, which is basically what allows everything that happened in Game of Thrones to happen. Given how spectacularly HBO botched the final season of the show, essentially throwing away all of the cultural clout the television series had earned over a decade, I’m curious to see if this will have as big an audience as they’re clearly hoping for. But if nothing else, I think the fight choreography is going to be spectacular.

Cadence Neenan:
Courtney, the shade.

Courtney Escoyne:
Me talking about Game of Thrones—there’s a whole other podcast.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was going to say, another spin off!

Cadence Neenan:
And our next item, we’re calling back to our previous conversation on non-fungible tokens. Bruno Mars’ dancing is being featured in a new emote on Fortnite. His moves are featured in the Icon Series emote, a new item available in the video game shop, designed to allow players to express themselves on the Fortnite playing field. Mars’ emote will be set to the sounds of “Leave the Door Open,” a single from Silk Sonic, the R&B group featuring both Mars and Anderson .Paak.

Courtney Escoyne:
And the dance world marked the passing of two more luminaries. Bert Rose, a founding member of the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, died on April 1st at age 81. And Manfred Fischbeck, founder of Philadelphia’s Group Motion Multimedia Dance Theatre and an adjunct professor at University of the Arts, died March 17th at age 80.

Cadence Neenan:
The University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance announced that Kyle Abraham will serve as its next Claude and Alfred Mann Endowed Professor of Dance, succeeding William Forsythe, who has held the position since the school’s inception. In the role, Abraham will provide direct instruction to students in the Kaufman’s School’s BFA in dance program. And needless to say, we’re all very jealous.

Courtney Escoyne:
Those lucky kids, right?

Margaret Fuhrer:
This is so incredibly major. I mean, big congrats to Kyle. He’s one of the biggest, er, busiest—well, also the biggest, but the busiest people in dance, and he could not be more deserving of all of it.

Courtney Escoyne:
And he just had another City Ballet commission digitally premiere this week.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Inspired by Prince! Which, I can’t wait. Anyway, yay for Kyle.

So in our first roundtable segment, we’re going to circle back for a minute to the Jimmy Fallon/Addison Rae mess that we got into last episode. And just a super quick recap of that: TikTok star Addison Rae went on Fallon’s “Tonight Show”; she walked him through some popular TikTok dances, but none of the dances’ original creators were credited, and nearly all of those creators are people of color.

We don’t want to fixate on the story. I think we’re all a little weary of hearing about Jimmy and Addison. But, when we were talking last episode, at that point, the voices of the original creators of the TikTok dances were missing from the conversation. And over the past week, we have been hearing their voices, or some of them. So we want to continue to amplify them. Fallon actually had some of the original dance creators on his show on Monday, which was a sort of superficial, but at least it happened, step in the right direction. But there were also some deeper dive interviews with these artists that were more substantial and revealing.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. So it was I think at least a nice gesture Fallon brought on a number of notable TikTok creators, including the originators of the “Blinding Lights” stance, the “Savage” dance, and of course the “Up” dance. He said that he thought the creators those dances deserve to have their own spotlight. And he did a short interview with each of them. But I think what was really interesting is getting to see some of these creators doing deeper dive interviews, as Margaret was saying. There were a few interviews with the creators of the “Up” dance, Mya Johnson and Chris Cotter—who, on a side note, are 15 and 13 years old respectively, just the level of talent in such young people. I am endlessly inspired. Wow.

They were talking about how, when they first saw the Addison Rae Jimmy Fallon skit, they were really excited to see their dance, but then it kind of set in that they weren’t being credited. And there was an interview with Mya Johnson in PopSugar. And it was this kind of heartbreaking quote where she says, “My mom always tells me when it’s my time, it’s my time. But I felt like that should’ve been my time and Chris’s time because we created the dance.” And I think it really, that quote goes to the heart of a lot of what we’ve talked about on this podcast—that, why is it that you’re having Addison Rae, who didn’t create this dance, demonstrate it? And why are you not even crediting the names of the people who created the dance in the actual video? They were only credited in the captions for the video.

