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Fancy Footwork

In the dimly lit theater at Irish Arts Center on the west side of Manhattan, James Greenan puts himself through his paces. Facing two portable mirrors and wearing practice clothes of shorts and a tank top, Greenan pounds out a clear, simple rhythm in heeled Irish tap shoes on a very small square of wood. As the audience gathers around him, almost intruding on his private practice, he maintains his rhythmic discipline. The crisp sounds of his shuffling feet echo off the wall behind me. Soon sharp heel drops begin to alter the emphasis of the phrase. The patterns of his footwork continue to morph and intensify over several minutes until he is lashing the floor with the coordination and power of an elite boxer at the speed bag. Yet his face never betrays the effort.

Performance

Jean Butler: “What We Hold”

Place

 Irish Arts Center, New York, NY, February 15, 2024

Words

Candice Thompson

James Greenan, Maren Shanks, Kaitlyn Sardin, Jean Butler, Marion Cronin, Colin Dunne, Kristyn Fontenalla in Jean Butler's “What We Hold.” Photograph by Nir Arieli

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This mix of the virtuosic and the quotidian opens the North American premiere of Jean Butler’s “What We Hold.” Butler is famous for choreographing and starring in “Riverdance,” alongside Michael Flatley, and is now the founder and artistic director of Our Steps, a not-for-profit committed to the history, practice, and performance of Irish dance. She has also partnered with the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library to create a massive oral history project, with over 200 hours of video and audio materials to date, for the “Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive. 

In Fintan O’Toole’s wonderful new book We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, a whole chapter is dedicated to dance and Butler makes an appearance. In it, O’Toole recounts his experience of seeing “Riverdance.” He notes the cultural mixing between America and Ireland writing, “Riverdance was as much a redefinition as a reclamation of Irish tradition. What made it so exhilarating was the sense, not so much of invention, as of recognition.” 

In “What We Hold,” Butler continues to parse this connective tissue inside the form, encouraging recognition, in a more postmodern format.

Jean Butler, Kaitlyn Sardin, Maren Shanks in Jean Butler's “What We Hold.” Photograph by Nir Arieli

As the audience follows the performers through the discreet areas sectioning off the black box theater, snippets of those archived recordings* and Butler’s understated choreography give us a glimpse into a resilient dance culture, persisting and shapeshifting inside an intergenerational cast of acclaimed Irish and Irish American performers. 

Greenan leads us further into the theater where Colin Dunne is on a platform and Butler stands just outside a diagonal path of light, both in socks and costumed casually by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme. A sound sculpture from Ryan C. Seaton and Andrew Rumpler—with overlapping voices, static, rattles, percussion reminiscent of a galloping horse (later Butler will perform the sequence that elicits this uncanny audio impression), and eventually a clear low voice repeating “starts, stops, starts, stops,”— accompanies Dunne’s rocking movements. A sense memory bubbles to the surface, uncoiling out of his body: arms swinging, toes lifting, knees bending, torso spiraling back and forth. Butler inches into Stephen Dodd’s graphic lighting. But before we can fully grasp the contents of this scene, Greenan returns to lead us beyond it.

The path winds us behind a black curtain to seats lining what looks like a low table or runway where two younger dancers—Maren Shanks and Kaitlyn Sardin—pose with one shoulder thrust forward, hips shifted out over the back leg. The fifteen-year-old Shanks, who made her professional debut in this work when it premiered in Dublin in 2022, dons traditional lace up slippers (known as Ghillies) and a short Black Irish-style dance dress while Sardin, who was just named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch in 2024,” wears athletic shorts and socks. Butler joins them, now barefoot, and assembles her body to match their posture of confidence and anticipation. In a unison movement sequence that repeats and rotates to face different directions, they extend their legs in tendu, roll their shoulders back, rock forward on their toes, and stare out into the distance. When they face away from me, I can see the details in the hands as they squeeze and slightly release their fists. 

: James Greenan in Jean Butler's “What We Hold.” Photograph by Nir Arieli

Building blocks of the technique are laid bare and deconstructed with dispassionate poise—legs trace arcs side to side, alternating toes tap, ball changes shift weight—while we hear bits of more colorful, first-person stories about Irish dance teachers, first classes, and an unconventional training space in the back room of a pub. Another anecdote digs into the economics of an earlier generation: how dancing was an activity for those who were too poor to buy instruments, and sometimes it was done barefoot when shoes could not be afforded. 

Left alone on the wood planks, Butler balances on one leg, brushes the floor, walks on her toes backward, moving in a perfect line as though perched on a beam. Even when she flicks one leg in an over-crossed position against the other, there is an extreme care bordering on reticence in her presence. Oddly, just as she starts to flow into what feels like a more personal and nuanced rhythm of footwork, and the dancing begins to take up more space, she walks off the platform, picks up her shoes, and with a piercing look, beckons us to follow her.

We end up in the first part of the theater space, now transformed with a semi-circle of seats. The entire cast is here, along with Seaton, mixing the score from his laptop. The structure of the piece continues to feel like a series of interrupted reveries. Of the episodes that unfurl out of this larger group, some are more dynamic and touching than others. Thrill ripples across the audience as Shanks runs in a fleet 1-2-3 pattern around the group. She flies by so lightly it is impossible to know if the tips of her shoes every really contact the floor. More poignantly, Tom Cashin—a Brooklyn native, former Irish dancing champion, and Broadway performer—comes out of retirement to share choreography from his late dance teacher James Erwin. He moves with an elegance and knowing smile to the sound of a fiddle (tune played by Billy Furlong). 

Tom Cashin in Jean Butler's “What We Hold.” Photograph by Nir Arieli

The work’s insistence on fragmentation made it difficult to build up a kinetic energy to match the swelling strings of the score during the final minutes. Yet, the acknowledgment of something singular existing in the through line of their physicalities and the undercurrent of joy whenever they folded into unison or met each other’s eyes in a social dance pass, made an impact. Rather than a rousing coda, each performer broke off into their own ecstatic improvisation, arms flying, heads thrown back. 

This moment of release was just that: one last peek into the nuances of these personal histories before the lights cut.   

*Oral History interview material appeared courtesy of Our Steps and the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library. Interviewees included: Tessie Burke, Vivienne Pentony Bergin, Jean Butler, Tom Cashin, Stephen Gallagher, Donny Golden, Brigid Grant, Father Michael Johnston, Kathleen McLoughlin, Lillian O’More, Richard Griffin, Mona Roddy, Jimmy Smith and Marion Turley. 

Candice Thompson


Cecilia Whalen is a writer and dancer from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and holds a bachelor's degree in French. Currently, Cecilia is studying composition at the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.

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