Jean Butler: ‘When I look back at Riverdance, it is at a whole different person’

Jean Butler is content that she can’t move the way she did when she became synonymous with Irish culture, but dance remains the bedrock of her life


When she was 17, Jean Butler met Richard Harris, an actor who had left her and countless others spellbound with his brutal and heartrending turn in The Field . They were both, legend and ingenue, at Carnegie Hall; the Long Island teenager had been invited to audition as a dancer for a come-all-ye that The Chieftains were staging. Harris was there to do excerpts from Camelot ; as she anticipated, he was a magical presence: towering, snowy-headed and brilliantly entertaining. But he was also shuffling around the haloed theatre in a white tracksuit, as if he had drifted in from some musty boxing gym. “I was there pretending that I knew what I was doing. But I was thinking, Are you really going to go on to the stage in Carnegie Hall in a tracksuit? And he did. And he was brilliant.”

The brief crossing of paths with an idol serves as a torchlight for Butler’s lifetime as a dancer: playing in gilded theatres at a precociously early age, holding her poise and learning as she went, and, always, having a helpless fascination with everything Irish swirling around her mind. “This other place that was such a powerful presence in our house,” as she puts it now when thinking of Ireland. “This other country that was like . . . a claw.”

In no time, of course, she had put an unforgettable stamp on Irish popular culture with her role in Riverdance , the original seven-minute segment during the interval of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest that stole the show and sent a bolt of surprise and pride and confusion across Ireland. Overnight, Butler became a household name. And she has remained so ever since, although over the past decade she has taken a natural journey that has seen her retreat ever farther from that original Riverdance moment. It both represents a specific period in Irish life and, because of the staggering success of the show, has become an enduring symbol. For Butler, it is simply ancient history.

On a chilly Friday night recently, about 150 people gathered at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery to see Butler’s latest performance, in H urry . Outside, on the steps of the gorgeous old building, a few people stood outside, smoking cigarettes in the refrigerated air before paying the $18 entry fee. The annual greening of New York, which would reach its apotheosis with the great St Patrick’s Day parade up Fifth Avenue, had already begun with Irish talks and performances around Manhattan.

Butler’s name may still stoke copper ringlets, Celtic iconography and that thrilling duet with Michael Flatley, but as soon as she stepped on to the wooden floor of the converted church, anyone could see that, as a dancer, she has said goodbye to all that. She has changed little in appearance – still flame-haired and distance-runner slender – but for more than half an hour she gave a forbiddingly intense and physical exhibition. She performed in bare feet and a costume devoid of adornment, and she was close enough to the audience that they could hear her every footfall and breath and see the fervour in her eyes as she moved around the floor to a musical score that ranged from unsettling to serene.

During one sequence she became lost in a looping figure-eight rhythm, half pursued and half escaping something unseen, like a child lost somewhere dark.

For 35 minutes she held the audience in a silence that was as riveting as any commanded by the austere sermons of old. Afterwards, the reaction was delighted applause. She stood and bowed, bashful for the first time, then skipped away through a plain beige door, and the crowd vanished into the night.

“It’s a bit different from Radio City Music Hall. People did seem moved by it,” she says brightly a few weeks later, on one of her periodic afternoon raids on Manhattan. She retains a slight wariness of the city and its manic energy, preferring the sedater pace of Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighbourhood where she lives with her husband, Cuan Hanley. She has granted herself a rare day off, and after meeting to talk about her own performance she intends to go to watch someone else dance at a theatre nearby.

“My feeling is that people are interested in me as an artist, which is great. And this is another step on a long trajectory. When I was 20 I didn’t know what contemporary dance was. And some people have told me afterwards what they felt it was about and then asked: did I get it? But there is no right track. It is completely up to the viewer to cast meaning. There is no linear narrative. From a performance perspective, there are layers. The material comes from different influences and methods. But I’m not trying to impose anything on the audience,” she says. “You look at a Picasso or something and there is no singular meaning. I have been dancing small venues for 10 years now, and that probably resulted from my experience in those spectacle shows. You can almost hear the audience breathe, and they can hear me. There is something really thrilling and riveting about that. There is an incredible sense of feeling alive.”

Butler is deeply serious but not remotely precious when she talks about her work: plenty of grace and no airs. Minutes after saying hello, she mock moans about wrenching her neck as she left her house, noting that she endured the strain of three consecutive performances at St Mark’s with no injury only for this to happen.

She constantly pokes fun at the prospect of growing older – “I used to say I have been dancing for more than 30 years, and now it’s nearly 40 . . . That’s just awful” – but is more interested in the effect that time and those thousands of hours of dancing have on her than anything else.