Chris said, in a different interview with Slate, “I was happy, but at the same time, I didn’t want me and Mya to be going up while she, Addison Rae, was getting brought down.” So he offered that perspective on his experience, kind of watching the Addison Rae flack on the internet. And I was just really glad to hear from them. I think oftentimes, creators of color’s voices are not listened to. And I think especially young creators of color, I think we often write off younger people in the dance world. And I think that this was really an important interview to see.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think Chris’s quote that you just gave us a little bit of—like, that entire quote, he responded with such grace to this entire situation. Like he continued to say: “I wanted both of us to be getting lifted up and maybe even collabing in the future and just getting together and going up to the top together.” And that is such an honestly wonderfully wholesome perspective. And this idea of dancers as a whole, we do tend to be at the bottom of the rungs of the ladder when it comes to entertainment and culture and all those things, this is a repeated idea. And so the idea of, If we don’t support each other, who else will? More of that, particularly from creators who are not creators of color, who are in positions of privilege to help lift up all dancers, but especially dancers who aren’t, who are from more marginalized communities who aren’t necessarily working from these positions of privilege.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I felt the same way, Courtney, reading those interviews—the Slate interview in particular—at just how gracious, just how generous they were in the way that they responded to this whole situation. And also how generous Cardi B was in promoting these young artists, and the way she has been for a while, in terms of promoting young artists who are doing great things with her music. That seems very much in line with the way this culture is right now: Black artists are uplifting the people of color who are often behind these social trends, no matter how many or few followers they have, but white-dominated mainstream media outlets and marketing firms are focusing instead on white creators with larger followings, who are often co-opting this material.

Courtney Escoyne:
And we’ve been saying this for a year. And an interesting wrinkle is that Chris and Mya knew Jalaiah Harmon before “Renegade.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
They’re friends!

Courtney Escoyne:
They’re friends with her. And so they literally watched Jalaiah go through this a year ago. And they even said they were thinking, “I hope that never happens to us. That would be so terrible.” And then it was just—really, we haven’t learned in the past year? We haven’t had that moment yet?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty bad that the first wave of fallout stories after this whole thing happened, they didn’t feature interviews with these creators. They were talking to Addison Rae, she was still the center of the story. So it’s good to see some sort of media course correction happening here. Because as we said last week, this isn’t just about crediting dance creators or having the original dance creators on Fallon. It’s about fixing bigger issues within TikTok culture and pop culture generally that make it harder for BIPOC artists to achieve mainstream popularity. And working toward equity and the way the media covers those artists, that’s an important step forward.

By the way, we would be remiss not to include these artists’ TikTok handles. So for the record, you can follow Mya @theemyanicole and Chris @cchrvs on TikTok, please give them a follow.

So next up on our list today, we have a story that ran in Pointe magazine, so it’s written from a ballet perspective, but it poses questions that apply to a much broader swath of the dance world. And that’s writer Laura Cappelle’s piece about the future of the corps de ballet. She begins the piece by talking about how much she’s missed watching large-scale corps de ballet work during the pandemic, when, you know, safety protocols have kept corps-driven ballets offstage. But then she gets into a more analytical discussion of the fate of the corps. Because even in non-pandemic times the corps was on the decline, for several reasons. And that’s also true of large ensemble work elsewhere in dance, outside of ballet. So, what is the value of the dance ensemble? And if it’s something that we do value, how can we revive it?

Courtney Escoyne:
So something that Laura explained, obviously, as we can all kind of figure out on our own, we have not really been seeing corps work over the last year, because it’s a lot of dancers and a relatively small amount of space, which creates health concerns. Also, even if you’re in a situation where, whatever your local regulations are, that would allow you to have that many people in a room, the amount of money it takes to like test that many people regularly for COVID is also a factor. So we have not been seeing it on stage for the last year. But as Laura points out, the corps was kind of already on the decline prior to the pandemic. Some of it has to do with, you know, the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when a lot of companies cut down their rosters, many of whom have not fully rebounded. And also in the wake of the pandemic, those economic shortfalls also are seeing some voluntary redundancies being offered to dancers.

But something else that Laura talked about was, when she was working on her dissertation for her PhD, she built a database of ballets created by Paris Opéra, New York City Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, and English National Ballet between 2000 and 2016. Out of 196 works, 87% were one-acters. The average number of dancers involved was 18; 38% only offered soloist parts. And just under 20% had a corps of over 20 dancers. So here we’re seeing a trend of, in the creation of new works, the corps de ballet is essentially taking a back seat. It’s far less likely to be put at the forefront.

There are a number of reasons for this. One that had not occurred to me, that I thought was quite interesting, was that being able to work with a very, very large ensemble actually requires a different skill set as a choreographer than working with a group of soloists or a lot of pas de deux. Someone who does this exceptionally well is Crystal Pite, who has been making more work for ballet companies over the past few years, and has done it with large ensembles. But like, as she has said in interviews, it’s a very different skillset. It’s not like something that’s super, super easy and straightforward. But if you look at film of those pieces, I mean, it’s absolutely breathtaking and stunning and wholly contemporary. So it tells us the corps doesn’t have to be a relic of the 1890s Russian classical ballets that came out of Petipa and Ivanov, it can still be a wonderfully contemporary, very powerful thing—within ballet and then getting beyond ballet, into concert dance and into musical theater and all those things.

