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A Danced Legacy

A man stands on a dark box facing sideways. He gently shifts his weight from heels to toes, rocking forward and backward. His gaze remains front, but his body never lands anywhere. He is in constant motion: neither here nor there, caught somewhere in between. 

This is one of the opening images of Jean Butler's "What We Hold" which reflects on the legacy of Irish dance and Irish dancers. Presented at the Irish Arts Center for its North American premiere, the piece moves through different rooms like a kind of postmodern dance exhibit.

Performance

Jean Butler: “What We Hold”

Place

Irish Arts Center, New York, NY, February 2024

Words

Cecilia Whalen

Colin Dunne and Jean Butler in “What We Hold.” Photograph by Nir Arieli

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A sense of “in-betweenness” is one of Butler's key themes. Butler began her career as a champion Irish dancer and the original star of “Riverdance.” Since then, she has transitioned into choreography, moving away from traditional Irish dance and into experimental contemporary dance. "What We Hold" demonstrates Butler's place between the two genres, with a traditional Irish movement vocabulary that's been softened and deconstructed to create flowy, sparse phrases.                              

The work's in-betweenness also applies to time. The dance is a companion piece to Butler's incredible oral history project called “Our Steps, Our Story,” a collaboration with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts' Jerome Robbins Dance Division that began in 2018 and is now its own non-profit dedicated to maintaining and supporting Irish dance and its history.  

In one section of “What We Hold,” Butler uses excerpts of these interview recordings as soundscape. The recorded voices share memories of their first Irish dance lessons, the spaces they used to train in, and their connection to the art form. Meanwhile, the audience has followed the dancers into a room with a long wooden table with chairs on either side, and while we sit, Butler and two other dancers climb on and off the table, gliding back and forth across it. 

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

One dancer wears traditional shoes; one wears socks. Butler is barefoot. The dancers mark through traditional positions—arms held tightly to the sides with a toe pointed forward—while rolling their shoulders and sitting back into their hips. The movement is slight and slow, performed almost unconsciously like distant memories in a sleepwalking daze. 

This sleepwalking transforms into a dream as the audience is invited back into the room where we started. Ethereal synthesizer sounds echo as a multigenerational group of dancers ranging in ages 15 to 70 stand dispersed in the space, glancing around at one another with pleasant, peaceful smiles. This is a touching moment, especially after having listened to the many voices and stories of Irish dancers through the “Our Story” recording. Again, the audience finds itself in that in-between place where time and space have suspended, as we move through a cloud of witnesses who are meeting each other perhaps for the very first time.

Tom Cashin, a champion Irish dancer who was also interviewed as part of the “Our Story” project, shares a solo from his youth. Butler and “Riverdance” co-star Colin Dunne perform a jovial duet in sync. Maren Shanks, the youngest of the cast who is dressed in the most traditional-looking costume (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung), flies in circles around the space with a travelling step that produces a gust of wind each time she passes. 

These brief spirited bursts come as welcome contrasts in an overall minimalist piece. The movement of “What We Hold” is largely gentle and relaxed, sort of like a whisper. This restraint is often engaging, but it sometimes loses its effect, leaving the audience wanting a grander or more prolonged shift in dynamic. 

James Greenan in “What We Hold.” Photograph by Nir Arieli

There is, though, one particularly virtuosic section of dancing that stands apart, and it comes at the very beginning. James Greenan dances a solo in hard shoes facing two mirrors, and the audience stands all around him. Greenan repeats speedy, complicated rhythms that build in variation, volume, and complexity, demonstrating his mastery and control. 

The experience of watching Greenan is not so much that of a performance, but rather an intimate glimpse into some sort of ritual. Watching primarily from behind and aided by the dimmed lighting, it is as if we are peering in at him through a keyhole. Like in most of “What We Hold,” Greenan never acknowledges the audience. He is internal, meditative, and contemplative. 

From time to time, we do catch sight of Greenan's front in the mirror. He taps up a storm and his arms swing by his sides. Meanwhile, we find him looking at his own reflection. His eyes, like ours, move between his face and his feet, and back up again.  

Cecilia Whalen


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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