Have Dances, Will Travel: The Late John Butler, a Versatile and Prolific Choreographer, Spread His Abundant Talent around the World, Creating Ballets for Concert Performance, for Opera, and for Television
Hardy, Camille, Dance Magazine
Like choreographers, writers lead a peripatetic life. So it was on the road that I first got to know John Butler, who probably covered more miles as a dancemaker than any other American choreographer. His death on September 11, 1993, brought to mind one of my favorite conversations with him. We were in New Orleans, sipping coffee by a plashing fountain in the French Quarter, spinning away a long afternoon before opening night. Mostly, we talked about Martha Graham.
"She meant everything to me," Butler confessed. "To touch her onstage was like being jolted by an electric shock, and yet she could be the sweetest, most feminine woman in the world." With his courtly southern speech and manners, he also spoke of Graham's tears and of their evenings together, making soup and dishing gossip.
Butler was born in 1920 and grew up as an only child in Greenwood, Mississippi. After fulfilling his family's wishes about education for a while, he eventually informed his parents that he intended to be a dancer. At eighteen, he moved to New York City. His father never spoke to him again. Martha Graham's picture in a book had represented all the magic of the theater to the adolescent Butler, and she embodied the transformational power of dance to him. Upon his arrival in Manhattan, he tooked Graham up in the telephone book and made her studio his first stop.
"I enrolled at the Graham school," said Butler, "but it was Martha who also sent me uptown to study with Muriel Stuart at the School of American Ballet." The intensive training in both ballet and modem shaped a very distinctive vocabulary that led Butler, over a lifetime, to create work on television, on Broadway, and for opera stages around the world, as well as for a wild assortment of international troupes, both classical and nontraditional.
"Martha taught me about the theater, about physical weight in movement, and about stillness," Butler recalled. Stillness is the key concept. During his first years in New York, Butler earned a modest living as a photographer's model. He always had startling good looks, a handsome physique, and an inborn sense of how to be poised for a camera-caught at the instant before leaping or striking out. George Platt Lynes and Richard Avedon were close associates early on, as were Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, and Rouben Ter-Arutunian. Butler's instinct for pictorial organization marks all his choreography.
Butler and I were both in New Orleans to see the local premiere of his Carmina Burana, danced by the Cincinnati/new Orleans Ballet under the direction of Ivan Nagy. Made in 1959 to Carl Orff's infamous score, Butler's Carmina was presented during his lifetime by more than thirty companies around the world. I knew the work from Pennsylvania Ballet's production, as it was staged by Ted Kivitt for Milwaukee Ballet during the early 1980s, and from performances in Europe and South America. Yet the only time I ever saw Carmina in a truly thrilling presentation was in New Orleans. Butler had been in residence for two weeks, coaching the artists. "It's all about stillness and weight," he explained patiently. "Yet I know that after I leave, the wonderful dancers make unconscious changes that smooth out the lines, shorten the inert moments, and lift their centers of gravity to make my crazy steps easier to assimilate." So be it. Yet the New Orleans audience experienced firsthand the dramatic and sensual elements of the Butler aesthetic, heightened by an economy of movement and accents on pauses of absolute immobility.
"My first experiences in New York brought everything together for me," Butler reminisced. Besides his affiliations with photography and concert dance, he also performed on Broadway, first in 1943 as the Dream Curley in Oklahoma! and then as part of the cast in On the Town and Hollywood Pinafore. These experiences led to his appearance in the M-G-M film Words and Music. Off-Broadway he choreographed The Consul in 1947, which was his first production with composer Gian Carlo Menotti, a lifelong friend and collaborator. During this period, Graham was at a creative peak, and Butler was particularly noted for his roles in her Appalachian Spring and Deaths and Entrances.
During the late 1940s Butler began to choreograph for television, which was then in its infancy as a medium. He joyously recalled, "You could experiment all you wanted, because everything was new and there were no rules." His first show was Omnibus," the excellent cultural series that made Alistair Cooke a household name in the United States. For Pictures at an Exhibition, the venerable Leopold Stokowski conducted, Helen Hayes narrated, Butler choreographed, and his dancers included Yuriko, Glen Tetley, Jose Limon, and Lucas Hoving. This was the program that caused Doris Humphrey to stop Butler in the street a few days after the broadcast. She accused him of prostituting modern dance by the association with television. The confrontation wounded Butler deeply. He told this story to friends throughout his lifetime, as if in the retelling he might lessen the anguish Humphrey had inflicted.