Cadence Neenan:
One of the things that I thought was most compelling in Laura’s article was talking about how, not only is there just something different about seeing the corps, but that seems like the exact sort of sensation that we might’ve been missing during the pandemic. She has this really beautiful quote where she says, “The appeal of so many bodies coming together and breathing as one may be even stronger when all restrictions are lifted.” And I think it makes a really excellent point to the feeling of watching a corps de ballet, because it’s not just the aesthetics that you see on stage. I mean, there is nothing like the beautiful diagonals in Swan Lake or the Shades scene in La Bayadère, like those are just breathtakingly beautiful, but there is a different energy within the theater itself of seeing that many dancers moving together as one on the stage, and feeling the energy of that many dancers working together. And I think that’s the kind of energy that a lot of us are craving after the pandemic. It’s like the ballet equivalent of the hug that we haven’t gotten in the last year and a half.

Margaret Fuhrer
Yes! It’s so poised for a comeback.

Courtney Escoyne:
I think also, like, looking at musical theater before Broadway shut down: two of the most insanely wonderfully dancey shows on Broadway, the revival of West Side Story and Moulin Rouge!—massive ensembles of dancers.

Cadence Neenan:
Jagged Little Pill had a pretty big ensemble of dancers as well, if I remember.

Courtney Escoyne:
Jagged had a fairly large ensemble. They also did a lot of like doubling, ’cause they had a lot of great soloists who could match up with the individual sung and spoken characters.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think this is going to be something that we really have to address as we start to reopen, because we’ve essentially raised a whole generation of choreographers who’ve been taught to think small. The vast majority of them haven’t known anything but scarcity and underfunding. There’s always the sense of, you’re never going to have the resources to mount some huge ensemble piece, create smaller, imagine smaller.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. The more dancers you have in the room, the more you need to pay. And especially if you want to, as a young choreographer coming up and as an independent choreographer, if you want to work ethically, you have to figure out, okay, I can work with the people that I can pay.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Exactly. And it’s—you can’t argue against the fact that ensemble dance work is expensive. Yes. No two ways about it. It’s expensive, but we can’t treat it as some unnecessary luxury, because it’s an integral part of dance expression. Like, dancing in a group? Literally the first way humans danced. It can’t just disappear from concert stages because we can’t afford it. And we have to start encouraging and allowing choreographers to think bigger and even training them in that very specific craft of managing a large group of bodies on stage, because it is a very specific skill. Ensemble dance holds a power that cannot be replicated. Save the ensemble! End rant.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, yeah. And just, I think choreographically, like the more possibilities that we can have opened up—because you don’t want to see something that is just ensemble, ensemble, ensemble and straight unison, cause unison loses its power, but you also don’t want to just see a bunch of, like, solos and duets that are very tricksy and virtuosic and that’s all you see. You vary the composition of what you’re seeing on stage so that it’s a richer meal that you are serving to the audience.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Sure, exactly. Yes, but it’s—dance is not complete without the ensemble course of that meal.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, exactly. You need all of it. You got to get your vegetables, you got to get your meat, your potatoes, get some bread rolls on there maybe.

Cadence Neenan:
It was a really interesting food pyramid you’re building, Courtney. Bread rolls are at the top of my food pyramid.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was going to say, mine is mostly bread rolls. All right. So, moving on, because we’ve got to.

In our final roundtable segment, we want to discuss another thought-provoking pandemic dance story. Dance Magazine recently ran a piece on educator Suchi Branfman’s Dancing Through Prison Walls project. Before COVID, Branfman was working in-person with incarcerated people from a men’s prison in Norco, California. But those dancers didn’t have access to online tools like Zoom. So once the pandemic hit, they ended up switching from live classes to written correspondence, with dancers inside the prison writing out choreography and sending it to Branfman. And then Branfman made six of those dances into a film, with the help of some choreographers who had previously worked with her inside the prison.

This story weaves together several large, seemingly disparate ideas, from the huge risk that incarcerated populations have faced during the pandemic to the generative power of language and dance. So let’s talk about how all of those things are connected.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. There is so much to unpack here. Something that’s really striking is Branfman says once the pandemic hit and obviously they weren’t able to go and do any of this in-person anymore, they basically said to her, “Well, I guess we’ll see you when this is over.” And her response was basically just like, “All right, give me a minute.” And essentially she ended up writing to some of the incarcerated individuals that she had been working with and sending them examples of written dances and prompts, and encouraged them to start writing choreography. Many of them were in what is essentially solitary confinement due to prison regulations trying to keep them separate from one another. And so they were working from this space where they didn’t have the community space that they had been generating through these choreography workshops.

But through these written prompts, about 10 of the dancers who had previously worked with her began sending her written dances. Some were like move by move instructions. Some of them were narratives. Some of them were stories. And Branfman started working with other dancers who were on the outside to interpret these. And that’s now being turned into a film.

