Dancing on Dangerous Ground
Irish Dancer Jean Butler
by Shane McGinley
In 1994 Ireland had won the annual Eurovision Song Contest in what was to be a run of four victories over five years. However this was no ordinary year. During the interval when the votes were being counted and communication links were being checked, the audience was hardly surprised when the organisers chose to bring on some Irish dancers. When the 10-minute piece ended the audience rose to their seats and 300 million viewers were mesmerised. Over ten years later the interval act has been transformed into a multi-million dollar stage show with three troupes playing to standing ovations across the world.
The now globally famous Michael Flatley was the original male dancer, but the new female, and very beautiful, face of Irish dancing was fellow American Jean Butler. According to her fan site, Jean loves sushi, swimming, spending Sundays reading, has a dog named Freddie, her favourite dancer is Sylvia Guillem and she would love to one day work with Pina Bausch and Matthew Bourne. But who is the raven headed beautiful dancer who helped transform a once dying art form into a global brand? Shane McGinley caught up with the dancer to find out.
Jean Butler was born and raised in New York and her mother was originally from Co. Mayo in the West of Ireland. In true Irish American tradition her mother started her in Irish dance classes at the age of four. “It was your typical story, Mam wanted to keep a little bit of tradition in the family and little did we know at the time it would completely take over our lives, which is what it did.”
This was very different from the situation in Ireland at the time where Irish dancing was seen as old fashioned and uninteresting to the general public. “From what I gather from people who grew up dancing in Ireland who are Irish it was something that was very much shunned upon and swept under the door or kept in the closet, nobody would really admit they were an Irish dancer,” says Jean. “I think in America there is a slightly more open connectedness to the fact that we were second or first generation Irish who were doing something in a different country that kept them rooted in the country where their parents were born.”
“There was a certain type of pride that we could Irish dance and hadn’t really come across any prejudice against it. Americans wouldn’t be very shy either. There is a certain amount of stage culture and confidence that comes with being born and bred in an American culture.”
Though trained in ballet and tap, Irish dancing became Jean’s speciality and she went on to consecutive regional, national and world championships. At the age of 17, on St. Patrick's Day, she debuted with renowned Irish group ‘The Chieftains’. A successful relationship began that lasted several years, touring extensively throughout America, Canada, Europe and Japan. Jean appeared on their video 'The Chieftains – Live From Belfast,' with Roger Daltry and Nanci Griffith and her taps can also be heard on their album, 'The Long Black Veil' with Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones.
Whilst studying drama at the University of Birmingham, in the UK, Jean received an invitation from producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan to star in a ten-minute stage production called "Riverdance" and, as they say, the rest is history! “When Riverdance happened but it wasn’t simply just another dancing job,” recalls Jean, “it was the start of something exciting and it was great to be part of that creative team to represent the new image of Irish dancing but it was also terrifically exciting and fun.”
While "Riverdance" represented the new image of Irish dancing and seemed much more dramatic from the traditional concept Jean doesn’t believe the dance fundamentally changed too much. “I don’t really see any change in style, what I see is a change in presentation,” believes Jean. “There were a few movement changes, which were there because we were putting the dance into a stage and theatre setting and had an audience. Certain things changed in order to reach the back of the theatre but the form of the dance has remained the same.”
The main observable difference in "Riverdance" is that the dancers move their hands, an advancement that was quite dramatic. “In the competitive world of Irish dancing there are still no hands what so ever so obviously when you are taking a traditional form and putting it in a public arena certain modifications or extensions will happen to allow that dance to be slightly more commercial.”
“I think it is down to the individual performer, the competition world will always remain where it is at the moment and stay true to the traditional style of the artform, which is non use of the upper body but when you move onto the stage the boundaries are much wider and the freedom of expression is greater so you can play with the dance and don’t necessarily have to hold onto hold onto all the traditions. But I think it’s important to say that it is down to the individual artist.”
But will the advances on the world stage influence the traditional form of Irish dancing? “There is a commission that runs the competitive world of dancing and there is a bit of a stirring going on in the world but I don’t think it’s going to happen in the next five to ten years,” believes Jean. “Also something like Irish dancing, thanks to "Riverdance", is now accepted on a global scale as something worthy and entertaining.”
