Holding and Letting Go: A Review of Jean Butler’s New Ode to Irish Dance

Here, contemporary Irish dance mixes with the delightful, familiar and nostalgic.

Jean Butler: What We Hold recently had its North American Premiere, re-designed and re-staged for New York’s stunning Irish Arts Center after debuting to critical acclaim in 2022 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

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A group of dancers stands with weight on one foot, leaning slightly to one side.
James Greenan, Maren Shanks, Kaitlyn Sardin, Jean Butler, Marion Cronin, Colin Dunne and Kristyn Fontenalla. Nir Arieli

Jean Butler, for those unfamiliar, is a world-renowned Irish American dancer, choreographer and director who choreographed and starred in the original productions of Riverdance and Dancing on Dangerous Ground before moving on to contemporary dance. In 2018, she started Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive, in partnership with the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library, to document the steps, teaching methods and personal histories of Irish dancers.

In What We Hold’s program note, Butler explains how collecting oral histories of dance inspired her latest show: “With each conversation, my desire to unearth all the complex layers of meaning involved in being an Irish dancer and the fundamental truths that connect us to all other dancers became stronger and stronger.”

It was during the pandemic that Butler realized she wanted to work with traditional dancers again. The Irish Times aptly called the hour-long result, with its cast of intergenerational dancers, “a visual, aural, almost poetic performative archive of Irish step dance.”

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The 2024 version of What We Hold begins in the Irish Arts Center lobby. The Center’s airy new building incorporates the original façade of Cybert Tire, an auto repair shop founded in 1916. This detail is important because 1916 is also the year of Ireland’s historic Easter Rising, and as we wait a woman shares this fact with a friend. History is very important to the Irish and Irish diaspora arts. Politics are important. Irish dancing—once banned though still practiced in secret under the oppressive Penal Laws, and closely tied to Irish nationalism and the Great Gaelic Revival of the 19th and 20th Centuries—is indeed inseparable from history and politics.

“Keep your voices down as you head upstairs,” the usher tells us, and so we do. And then we wait on the balcony, whispering, before being led into the performance space.

The first thing we hear in the theater’s narrow hallway is the sound of rain. But then it grows louder, and we see a man (James Greenan, World Champion Irish dancer and principal dancer in Riverdance for 12 years) tapping away in black reel shoes. He stands before two mirrors, and we stand around him. His footwork is the music. We hear a horse clip-clopping, and then a low buh-dump buh-dump drumbeat is added in, and then there are some rat-a-tat-tat gunshots, but it’s still just his feet. He wears workout clothes—a gray sleeveless shirt and black shorts—which is good because he is working out. He starts sweating as the acapella routine gets faster, the rhythms even more complicated, and at one point his shoes move so quickly they blur like insect wings. There is visible effort in the virtuosity, which seems to be the point. Irish dance is not easy.

Two male dancers do a jig in the dark
James Greenan. Nir Arieli

Then Butler cuts through the crowd and beckons us to follow her further. We come upon Colin Dunne—the traditional Irish dancer extraordinaire who won nine World, eleven Great Britain, nine All Ireland and eight All England titles by the time he was 22 and then went on to partner with Butler in Riverdance and Dancing on Dangerous Ground before also moving on to contemporary dance performance and choreography—in a blue button-down shirt and black slacks standing on a platform. Dunne has a complicated relationship with Irish dance so it feels appropriate that he just rocks back and forth, tipping hard heel to toe. Unsteady but very much in control. The electronic soundscape repeats: “Stop. Start… Stop. Start.”

And then Butler beckons us to follow her again—our traveling Dance Master.

We walk to the back of the theater, partitioned off from the rest of the space and set up like a boardroom. We sit around a long wooden table where Butler joins two women (Kaitlyn Sardin and Maren Shanks) already standing on top, posed. Sitting so close below them, at eye level with their knees, is an intimate experience that’s equally uncomfortable and captivating. The three women slowly and carefully place their bodies into the traditional starting posture—what Butler describes as “the verticality of an erect spine, the arms held at one’s side, feet turned out, knees crossed, hands cuffed, thumbs facing front”—then turn and repeat the sequence until the repetition becomes its own dance.

As the women move, we hear snippets of Our Steps’ oral histories come through the soundscape… stories of wooden floors, a building that should have been condemned, practicing 1-2-3s. When the two women exit, Butler, barefoot, slowly catwalks deconstructed dance steps: a traveling Dance Master of Ireland’s late 18th and early 19th Centuries demonstrating steps on a tabletop or perhaps an unhinged door laid on the floor. The Dance Masters were always men, though. Again: history and politics.

When we return to the main space, it is transformed. Chairs await us, as do the rest of the dancers (eight in all, casually posed) and a man (Ryan C Seaton, Bessie-nominated, New York-based composer and multi-instrumentalist) who stands apart behind his laptop.

The dancers step forward, and a celebration begins. It is calm at first, as they move together in unison. Some wear black shoes, some black socks, some are barefoot. They all circle and weave through each other in a slow-motion céilí. There is a moment of stillness—two lines of three dancers holding hands, just a flash like a photograph—and then they break off again, making room for a spritely being (Shanks, the 15-year-old competitive dancer from Dublin) bursting in like a gale and skipping circles around the room, her long dark hair flying out behind her. And then Marion Cronin, Dublin-based contemporary dancer and choreographer, takes the space and her movements bring us somewhere else. She is very much of the 21st Century. Her spine bends. Her arms roll back like bird wings and her hands point like arrows, fingers long.

Two dancers in white tops and black pants stand on a white table
Jean Butler, Kaitlyn Sardin and Maren Shanks. Nir Arieli

Another young dancer (TikTok and Instagram sensation Kait Sardin—one of the few black women in the Irish dancing community) ascends a small platform and does a spunky stepdance routine in her socks. We can’t hear anything, but that doesn’t matter. Now we can watch more closely the fluttering feet, the fine-tuned rhythms, and loose ankles.

Butler and Dunne dance a short duet, their bodies honed to each other after decades apart, but when the fiddling starts, the dapper Tom Cashin, 70, former Broadway performer and North American Senior Men’s Irish Dance champion, performs the “Kilkenny Races” (choreographed in 1969 by New York-based Irish dance teacher James Erwin). It’s the most traditional thing in the show and it is delightful, familiar, nostalgic.

Through it all, the dancers are performing as much for themselves as for us. This is their very own Feis. Finally, the music builds and the shoes come off. The performers come back together at the center of the room and raise their arms, surprisingly timidly at first, and then in an act of deep-rooted defiance, they flail them around party-style and dance like no one—not even us—is watching. Because, as Butler writes, “the piece is equally about what we don’t hold, when we drop the weight of it all, the history and the fear, and just fly.”

Jean Butler: What We Hold runs through March 3 at the Irish Arts Center in NYC.

Holding and Letting Go: A Review of Jean Butler’s New Ode to Irish Dance