Cadence Neenan:
Reading the story, I was thinking about how important it was that Branfman didn’t give up at the get. I think that there—it would’ve been so easy to just say, well, there isn’t Zoom, and that’s how everyone is dancing now, so this program has just suspended. But I think that would have been just another way that incarcerated people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. And I think, especially in this particular prison, like you were saying, Courtney, the men in this prison were forced to spend nearly all of their time in their bunks during the pandemic. And I think it would have just been not only like a lost opportunity, but also just yet another way that our country and our community has failed incarcerated people.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, we could go on some whole rants about the prison industrial complex. That—again, it’s just a whole other podcast. But I think the fact of Branfman having this program and doing this work and helping give them more of a voice and amplifying those voices is so important.

One of the things that’s brought up in here, like in addition to the pandemic, all the wildfires that were happening last year—it is a thing in California that oftentimes the firefighters who were fighting wildfires are actually incarcerated individuals who are getting paid a dollar an hour. And when they get out of prison, they can’t get jobs as firefighters because they have a record. Which is…I don’t have words for. And Branfman talked about how these are the people that she works with. Like, she learned about this from these men that she works with through these choreography workshops.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. These dances I think are part of the bigger conversation about how, when it comes to the injustices of mass incarceration, we are all complicit. The dances themselves emphasize the individuality and the humanity and the creativity of incarcerated people, whom we all too often are eager to ignore, who we sort of forget about.

There’s also something about the matching of medium and situation here that’s kind of perfect, in that these written dances—since they’re imagined creations, they’re not limited by real bodies or stage spaces, or even like the laws of physics. And that kind of freedom, that freedom of imagination, freedom within a creative space, is especially important to a group of people who are under constant surveillance and whose real life movements are extremely limited.

Courtney Escoyne:
Something else I love in the story that’s just little detail in here: One of the men who wrote choreography between March and May of 2020, Richie Martinez, has since been released. And so he actually dances his own choreography in the film. And like, that’s beautiful. That’s just really beautiful and impactful and amazing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, that’s kind of a nice note to end on, because we are way over time. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’ll have our interview with Rena Butler. Stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH RENA BUTLER

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi again, dance friends. I am really excited to be here now with dancer and choreographer Rena Butler. Hi Rena!

Rena Butler:
Hey, how’s it going?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Good. How are you doing? Whatever that means these days.

Rena Butler:
I know. It shifts from day to day and I’m trying to be more truthful with my answers. And so “good” just doesn’t suffice anymore. I think we’re all in inconsistent places, so I want to find connectivity in that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That is the wisest answer to “How are you?” I’ve heard in a while.

Rena Butler:
Oh, yay! Okay, cool.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Rena has this truly extraordinary resume. She was a dancer and choreographic fellow with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. She danced with AIM by Kyle Abraham. She danced with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, and with David Dorfman Dance. And then she’s created works for BalletX, Boston Dance Theater, the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art, and she has a bunch of exciting upcoming commissions. And then she was recently named Gibney Company‘s first-ever choreographic associate, which is a three-year position that I’m very eager to hear more about.

But first, Rena, after that Cliff’s Notes bio, what would you like to share with listeners about who you are and your relationship with dance?

Rena Butler:
I feel like I’m an explorer, and I wish I could put that whenever anyone asks for my bio for a dance program. I want to say, I love the color forest green. I love to travel, and I love to just explore things I know nothing about, I love to connect with people that have such different experiences from me. And how that all relates to dance—I navigate that, I think through a physical vernacular, through that physical language. And I just… I want people to know that I’m really multifaceted, and you may think you know through the resumé or the bio, but there’s so much more and there’s so much more that’s going on in my head and my heart and I’m trying to transcribe that through dance. I love to surf! I like to meet new people and creatively problem solve. I think that sums me up. Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You think you know, but you have no idea.

Rena Butler:
The true life of Rena Butler!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well Rena, congratulations on your new position at Gibney, which is huge. Can you talk a little bit about what the position includes, and then how you came to it? Because I think—did Gina initially recruit you as a dancer?

Rena Butler:
Gina did. I had gotten a call from Nigel Campbell, who is a former colleague of mine, we had danced together in Kyle Abraham’s company back in the—it gives so much away, but 2011 actually, when I was still a senior at SUNY Purchase and I really had no idea what I was doing. And Nigel really vouched for me. I didn’t know what train to take to get to which—New 42, or which studio that I was trying to go to. And so I think he’s always had me in the back of his mind, especially when stepping into this directorship. Last year around the beginning of February, I think once the auditions had concluded and they didn’t find everyone that they were looking for, and so Nigel reached out like, “okay, how do you want the position? We have a dancer and artistic associate contract available.”