With such advances it would be logical to conclude that the traditionalists in the Irish dancing community would be resistant to changes in the artform. “I didn’t come across any personally and it also comes down to the point where "Riverdance" is a great employer, which has a knock on effect to your local teacher who was inundated with people afterwards so there is no way she is going to say anything bad about "Riverdance" if all of a sudden her salary is tripled because of it.”
"Riverdance" certainly became a global cottage industry with many imitators following in its wake. “I thing people respond to true expression. People can see if something is coming from a good place or a false place and anyone working within the Irish dance medium at the moment commercially you can pick what place people are coming from. But I think there is a responsibility that I think has to be looked at very carefully.”
In 1996 after performing for Popes, Presidents, Kings and Queens, Jean left "Riverdance" to pursue other solo projects. In 1999 she teamed up with Colin Dunne, who had replaced Michael Flatley in "Riverdance", and together launched a show called ‘Dancing on Dangerous Ground’. Choreographed with Dunne the show was based on an ancient Irish myth that tells the tale of the love between a warrior and a princess. The £2 million show opened in London and had an element not usually associated with the world of Irish dance - sex. The posters showed Jean naked from the wait up in a passionate clinch with Dunne, whose arms reached across her breasts.
The show’s title was to be rather unfortunately ironic and while it received great reviews when it transferred to New York is soon closed and was not the financial success anyone had hoped for. “I think it was a timing thing and an execution thing,” says Jean. “Other than the business side of things, which were never rock solid, I think what we were trying to do with the dance an audience wasn’t really ready for, it was a departure from "Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance" and to depart from something so well established and not execute it absolutely flawlessly is dangerous.”
In 2001 Jean got married and began embarking on several different projects, including returning to her roots in drama. She appeared in ‘The Revengers’ with Dr. Who star Christopher Eccelson and comic Eddie Izzard, as well as the quirky Irish indie film ‘Goldfish Memory’ and as one half of a dysfunctional marriage in ‘Old Friends’. While the films did not make for international hits a few years later Jean appeared to be about to get her global big break when Bond, James Bond came a calling. “I got back to the third audition and there was me and two other people. It was the role that Madonna got at the end of the day. She wasn’t even auditioning for it at the end of the day and as far as I understand it was like ‘will you do the soundtrack’ and I guess she wanted a bit part so they gave it to her, so it was slightly irritating.”
Returning to college Jean was the Artist in Residence for the Irish World Music Centre at the University of Limerick and has just completed a Masters Degree in Contemporary Dance. “It was basically to continue the exploration of the dance and what I might do with it. I also wanted to be a student. For ten years I was in the position of teacher where I a choreographer or staring in something, which is a huge responsibility and when you are in that place it can take care of a lot of things except for your ownself so I wanted to look at my own dancing ten years later.”
Jean has also kept busy with a column in a Dublin magazine and a new DVD called ‘Jean Butler’s Irish Dance Masterclass’ which was number one in the Irish DVD charts. She has also been made the Goodwill Ambassador for Forgotten Children and recently made a harrowing fact finding mission to Rwanda and The Congo to highlight the problems in the region. In true showbiz style there was also an Irish urban legend that still circulates that Jean’s fabulous physique and beauty had graced the covers of Playboy, but that the mythical copy had never appeared in Ireland. “That’s hilarious, it’s not a bad urban myth to have out there,” laughs Jean with some delight when it was brought to her attention.
Jean Butler will irretrievably always be connected to the phenomenon that is "Riverdance", which launched her onto the world stage. Nearly a decade after she left the show her popularity is still as strong as ever and in April when she appeared at a press conference in New York after a performance of Riverdance hundreds of fans showed up to have copies of her DVD signed. Jean was overwhelmed by the response, but with personal masterclasses planned across the globe in Millwaukee, USA, Tokyo and Osaka in Japan and Copenhagen in Denmark in the coming months at 34 Jean Butler is still the fabulous face and feet of modern Irish dancing. “It was never a burden it was just a great opportunity. Of course there is an element where you will always be known for it but it’s not really a bad thing to be known for.”
Jean’s DVD ‘Jean Butler’s Irish Dance Masterclass’ is currently on sale and is available, along with news and updates at www.jeanbutler.com