‘I think as dancers, we’re so dedicated — we want the control in our bodies to be able to do any and everything — but we forget that there’s more power in letting go.’ –RENA BUTLER
What does it mean to get out of your own way? There is a beautiful balance to discovering yourself at the intersection of passion and purpose, joy and success, hard-work and effortlessness. The greatest achievements are not obtained through force, but rather as a result of our ability to flow between the spaces of visualization, willpower, sacrifice, effort, and deep surrender. Hubbard Street dancer Rena Butler is a reflection of how our most authentic power comes from letting go and allowing the universe to work through us, in our art and in our lives. She and I sat down at Lou Conte Dance Studios in Chicago’s West Loop — home of world-renowned Hubbard Street Dance Chicago — to have a conversation about the profound experiences that have shaped her into graceful and strong female force that she is.
BY ANGELINA PERINO
Angelina Perino: What makes Chicago home for you?
Rena Butler: I grew up on the Southside of Chicago in a neighborhood called Beverly, close to Morgan Park. My favorite aspect of this city is it’s very low key. I’ve spent the past 10 years building my career in New York — the city that never sleeps — so Chicago feels much calmer now in comparison and I’m loving it.
AP: I’d love to hear about your time as a student at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. My years at CAA definitely came with immeasurable growth. Why is it a special place for young artistic talent?
RB: I had such a wild ride at The Academy. It was brilliant — full of self-investigation that led to self-discovery in both an artistic and personal ways. It was a place for me that encouraged experimentation on all fronts — from the way we were free to dress, to think, to create — we were always encouraged to think WAY outside of the box. It helped me to define myself as an artist early on, and more importantly, who I was as a person in the midst of my artistry in this forever-evolving world that we live in today.
This is why it’s such a special place for young talent. When you cultivate an open environment at an earlier age, you create the space for a young artist to be who they are called to be in a progressive environment, despite the many challenges they may face.
AP: I’d have to agree with that. Do you believe you were called to be a dancer?
RB: [laughs] No! I am so attracted to so many other things in life and I feel like this is just what I’m doing right now. I think we’re all called to do many things, its just about unlocking it and trusting it so that it reveals itself. I love film, I love acting, I love choreographing — perhaps even way more than dancing. I love making things. I like to curate — I hope I can curate a dance festival on my own one day. There are so many other dreams, but this one requires the most immediacy and readiness and youth. That’s not to say that I can’t be older and dance, but this is one dream that I’m fulfilling now.
AP: I think because dance is so demanding on all levels, we are led to believe we can’t doing anything else — that its all or nothing.
RB: Right, but its so not true!
AP: And you really have so much time.
RB: The most beautiful thing about dancers is that we’re so in-tune with our bodies and souls that we can do anything if we put that same dedication into those other things — so much can come to fruition.
AP: Dancers have a certain grit. You’re conditioned to not stop until its there, and even then, keep pushing.
AP: There’s a beautiful space that artists sometimes enter when we allow ourselves to surrender. What does it feel like when you are in that flow?
RB: I’ve only experienced it a few times in my life — that’s why I’m getting emotional — but when it happens, its like flying inside your own body. I could literally count on one hand how many times its happened. Again, [its] the practice of letting go and trusting yourself to be taken there without even trying. To be present… to be in it… for me that’s what it feels like to be caught in the flow.
AP: Why do you dance?
RB: To be bigger than myself. Really I think that’s what I’m aiming for. There’s this superhuman power… I feel society tells me everyday, I’m a woman, I’m a black woman, I’m lesser than. There’s always going to be a little bit of that wherever I go, but when I’m in the studio, its like a cathedral: I come as I am, I practice, I pray. I feel free, free to be just as I come that day. Its different everyday… I’m in a different mood everyday…
AP: Also, a lot of people don’t realize that the body feels completely different day-to-day, especially for dancers.
AP: What is the best piece of advice you have ever been offered?
RB: The best and most memorable advice I’ve ever received as a dancer is to keep my integrity as an artist. This piece of advice was given from one of my favorite teachers of all time, Anna Paskevska, who was the department chair when I was at CAA. Something about this piece of advice really helped to shape my artistry throughout the years. At seventeen, I wasn’t even sure I knew what she meant. But each time I refer back to this, I understand it more deeply.
AP: How do you rise above moments of self-doubt?