When you see her in Hurry , it doesn’t take long to wonder about the strain she has subjected her feet and joints to. And her body does protest now, refusing to make the swift recoveries she took for granted during the punishing Riverdance schedule.

“I have been lucky in that I never broke anything. I have slipped a disc. It is still there. But its mostly general wear and tear. Still, when I’m performing I can’t walk in the morning. I have to do exercises in bed before I even put my feet on the ground, or else just really hobble about. And that gets worse as you get older. That’s why I probably try and keep the material closer to the ground now. There is not as much jumping as there used to be. It is just years of stress in your body that has to come out somehow.”

A few years ago, on the Saturday night she finished her run of Day , her collaboration with Tere O’Connor, she woke up in the middle of the night to discover that her right foot resembled a watermelon and was throbbing. “I said to my husband, ‘I think my foot’s broken.’ And they thought it was a hairline fracture at first. But it turned out it was just my body relaxing. And I was in a cast for 10 days after that,” she says with a shrug.

It is the oldest story in dance: the pain, aches and ravaged bodies that are the payback for all the visual grace and the illusion of effortlessness. For Butler it is part of an inherited instinct to keep pushing herself. As a child, in Long Island, she excelled at sport, tungsten-wire skinny and tall and athletic. She had serious promise at swimming but loathed it. “We would go to Mass at 5.30pm on Saturday. I had swimming afterwards and had a pain in my stomach at the thought of how cold it was going to be.”

Dance, under the wonderful and demanding tutelage of Donny Golden, consumed most of her spare hours. Her mother, Josephine, was ambitious for their three children – she has an older brother, Michael, and her younger sister, Cara, is also a dancer – a drive that Butler interprets as “part of the Irish emigrant story of having to leave your country, and everything you know and love, and make a success of your family.”

Her parents were liberal enough to allow her to tour for six weeks with The Chieftains after her Carnegie debut – “I’m not sure that if I had a 17-year-old I would allow her to do that, because I know what I got up to,” she says with a laugh – and grounded enough to keep their pride tethered in the heady months after the Riverdance phenomenon. “Their attitude was, That’s great; well done; do the dishes.”

Ireland was the place where she wanted to live for as long as she remembers. She took her first steps on the front path of her grandmother’s house in Ballyhaunis, in Co Mayo: May Byrne lived to be 99 and was a huge influence on her granddaughter. “Old stock,” she says with a shrug.

As it turned out, she lived in Dublin for almost two decades and still regards it as a home from home, although the physical transformation of the city she had mapped out in her mind since the economic collapse stunned her. It is as if some of it never existed. “Bars and restaurants gone. Friends emigrated or moved down the country. But that is also down to time and age. And I think it is a brilliant, resilient city.”

From this week she will be back in studio, preparing to bring Hurry to Dublin Dance Festival. Always, the work is being finessed. “That’s one of the tragedies of contemporary dance: it gets so few showings.”

She is still developing her own range of jewellery, a fascination that was born of rooting through her mother’s trove of brooches and Claddagh rings. Her third collection will come out next month. But, most days, dance absorbs her. She rarely looks at footage of her Riverdance days but is happy to accept that she couldn’t dance like that any more. “Or, if I could, it would be for one night only. You just dance in a different way, around your physical limitations. I have friends who are 60 and still dancing. I am happy I could do that once, and when I look back it is at a whole different person. And at least now I can say, ‘Well, actually, I was pretty good.’ I never gave myself that at the time.”

Kinetic energy
She knows she will always be linked to the kinetic energy the show created, and to the phenomenal global response. The week of Hurry , the small advertisements in the Irish Voice included sean-nós classes on Times Square. The teacher is Siobhán Butler, a Californian who became fascinated with Irish dance after seeing Riverdance . It turned out that Siobhán Butler had never met her namesake, and she confessed that she would probably be speechless if she ever did. “Well, you can tell her that I breathe and drink a glass of wine,” Jean says as she prepares to leave.

Outside, the late afternoon still sparkles. When she was a youngster, Manhattan was virtually a forbidden place. Every so often, she and Cara were allowed to wander around on a Saturday afternoon as long as they were on the 5pm train back to Long Island. Now she knows the East Village as well as she knew any of her favourite Dublin haunts, but she is still uncertain which place is home.

“I left here at 17 and came back when I was 35. I didn’t really know this city when I came back. So now I don’t feel like a New Yorker and I don’t feel like a Dubliner. I just feel like, I dunno, a gypsy.”

H urry is at Dublin Dance Festival from May 18th to 21st ;