And so that’s what I originally had stepped in, where I wanted to… I was at Hubbard Street at the time and I think after my first year, I just knew it wasn’t the right place for me. But I knew there was work to be done for me to evolve into the artist that I am eager to be. I think I’m just eager to be multifaceted, to touch all of these different areas within the field so I can just keep building myself, I think, as a more fruitful and mindful person. And when I got here, and the reason why I came—sorry, just to backtrack a bit—is that because there is a focus on advocacy, and I knew in developing my choreographic voice at Hubbard Street that I started to really give myself to being an advocate, or an “agent for change,” as my director Amy Miller would phrase it. And I really wanted to do something to help my community.

I had built a program and created a program over at Hubbard Street for young dancers or young people that wanted to create ideas in space and find commonality in that. And I don’t think it was necessarily supported as much as it could have been in the Hubbard Street space. And I think just because of—the focus was different, it was just a difference in trajectory, the kind of artists maybe they wanted for their company and their organization versus what I wanted for myself.

And so coming to Gibney, it was awesome. And then I realized in the second week of being there that it wasn’t and for me. I think I just had filled my quota as a full-time dancer, of just the same 10 to 6 scenario, training, being in rehearsal in the space for eight hours a day, and I didn’t have enough time for myself. And I’m not just speaking about professional matters—like, outside commissions, outside of Gibney’s organization or anything in that regard, it was just to go home and be with my partner and laugh and giggle and then maybe go for a walk. It just felt quite suffocating. And I think I’ve always worked this way, and I was getting frustrated with myself, because here I was so eager to switch location and locate myself in that new location that I totally missed out on the things that I was beginning to prioritize. I think 2020 put that mirror in front of all of us and really challenged us all to revalue—I want to say refinance—our lives, but it really was like, how are you going to reimagine? What are the things that are most important for a bountiful, glorious, expansive vision of life? What are those things that you want? And what’s the best quality?

And so I knew working 10 to 6 Monday through Friday, just dancing, wasn’t it for me. Because I have so many interests, like 1,000,001 per second. And I was like, “Okay, I can ride this out for a year. I’m contracted for a year up until we have our premiere at the Joyce”—which is coming up in November, super exciting—but I knew I needed to communicate that.

And so Kyle Abraham had been my mentor. I had called him over our winter break and I had said, “I don’t think it’s sitting right with me. It has nothing to do with the organization. I just think I’m in a different place where I don’t feel like I need to keep digging on incessantly as a dancer, giving so much time in a day to just investigating this one side of me.”

And Kyle was like, “Gina is so cool. I feel if you just ask her, she’ll probably come up with something that’ll just totally flip whatever you have in your mind on its head, and make you see something from a different perspective.” I was like, okay, cute, but I’m just trying to be part-time. I don’t even need to be paid. I want to give equal value and equal parts of myself and my energy to all of my interests.

And so I was nervous to explain that to Gina, and when I finally did, she was like, “Okay, give me two weeks. Let me marinate on this. This is news. It’s not bad. I just need time to decide how we can creatively move forward.” And she came back with a three-year contract! She understands, I think, in me explaining how I envisioned myself here at Gibney for a year was wanting to still give the best quality of myself to the work that I had committed to within the contract. But I just wanted more distance. And she actually found a way to make it palpable for me, especially when I’m like, “I want to dance. I also want to choreograph. I also want to try this, and then I want to go surfing.” So I feel like there were so many different things and she was like, how do you support someone who is at this intersection of their career and give them agency to still be here presently and be here fully, but to give them freedom? Because that can only contribute not only to their wellbeing and their evolution as a person and a professional and as an artist, but it’s also going to be a win for the organization to bring that information, that knowledge back of what you gained during the research time working, just investigating something else.

And I think she’s so genius and brilliant. She was the reason why I wanted to come to Gibney in the first place. And for her to sit with that, it’s just the first time I’ve ever heard of a company really allowing that much liberation for a single artist. And I really hope companies see that and are inspired by that and can make models across the globe in order to support artists because we’re not one dimensional people.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, and I think some people maybe who aren’t involved in the professional dance world might not realize just how unusual, just how groundbreaking this position is. Can you talk a little about what makes it unique? What does it allow for that a more conventional residency or fellowship might not?

Rena Butler:
So what’s really cool about it is that, it’s three years. So it’s really promoting longevity and an individual’s career, an individual that wants to choreograph and still dance at the same time. And within that, there’s a giant conversation happening between me as a choreographic associate and my directors about when I would be in the studio, which pieces I would be a part of. And so there’s a lot of negotiation and transactions going on about, okay, how can I be here to support the company, versus when I’m away and I’m researching. So there are selective pieces where I’m a part of, whether I audition for them or I sit one out—which I’m totally cool with, because I’m 31. These knees are not doing what they used to!