Television, nonetheless, was to become a significant venue for Butler. He made dances for "The Seven Lively Arts," "The Bell Telephone Hour," "The Kate Smith Show," "54th Street Revue," "The Steve Allen Show," and "The Ed Sullivan Show." For more than a decade he produced choreography for the Sunday morning staples "Lamp Unto My Feet" and "Look Up and Live." Such works as The Parliament of Heaven, Brief Dynasty, and The Mark of Cain were typical. The latter featured Carmen de Lavallade, with Scott Douglas as Abel and Glen Tetley as Cain. Wesley Fata appeared as Adam and Mercedes McCambridge narrated. (Many of Butler's dances for television are available for viewing at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.) This body of work is tightly composed, economical, and, frequently, very moving. It must be remembered that, to the general public, modern dance was just as novel (and suspect) as was television at the time.
Writing in the New York Times about Butler's Jephthah's Daughter, Clive Barnes gave some insight into the quality of what viewers experienced: "That sad and chronic invalid, television-dance, took a turn for the better yesterday. The occasion was a new ballet by John Butler ... created for television, and our benefactor, for the presenting network, can be regarded as little less than the Columbia Broadcasting System. Mind you, the ballet was given at 10:00 A.M. as part of a religious program, which is hardly peak-hour viewing. But for the early birds, at least, television ballet was doing something." Based on the biblical story and starring de Lavallade with Buzz Miller, Jephthah's Daughter was described by Barnes as "a dance drama of singular power and compassion." The ensemble for all these television experiments was the John Butler Dance Theater, which also led a lively existence as a concert dance group and as a band of featured performers in selected opera productions.
Butler was in demand - he even created numbers for the Ice Capades - and he was known as "a television choreographer of the first rank." Part of the reason he accepted such a wide range of assignments was to be able to keep his dancers working for money, not just for love. Along with de Lavallade and Tetley, Arthur Mitchell, Bertram Ross, Charles Saint-Amand, Felisa Conde, Rikki Septimus, and Tina and Coco Ramirez were part of the regular Butler troupe.
No decade was more pivotal for Butler than the 1950s. American audiences got their first glimpse of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors as a 1951 NBC Television special. Today the opera is a holiday staple that ranks with The Nutcracker. A year later the New York City Opera (NYCO) added Amahl to its repertoire, with Butler's dances adapted for the stage. Almost immediately NYCO turned all choreographic assignments over to Butler. Sizing up the situation in the New York Herald Tribune, Walter Terry referred to Butler's appointment as part of a laudable revolt at the opera led, initially, by Charles Weidman.
The American premiere of Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, in a 1952 production by NYCO, left Terry so excited that he called Butler's choreography "a new peak of power for the art dance in the lyric theater." For the heroine, Judith, Butler provided an Inner Self, a dancing figure portrayed by Mary Hinkson, that made visible to spectators the "mutely eloquent action . . . the doubts and the fears and the unbearable curiosities of Bluebeard's new and doomed wife." Terry found Hinkson's solo the most emotionally intense dance he had ever experienced in opera, and observed: "Here, in these two integrated performances, one did not find song and dance but, rather, word and music, extended into rhythmic, dramatic action."
The Metropolitan Opera also invited Butler to liven up its productions, and he succeeded as well with some offbeat ideas for his own company that gained him national publicity. To give his dancers in Malocchio (1953) a true sense of the ballet's context, Butler rehearsed the cast on site in a Lower East Side tenement and made the pages of Life magazine. Teamed two years later with composer Samuel Barber, who was commissioned to write the score for Adventure, Butler helped persuade the Metropolitan Museum of Art to loan the production a collection of ancient instruments that were part of Barber's inspiration. In 1957 Butler rejoined Menotti to stage The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore for NYCO.
By 1958 Butler had become choreographer for Menotti's Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. Howard Taubman, in a special to the New York Times, described a program that typified the opposite end of Butler's creative spectrum, chamber ballet. Four pieces - Glory Folk, Triad, Mask of the Wild Man, and Unquiet Graves - were varied in theme if not in style. For the first time in Italy, though, the ballets drew together a remarkable band of collaborators that included Calder and Ter-Arutunian, along with Geoffrey Holder and Jac Venza. A year later Butler created Carmina Burana, which became one of the most widely performed ballets in the international repertoire.
