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Keeping Time

Choreographer John Butler's work had an effect on audiences. The Richmond Ballet is preserving that, minus the fistfights.

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If your theater group wants to do a play, you buy a script. If your symphony wants to play a piece of music, you buy sheet music. But full-length ballets don't come with novelty kits of little black footprints to slap on the floor.

So how do you hand on a dance?

Turns out, you kinda have to be there.

The Richmond Ballet's performance of "Carmina Burana" last week at New York City's Joyce Theater was the result of the ballet having been there. Scoring such a performance was a coup for the ballet, but also a major step in the larger project of preserving the work of John Butler, "Carmina's" choreographer.

"Dance is actually an oral tradition," says Lawrence Rhodes, director of Juilliard's dance division in New York City. "It's passed down from dancer to dancer through words, through descriptions of the dance, how it goes, how it moves."

So pieces that aren't remembered fondly run the risk of not getting remembered at all.

Choreographers like Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey had their own companies to keep their work alive through regular performances. But Butler, a freelancer for most of his career, had no one natural heir to carry on his work. Instead, he traveled around the country teaching the ballet — or "setting" it on — companies that licensed the work. In 1991 he came to the Richmond ballet and set the ballet one last time before he died two years later.

Malcolm Burn danced a principal role in 1991 and has since become Richmond Ballet's ballet master, responsible for restaging the piece that was performed at the Joyce. He recalls that when Butler was dying, Richmond's artistic director, Stoner Winslett, used to visit him in New York. "One time he reached over to her and apparently he just took her by the hand and said, 'Darling, make sure my ballets live, please,'" Burn says. It was a request she took seriously.

Winslett is now president of the John Butler Foundation, the body that licenses his works to ballet companies. In 2003, the Richmond Ballet hosted a symposium of all the remaining original cast members, costume designers, lighting directors, anyone who had a stake in the first production. For two days they hashed out little details — does he run his hand over her knee, or behind it? — and traded stories about Butler's philosophy and approach.

"We codified the work on the Richmond Ballet," says Bill Soleau, executive director of the John Butler Foundation and the choreographer responsible for Richmond Ballet's version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The Richmond Ballet's is technically "the definitive, the last version that everybody agreed on," he says. When other companies get licensed to perform that ballet, the foundation sends someone to set the piece along with a video of the performance by Richmond Ballet.

Since its premiere nearly 50 years ago, ballet companies across the globe have performed Butler's "Carmina Burana," but considering the risks he took with his choreography, it's a success that was far from assured.

After Carl Orff's opera "Carmina Burana" opened in Germany in 1937, word of the music's power and drama buzzed across the Atlantic, and American audiences were eager to get the first taste of a work that has since become recognizable to the point of cliché. The music, with its dramatic Latin chanting and rising action in the orchestra, infests soundtracks in movies such as "Conan the Barbarian" and "The General's Daughter." It lends sophistication to advertising campaigns and echoes on in a dubious afterlife of samples and remixes by goth and industrial rock outfits like KMFDM. But the fate of the ballet has always been more precarious.

When Butler's "Carmina Burana" premiered in the States in 1959, a fistfight broke out in the lobby during intermission.

Ticket-holders at Butler's premiere thought they were in for a night at the opera. But where once singers dominated and dancers just ornamented the stage, adding a visual dimension to the symphony's sound, Butler basically hijacked the music, cleared the singers to the side and turned the piece into a pure dance spectacle.

"Half the people booed and half cheered," says Soleau.

The piece pushed dance out ahead of the music, but the dancing itself offended the sensibilities of some dance purists. At the time, modern dance and classical ballet sat in opposing camps.

"A lot of the modern people were turning up their noses, saying, 'We'll never do classical,' and a lot of classical people were saying, 'We'll never do modern,'" says Burn. The major dividing line at the time was whether the women danced en pointe in the iconic toe shoes or on flat feet. "Carmina Burana" used elements of both. "So he crossed the line," says Burns. "OK, we can do a bit of both, modern and classical together."

Butler's hybrid dance combines the vocabulary and technical foundation of classical ballet with the wider range of movement and less-traditional lifts of modern to form one of the earliest examples of what is now considered "contemporary ballet."

"Actually, that's what permeates the dance world now," says Desmond Richardson, an internationally known dancer who performed a Butler duet at the Joyce with Richmond company member Anne Sidney Davenport. "Whether it be ballet or modern, choreographers are asking dancers to be well-versed in a lot of different styles."

Butler's production blurred more than just aesthetic lines. A native of Greenwood, Miss., Butler cast Carmen DeLavallade, an African-American dancer, as a lead in the original 1959 production and added Mary Hinkson, also African-American, to the cast in subsequent performances.

And was it ever racy. "It was secular, and all about lust. It was sexy," says Soleau. Indeed, in last week's production the four principals danced their parts in skimpy thongs and bikini tops covered in leaves. One of the male solos was performed in a one-legged leotard.

"It was a huge, huge controversy, but also an incredible success," Soleau says. "It cemented John Butler's reputation."

A half-century later, the John Butler Foundation is working to preserve his contributions. The hope is that the Richmond Ballet's performance at the Joyce will get other companies interested in Butler's work, making sure his ballets live.

After the show opening night, ballerinas and board members congregated in the Joyce's bar to toast the choreographer. Geoffrey Holder, whose wife danced a leading role in the original production 50 years ago, had the final word.

"John's not dead," he says. "He's just on tour." S



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