And it’s really great. So I think within that, we’re still defining it. I think this is really new for them. It’s really new for me. So I take all the experience from my past of being in choreographic positions, particularly with Hubbard Street, the things that worked and the things that didn’t, and we find ways to innovate them here, and to make them new, to refresh those ideas. And so you have this three-year thing that promotes the longevity. You also have the research time to go, whether that’s anywhere between nine to 12 weeks out of a 52 week contract. We’re always going to come back at the beginning or the end of each season and talk about what things worked, what things didn’t. And I just love the flexibility in that, because it really does support the artists in trying to make sense of such a huge transition.

It feels like we’ve always been the same scenario of—a narrative has always been played out, where the dancer is the dancer and then in order to choreograph, you need to stop being a dance artist. And I’m still being able… I’m still able to do both, and that’s really wild. And I’m still able, within this three year contract, to make three commissions for the company. So however I choose.

I also get to delegate who my choreographic mentor will be, which is Kyle Abraham, cat’s out of the bag! We just had brunch together, and I’m talking about the different mentors I’m interested in and what that could be, and Kyle literally looks at me and…I was like, “okay, I wanted to ask you, but yeah, I know you’re really busy and I don’t want to get in the way!” But he is like an older brother to me. And he has put up with me for so many years, all of the emotions we’ve been through, lots and lots and lots together, almost anything you can imagine. The friction, the harmony, it all falls under the umbrella of us.

So I trust him, and I trust that he’ll prompt me with the right questions to guide me forward. It’s not just—he won’t “yes” me, and that I love. He’ll challenge me, and he’ll keep prompting me to question my work, to get clearer, to get down to the nitty gritty and the root of things. And I love him as a creator just because he’s such a beautiful person—and also a MacArthur genius, so that doesn’t hurt. He’s such a great person to be around. I think it’s really going to feed me creatively, and he’s fair reviewing my work and making those suggestions.

How I’m deciding, for now at least, how to utilize this position, is I’m really taking these three separate commissions and I’m building to a larger work. Because I never really get the space or the time to chisel away at something, to start with a duet or a trio and then to see it and resee it and chisel some more and go back and revisit it—but what could it say if this gesture then looked like this? And I only start questioning it because I’ve had time to sit with it. And I’m wanting to take full advantage of that. So I think as we go, I’ll understand what I’m doing, I think, with each excerpt I create—and then just keep building upon.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Freedom and flexibility within the stable framework over time—it’s the dancer’s, the artist’s dream! That’s incredible. I think… I mean there’s been a lot of conversation, especially during the pandemic, about how traditional dance institutions are broken, and that they don’t support dance makers in the ways that they need to be supported. And especially people who, like you, are looking to be agents of change, who have other interests. What else do you—what should the dance community be doing to address this institutional dysfunction?

Rena Butler:
That’s such a great question. We were just talking about that actually in rehearsal, because I feel it’s not just dance makers that face this. I think it’s dancers in general. And how we prioritize the coin or the money over the wellbeing of the face of the organization, essentially. And what I’ve learned about, being in several different spaces—I believe this might be my seventh or eighth dance company—is that… And I’ve been really fortunate. I just need to name that in the space. Thank you universe, because I’ve learned a lot and I’ve grown a lot. But some spaces are very supportive, and in others, you can tell what the priority has been for years and years and years. And its as if every organization—not every, but most—when they hire dance artists, it’s this act of just releasing sense of self and being a part of the group in the ensemble. So we’re not promoting individuality. And with that—it’s even just within that act of, no one here is the star, you’re just a part of the ensemble. Then we start sterilizing, and we dehumanize, all of those individual aspects that make artists so great. Even to the point where if a choreographer is working through something and a dancer is injured, how often have we negated the fact that it hurts, that maybe my tallus is out of place and I’m still going to try to hit the step to achieve what the choreographer wants because I’m afraid of stepping out of bounds or I’m afraid of holding the group back. So there, we de-center ourselves to make art happen, but not in such a healthy way at all.

And then, also, just whatever energy is at the front of the room is still important. And I think in spaces—organizations, because of the clout around a creator or a choreographer, yield to whatever energy the choreographer’s putting at the front of the room. And I’ve been in situations where I’ve had terrible experience with a choreographer being at the front of the room and not necessarily knowing how to manage maybe their feelings or insecurities, which are then projected onto the dancers, and we’re expected to take them.

So, I think it’s also… It’s like a prism. I think it all folds into each other. And I feel what sticks out to me most in what you’re asking me is, how do we prioritize mental health? How are we supporting the dancers that maintain the work, humanizing them? If you’re not feeling emotionally ready today, okay! How do we navigate that? What are some creative solutions, other than suck it up and just put your tights on and go, which is the culture.

And I’m starting to understand what my boundaries are, too, as a dance artist. And I think being older now, being in my 30s—well, I told you, I’m like, the knees ain’t bending like they used to, and the back is not arching like it used to either! So I’m really needing to go, “I understand where you’re going, this is great, but today the conversation with my body, my body is telling me no.”

