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

By Hardy, Camille | Dance Magazine, February 1994 | Go to article overview

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.

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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
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