From a European ethos, the choreographer returned to his American roots with a vengeance. Portrait of Billie, a dance meditation on the tragic life of singer Billie Holiday, was given its world premiere at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960, with de Lavallade and Butler in the sizzling duet. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were also on the program, and Butler's ensemble was the first dance company to appear at Newport. A signature piece and emblematic of Butler's dramatic theatricality, Portrait of Billie is probably best known as part of a 1975 television production with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater that featured Sarah Yarborough and Ulysses Dove as the ill-fated lovers.
Besides Graham, another woman was something of an enchantress in Butler's life: Carla Fracci. He had met the beguiling ballerina during his initial seasons at Spoleto, and her influence quickly led to commissions for dance and opera productions throughout Italy. Known for her lyrical classicism, Fracci also excelled as a dramatic dancer. Butler capitalized on this ability in several of the ballets he made for her, particularly Medea, Othello, and Phaedra. (Literature and poetry were frequently sources of inspiration for his choreography.) With Fracci, Butler found a dancer capable of probing womanly depths of heroic proportion.
The decade of the 1960s saw the explosion of the regional ballet movement in the United States. This growth dovetailed with Butler's decision never to direct his own company again. "I'm a creative person, not a fund-raiser," he was fond of saying. And while he sometimes complained about the loneliness of the road, Butler was also in his element as a ballet gypsy. He liked getting off the plane, being pampered as a visiting guest, and graciously saying adieu after opening-night laurels had been bestowed. With the increasing popularity of dance in America, he crisscrossed the country. In a single year for Harkness Ballet, Aphrodite for Boston Ballet, and Five Ballets the Five Senses for New York City's Channel 13/WNET-TV, among other assignments. The following season marked the premiere of Labyrinth for Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Ceremony for Pennsylvania Ballet, the latter set to a score by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Clive Barnes deemed the ballet "a major achievement." But ballet companies weren't Butler's only choreographic opportunities. He made work for modern dance troupes as well. The Initiate, with Tim Wengerd, was created for the initial program of Salt Lake City's Repertory Dance Theater.
By the time the 1970s rolled around, Butler was a true globe-trotter. The Hague, Munich, Sydney, Spoleto, Montreal, and Warsaw became part of his particular circuit, with periodic visits to other cities in Italy and to South America. He maintained a close artistic relationship with Netherlands Dance Theater and in 1975 choreographed the first dance for Mikhail Baryshnikov after his defection to the West.
Butler's significance as a choreographer has never been fully appreciated, precisely because he chose to travel rather than to remain in a single place. While he had assistants, Butler never had a curator to stay behind and look after his ballets. His dozens of dances are scattered around the world and are thus hard to perceive as a sizable, singular repertoire. Differing sensibilities also played a role in his years of seeming self-exile. Postmodern preferences in the United States diminished interest in the dramatic expressiveness that was Butler's forte. Europeans remained in tune with his aesthetic and understood the sexual tensions that are woven through his oeuvre. Similarly, Butler's role as a dance avant-gardist is often obscured. His achievements in television, lyric theater, and multicultural choreography are often forgotten, along with the broad popular acceptance he helped build for American dance.
But the man just kept traveling. He continued to collect art and sweaters by Missoni - "art for the body," he called these. He was wearing one during our last conversation, which took place in his East Side apartment in June 1993. Ensconced amid pillows covered with exotic textiles, he was as chivalrous as ever, offering coffee, cigarettes, and tales of his acquisitions of the beautiful sculpture from Africa and New Guinea that surrounded him. Warhol, Calder, Lynes, and Avedon lined the walls. "I've sold much of the collection," Butler confessed. "Marini's big horse and rider financed my company's first trip to Europe. More recently, I've paid medical bills by selling art." There was no regret in his statement. A realist always, he was proud to have made so many wise investments in the visual media he cherished. As we chatted over photographs and read old letters, he told me: "I've done everything in my life I ever wanted to do."…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Have Dances, Will Travel: The Late John Butler, a Versatile and Prolific Choreographer, Spread His Abundant Talent around the World, Creating Ballets for Concert Performance, for Opera, and for Television. Contributors: Hardy, Camille - Author. Magazine title: Dance Magazine. Volume: 68. Issue: 2 Publication date: February 1994. Page number: 70+. © 1999 Dance Magazine, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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