So, and then also as a choreographer being on the other side of the room, am I really aware enough, am I really present? Where I am giving the dancers, and I’m asking so much from them, space to be themselves. I think it’s really a question of how are we holding and sharing space.

And this is a phrase we hear a lot of, and I think it really rings true. And Gibney just does that so well. They do it so well! And I think it’s within their work as an organization that prioritizes advocacy, because not only—going back to the choreographic associate position, as well as the artistic associate position—with all of the creative processes going on, you still have to come up with a project that services the community, whether that’s dance-related or beyond. And they really are like, “are you on your fellowship? Are you working…” They really want you to get creative, get into it and find the passion behind that and uphold it just as much as the passion is behind your artistic practice. And I think if we made it less about the money and made it more about how we’re bringing art back to the community—because it’s the first thing to go when government funding gets cut, and in statistics, you see that it’s so beneficial for young brains and bodies and minds. And so that’s a conundrum for me. How do we keep art relevant, too? I think this all plays within the systemic issues.

And so allowing works on stage or on film that speak to world events will keep this art form relevant. And I really am a firm believer behind that. And it’s not that you have to beat it over the head, especially being a Black creator. I’m not just that, and I don’t make work just about the Black experience. I make work about the color blue, about Plato’s philosophies, about… which have everything and nothing to do with being a female Black artist.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You’ve already started to answer the next question that I had, which is about your deep commitments—anybody who follows you knows that you have these deep commitments to service to social justice. Can you talk a little bit more, just continue your thoughts, on how those commitments weave in and out of your dance work? How are those things connected in the bigger picture?

Rena Butler:
Of course. I think when I was with Bill, I remember him saying in post-performance discussions all the time, “I’d love to keep doing what I’m doing as long as I’m allowed to be a participant in the world of ideas.” And I just love this. And so it’s really that—whatever my curiosity catches along the way, I’m there and I’m in it and I want to explore it.

And so I think with the things I’m tethered to—my identity and the advocacy surrounding what that is—even for people that I can’t necessarily relate to, or I can, when I see an injustice, I’m like, “okay, how can we transcribe that through the physical form?” Because I’m interested in expressing and speaking to those things and provoking thought, and also finding something that doesn’t necessarily fit with it to make the connection. So then Bob sitting up in row triple Z in a balcony can say, “Oh, I see myself!”

Margaret Fuhrer:
“There I am.”

Rena Butler:
“Oh, that’s what that gesture is.” And here in something totally unrelated to my life, am I able to connect if he’s never seen dance—he/she/they, have never seen dance? And I think it’s just about, with all these interests that I have surrounding social justice, I think the root of it is really where I’m finding connectivity with myself and with the world around me and with other people.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I want to come back to the idea of mentorship because it’s this throughline in your career. And part of your position at Gibney—you’re going to be choosing a mentor. You’re going to be leading a program to foster diverse and choreographic talent. And then you’ve chosen Kyle now as your own mentor. Can you talk a little bit more about what mentorship means to you and how it shapes and informs your practice?

Rena Butler:
Oh, it means so many things. And I’m getting emotional. I think it’s just about representation and what that does for somebody that is six or seven, overhearing a teachers laugh at their ideas around their big goals and their big dreams. And I never could have ever imagined a life like this for myself, where I’m able to travel the world and perform on some of the world’s most beautiful stages. And then also create work that has a potential to travel the world and that my voice is being heard. And I feel a lot of the hardships that I’m exploring in my work are reflections of how I feel I’m seen in society. So I think having this space and having this platform so that anyone seeing themselves, a little bit of themselves, in me can reach out—and I’m so open. I think, wherever I go and I choreograph, reach out, DM me if you have any questions. I think it’s really important to have that guidance. There’s also something to this freeform where you can just go, but I love seeking advice, because I don’t have all the answers. And I encourage younger dancers or younger artists to seek that from me as well, because I think not only can I impart my wisdom, but they have a lot of wise to teach me too, that I never was really aware of. And I think in facilitation, in spaces that are about mentorship, I think we learn a lot. I think we learn how to be inclusive. We learn a lot about equity and not only how we can fulfill someone, a mentee’s, life, but also how it can really enrich ours.

And so I think I learned a lot about how clear I am with the guidance I give. How egoless I need to be in order to be in that space where I can really guide someone that is seeking comfort and encouragement. And it’s so important. I take it so seriously. I think every senior rep solo—I got one for Princeton and one for Julliard that will premiere this spring—and you know, so many of those you hear, it’s about getting the step, you get the payment, they practice, they rehearse, they go. Me, I’m like, “Oh no. Okay. So we need to first sit and we need to have a conversation. What do you want? What do you like? Where do you see yourself, post senior year? How can I help get you there? Do you need a letter of recommendation?” There’s so much that goes into that, and supporting young artists to see themselves past what’s projected onto them.

