Butler was a pioneer, a man who made dance work for live television during the early years when the potential of the new medium was just being explored; he was generous and shared his gifts as teacher, choreographer, and friend with generations of other dancers. He was bred to be a gentleman, although the kind of gentleman he turned out to be - one who danced onstage - was quite different from what his Mississippi family had had in mind.
Born in 1920, Butler grew up in an era when men did not make careers in dance. His father rejected both his profession and John, a rebuff that would haunt Butler the rest of his life. Most young men going into professional dance today do not have to cope with such an extreme situation, thanks in part to the careers of men such as Butler, who brought dignity to an art which so many Americans, out of ignorance, had regarded with suspicion.
When Butler began his own company in the 1950s, he learned how difficult it was to support a modern dance company in America. It still isn't easy, but there are more resources, and attitudes about dance have changed. Carmen de Lavallade (see news story, page 32), one of Butler's most important dancers from the early years, recalled recently the struggles necessary to survive in dance in those days: You rehearsed, unpaid, for six months (in the evenings so that day jobs could be accommodated), then you performed, for perhaps a night or a week, underpaid if paid at all. Then you started the hand-to-mouth cycle all over again. Alvin Ailey told me that continuity, more than anything else, suffered in those circumstances, and sometimes newly structured groups had to learn the old repertoire over from scratch, or else forget it and concentrate entirely on what was new. Talent didn't count nearly as much as dedication, a certain blindness of desire that was necessary in order to become a modern dancer. It's no wonder that the dance profession was understood by very few people, and even fewer families.
Butler helped to change that.
Jiri Kylian, recently visiting the Juilliard School in New York City, observed that the influences on twentieth-century dance basically reduce to Balanchine and Graham. Butler would have agreed, his own career spanning that enormous spectrum. He originally came to New York to pursue a genie, Graham, whose company he would dance in. Long after striking out on his own, Butler would choreograph (in 1957) The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore for Balanchine's New York City Ballet.
Today, working in different dance disciplines is not unusual - if you want to work, it is probably necessary. But in those days crossing back and forth was unheard-of, and some considered Butler a traitor to either modern dance or ballet, depending on where their loyalties lay. His work in eclectic disciplines earned him the disdain of some of his peers, including Doris Humphrey, and to the end of his life he told the story of a brief but devastating encounter in which she accused him of prostituting modern dance by working in television. (See page 70.) Things never seemed easy for Butler, and I suspect that these encounters eventually took a toll. Yet he was probably the most successful dancer-choreographer of his generation in America. In his day, Butler was a giant.
By the early 1970s Butler's career in America - which included work in modern dance, ballet, television, opera, Hollywood, and on Broadway - had almost entirely shifted abroad for economic and personal reasons. In America his dances had been eclipsed by the work of younger generations, whose careers had been considerably eased by Butler's pioneering presence. But abroad, for example in Italy, he came to be regarded as one of the great contemporary choreographers.
"Never do a movement onstage that has no meaning," he said countless times, standing by this maxim long after "pure dance" had become the catchphrase of a new generation. He was always concerned with movement as theater; no gesture is superfluous. But careers such as Butler's are not superfluous either. Reputations are fragile things, and memories are short: choreographers and their works can be too easily extinguished.
When we met with Butler last spring to discuss the development of this magazine article, he had been in failing health for some while - age, alcohol, a stroke. He still smoked a pack a day - joked about cigarettes being his only vice left - and would die of lung cancer five months later. "Tell your readers," he asked with characteristic charm, "about the really good work that I've done. People think of me as one of the earliest choreographers for TV; well, there's so much more. Tell them that."
And that's how most of us would like to be remembered, I suppose - for the really good work.
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|Title Annotation:||tribute to choreographer John Butler|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1994|
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