John Butler: An American Master, The Joyce, New York

Not only did John Butler forge a contemporary dance idiom that merged ballet with modern dance, he also chose a variety of vehicles – from semi-classical pas de deux to ambitiously conceived group works with Martha Graham touches – to exploit it. Butler, who died in 1993, had a career spanning Broadway and opera (he worked closely with Gian Carlo Menotti) but it is for the choreography for his occasional small group and his work as a freelance choreographer that he is known best. The Butler Foundation has put together a season recruiting the considerable talents both of dancers from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet New York and the Richmond Ballet and of guest artist Desmond Richardson to revive some of Butler’s best-known works.

Portrait of Billie had Ailey’s wonderful Asha Thomas with Clifton Brown as her lover and drug dealer in an acute and moving account of the singer Billie Holiday. In a white cocktail dress, the signature camellia in her hair, Thomas summoned the sad plight of this loneliest and most desperate of all blues singers, strutting and elegant at first, then with “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You?” fighting with her man and with “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” making us aware, ironically, of what a lot of drugs can do. Her twitching fingers as she backbends into oblivion are something to be long remembered.

After Eden brought Richardson, for whom Butler appears to be an ideal choreographer, as Adam, together with Richmond Ballet’s Anne Sydney Davenport as Eve in a duo where ballet is juxtaposed with potent modernism. Richardson’s sexy writhing, all leaps, jumps and turns, contrasted with Davenport’s serene and lovely Eve, unobtrusively on pointe, though pliant and bending. They worked together so well they made it a believable masterwork.

I have never cared much for Carl Orff’s florid Carmina Burana. It seems to bring out the worst in choreographers too. In Butler’s version the ensemble has more costume changes than a Broadway chorus line. As the music churns and bellows the dancers do the kinetic equivalent. Danaë Carter, Igor Antonov, Valerie Tellmann and Justin MacMillan gamely got through their variations together – very together – and apart, Antonov particularly showing ballet- based virtuosity. For all its pretentiousness the piece had its moments but by and large it’s just, well, Orfful.
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