I think that’s the thing. Growing up, I had a few mentors that really encouraged me to look beyond Ailey. Because I can’t tell you how many times, being a Black female dancer with a muscular body, I heard, “You should go to Ailey, you’d be perfect there!” And I had one mentor, Lisa Johnson-Willingham, who I’m just so grateful for, who was an Ailey dancer and had a very successful career. She’s also the director of the Ailey Extension program now. And I just remember her saying, “So where do you want to go to school?” I’m like “Ailey/Fordham.” And she’s like, “Really, girl? Look beyond, there’s so much out there.”

And for me, I think my motto is about normalizing Black bodies and Black experiences, because that’s what I know. And I think everybody should normalize their experiences in homogenized spaces. And that I think is so important for young people to see, so that they can know that they don’t fit within one category. So it’s… I take it so seriously to the point where I make conscious career choices to make it possible.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Imagine how much of what is broken about dance would not be broken if everybody thought about mentorship that way. When you were talking before about mental health issues, so much of that stems from this flattening of the dancer into this two-dimensional dance robot, who, like you said, is not allowed to be an individual. Mentorship that recognizes dancers as people, and their needs as people, as well as their deeper needs as artists, connects with them on that level—it would be an infinitely better place.

Okay. Before we end, because we’re almost out of time, I just want to give you a chance to talk about some of the works that you have in process right now, because you’re working on so much. Can you talk a little bit about your upcoming commissions? And then, sorry, I keep asking multiple-part questions, but in a larger sense, what creative frequency are you vibrating on right now?

Rena Butler:
Oh my god. These are great questions. I’m working on actually my first feature film, with director Daniela Repas, amazing. She’s a Bosnian refugee that came to the States during the war, and it’s a documentary animated film. And so I’ll be choreographing for that, and it’s great—we met when we both won Princess Grace in 2019, and I think we just vibed right away. She’s such a nurturer and so creative and I just was like, “Who dat?” I was so into it! So we’ve been working on that. We’re in pre-production now and it’s really interesting trying to imagine choreography so clear and so specific to be animated.

And then I’m working on a commission with Dance Theatre of Harlem with author Yaa Gyasi, the New York Times bestselling author of Homegoing. And it’s one of my favorite books—I never thought! So I’m really excited to work with her, and with the dancers of Dance Theatre of Harlem, because they’re just amazing and so generous and open. And I’ve never worked with a company primarily focused on the African diaspora, and that is a whole different vibe in the best way. I really, really enjoy it.

And then I’m also working with Whim W’Him in Seattle, which I’m really excited about, and I’ll fly out there in June for an in-person commission, safely distanced, all of that. And then I am working on… I have a commission with NYU coming up in April, also Juilliard School coming up in the fall, and a few other things, in a company in Sweden next year. And then also GroundWorks, Cleveland. So lots of stuff.

And I’m really just fortunate just because I can keep playing. There’s really… I don’t know what success is. I think success is just being really happy in the moment. I feel pretty successful, I think! And sometimes I don’t achieve what I set out to do, and that’s cool, because I learn from that and maybe that’s called failing too, and so whatever failures, little mini failures I have—I love this process of okay, that failed. Let’s look at it again. Let’s see what we can do with that. And so I think I really love to repurpose, reimagine.

And I forgot the second part of your question because I got lost in it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, it was about creative frequencies, but I feel like you just answered it right now!

Rena Butler:
Well, that and reading, traveling—it means so much to me to taste life outside of the dance world, because I think that’s what informs me and piques my curiosity to then reshape it into a physical modality.

Margaret Fuhrer:
There are so many exciting things happening in your creative life and beyond right now, congratulations. Success is happiness and you’re feeling successful? That like makes me want to cry. That’s wonderful.

Thank you so much for joining today. Before we say goodbye—because I know you’re running to another rehearsal—where can listeners go to find out more about the work that you’re doing and what you have coming up?

Rena Butler:
So I’m currently building my website. It’s a slow process. So more on that, but just in the meantime, follow me @renabutler on Instagram or just Rena Butler on Facebook. Or Google me, see what I’m doing, where I’m at! And DM me, I always respond. I’m really open to that, and it’s a great tool for connectivity. So, yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Awesome. We’ll link all the things too, so people can Google or visit the show notes—we’ll have it everywhere they need it. Thank you so much, Rena.

Rena Butler:
This is so great. Thank you for your time and for giving me this space to speak.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Rena. She has so many exciting things in process right now. It is kind of an incredible moment in her career. And somehow in the middle of it all, she really does make time to answer her DMs! I know that from personal experience, she really does. Please do be sure to give her a follow— or a DM, or if you’re so inspired. She’s @renabutler on Instagram.

All right. Thanks everyone for joining us. We’ll be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Cadence Neenan:
Bye, everyone.