RB: This goes hand-in-hand with my answer in the previous question. Ms. P’s advice regarding integrity gave me the agency to put myself into everything I do artistically. It allowed me to have an artistic voice, to shape and reshape it, develop a perspective that would be able to compliment my collaborator’s vision.
Although this was an integral part of developing a thick skin in this industry, at the end of the day, I am a work-in-progress. There are times when I catch myself in a recurring pattern of freaking out over a duet that is immensely challenging or even not being casted in a particular ballet that I really wanted to dance in. When I find myself revisiting these patterns, I take note and redirect my thoughts and behaviors to grow differently.
I’ve come a long way, though. My senior year at SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance, I met and started dancing for famed choreographer, Kyle Abraham (of Abraham.In.Motion). It was my first official company job, and scary as hell. Kyle was so warm, calm, and innovative as a person and creator. The job was frightening because I was a young, 21-year old artist, unsure of myself, and dancing with incredibly seasoned artists. It was very trial and error at that time, but we all learn as we move forward. Kyle had just started his company and was figuring the ins and outs of what could work financially for his dancers, so I worked as a hostess in NYC to supplement my income. It was difficult. I’d be in rehearsal for six hours, then run to my next job, strap on a pair of heels and be on my feet, seating people at tables for six more hours in a day. I’d wake up, and do it all over again. Needless to say, it was very taxing and unhealthy for my body, but it paid the rent in NYC.
About four years after dancing for Kyle, I felt I wanted to grow differently as an artist. I auditioned for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and was hired. I spent four and a half extremely challenging years there. It was difficult because for me, Bill was very much an old school director…that ‘tough love’ mentality. The working environment was not always positive, so I had to find creative ways of motivating myself in the studio. I did learn a lot about myself as an artist there, and am glad to have allowed that experience to help shape the artist that I am today. All of these experiences do.
My time with Kyle and Bill was also supplemented by a variety of creative indulgences. I’ve modeled for various photographers, danced for Mettin Movement, David Dorfman Dance, Manuel Vignoulle/M-Motions, Yara Travieso, The Kevin Wynn Collection, Rosie Herrera, for visual artists Carrie Mae Seems and Nick Cave, and have found my choreographic voice along the way also.
AP: What scares you?
RB: Artistically, losing my curiosity. Personally, losing my integrity. Professionally, that we will all start thinking the same! We need an infinite amount of differences in art to keep the exchange and conversations going.
AP: After much travel throughout the span of your dance career, how does it feel to be stationed back in your home city of Chicago with our very beloved Hubbard Street?
RB: It feels very sentimental. A little strange, too. I never thought I’d come back to Chicago after 10 years of building my career in New York. I love dancing for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, wow! My colleagues are fantastic artists who stay curious. Yet as individual as we all are, it really feels we’re all bonded. It’s a beautiful team we’ve got going on, and I couldn’t have asked for a better first season in my first experience in a repertory company.
AP: What would you say to a younger dancer that is trying to navigate the professional dance world?
RB: [laughs] Oh fuck. I would just say be yourself, because really, the work that wants you will find you. I think so often we try to mold ourselves into what we think we need to be or what we think the work needs. And yes, serve the process, but more importantly I think you have to serve yourself. So, if your not being genuine in your approach and your body and your mind, then you’ll be totally unsatisfied. I really do feel like if you’re in your Self and you accept yourself, your body, the way you look, the way you act — all the work you’ve done to be the dope-ass person that you are now — I think that the right thing will find you. Its not necessarily going out and trying to find your favorite job.
AP: What has been your greatest struggle?
RB: I think just letting go, and that’s all-encompassing. If we’re just speaking in terms of the body — just how to unlock different realms and crevices in my body that maybe I’ve never touched. I’m 29 now, so I’ve been doing this for quite some time, and I feel there’s still some places I don’t even know exist. When I do start to unlock those places, its a very emotional thing for me. Also, I think just trying to not have control over everything that happens in my life. I think as dancers, we’re so dedicated — we want the control in our bodies to be able to do any and everything — but we forget that there’s more power in letting go.
AP: Yes, especially outside the studio.
RB: Yeah! I feel like it translates into everything. I think that’s the hardest thing for me — letting go and letting life or the work just happen…
AP: Getting out of your own way.
RB: Getting out of my own way.
AP: What advice would you offer to your younger self?
RB: Chill out, girl! It’s temporary. You got this.
PHOTOGRAPHY & INTERVIEW BY ANGELINA PERINO @THEARTISTSCOVE