Interview: Rena Butler
Edited by: 

Q: What has your professional dance journey been like, and how did you come to dance with Hubbard Street? What is the most recent show you have been a part of and how did you come to be a part of it?

I was born and raised in Chicago and I went to the Chicago Academy for the Arts for high school. After that, I went to SUNY Purchase and met Kyle Abraham there. First I danced for Nelly van Bommel (an educator and choreographer and SUNY Purchase and is now the dean there) and then I danced for Kyle my senior year at Purchase. I danced for Kyle for maybe five years, and when I was towards the end of that, I started working for Bill T. Jones full time. I transitioned pretty heavily in terms of the amount of work I was doing. And then from Bill, I went to Hubbard Street and I am here now as a choreographic fellow. I also danced with Manuel Vignoulle, and I still do a project here and there. It's a lot! I also dance with Yara Travieso for various projects.

Q: What have been some challenges in your pre-professional or professional dance career?
(Adversity as a minority artist…)

Getting to know myself and accepting myself in reaction to the environment around me is a constant practice. And you know, those are the building blocks to yourself and your identity. I have struggled to learn who I am and implement that into my artistry. From school and now, I think I have a great idea of what that is, but I am still taking risks and moving through and past it.

Q: Do you believe dance can be a platform for social justice topics? If so, how? and/or Have you used your art form to make a difference?

YES! You already know! How... I think how it is done is totally up to the person that is making it, because we all have very different experiences. Though they are shared, they are very personal. I think that is how we all connect and it becomes an intermingled web of beauty, pain, creativity, inspiration, and motivation, all in one — and there is no right or wrong way to do it. We are all finding it as we find ourselves. Another component would be how you engage the community you are making the work about, beyond the people who can afford the tickets to performances and theaters. How do you REALLY make it relative? It is really a grassroots situation, if you think about it.

Q: What inspires you and drives you forward as an artist and a person?

I think the connection to myself and the connection to the world around me inspire me. It's a global thing — the exchange of how can I keep giving and receiving and remain open and permeable to the world of ideas and experiences around me? I travel a lot and have learned a lot about myself in the world and how it all functions, how people respond. I find it humbles me but I have to be careful because sometimes I think I know so much more because I go to all these places, and that is not the right way. I have to understand that inside of myself. The unknown drives me forward.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist?

We were in Europe, in Germany, and then we had 10 days off, so I went to France to see my fiance’s family and visit my best friend. The night before I met the company in Italy (we were all supposed to meet at the hotel) they said our promoted tours were canceled and to meet them. Once we got there, there were talks of just cancelling the rest of the European tour. We stayed in Italy a day until we could get twenty plus flights for the whole organization to get home. Then we had ten days off to quarantine until we started rehearsal again for the Gaga series. We were so ready to go, we did an amazing dress rehearsal - and then we got the news that the mayor of Chicago cancelled all performances for venues for more than 250 people until May 1st. So of course, the whole company broke down when we received the news. All that work and that effort… We have been rehearsing Ohad’s work since the beginning of our season in August, and with all that work it was really painful for all of us to let it go. We were told we had two weeks, but now our governor is saying school won’t start until April 27th, and with schools, institutions and dance are all kind of rubbed in together. I love Ohad’s work and I am also very anxious because I felt I was getting into something deeper with the Gaga series. I was excited by the momentum and the flow of how everything was going - artistically, physically, and mentally, I was starting to let things go, and it had to come to a stop before I could dig even deeper. However, this halt could be another way for me to find my balance... Now I am home until possibly the end of April and so far so good ––I love being home too. The hard part is the physical investigation, not having proper space and having to hold things in to try not to bust your ankle or bust a glass. But this time is also a way to reflect on where I am at right now in my life. I am getting married in July and starting some really big choreographic commissions. I am also grateful to have the time to think about these projects which I would not have had before. I am so, like, “Get it done,” and I busy myself and overwhelm myself, and I think that that is normal –– there is a sickness about that somehow. I am appreciative to have that but it is a lot of mixed feelings. I am trying to protect myself and stay healthy. I’ve noticed I am getting a bit paranoid at times, being on my phone a lot. But it is good, you see habits you can break while at home as well. 

At the end of the day it will be beneficial for us all, I think. I worry about our community because mental health is so important and we don’t consider that. When you dial down the physical aspect of a career, that's our time, money, and energy, and when people don't have that, especially freelancers, I get concerned. How do you sustain your livelihood? Now that we are quarantined and still have to pay rent, how do we make it work? I see people going through depression or something worse, so I worry about the mental health aspect, especially when we are receiving so much news about COVID-19. I have a lot of feelings about it, but overall I am grateful to have the time to reconnect with myself. 

Q: How do you think we can continue to create and share art during this time?

The obvious answer is social media...People have been doing that. It's hard to say because I am learning by venturing more into choreography; there are a lot of factors that go into keeping institutions alive. Social media is a great way to educate audiences that don't know about dance and keep us engaged with our livelihoods in some way. But I feel like there should be a way for every company to schedule performances or do something with a $3 donation online. I am focused on how to keep the institutions alive that help make dance visible. How do you keep people working?

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic?

I think it’s still... kind of mutating. I think people are still trying to find a way to engage each other. I think of it in many different sectors, like, there’s the “take dance, stay in shape, keep dancing, keep dancing” aspect, and then the mental health aspect. There is one topic that morphs into something else and keeps bubbling and branching out. I do feel Hubbard Street has been taking more initiative to engage its public, which I really love, like Robyn Mineko Williams teaching a movement phrase each day. I think she is going to build something out of it. It isn’t something I have seen Hubbard do, or they’re doing it in a different way. It is nice to see the mindfulness behind it. I think people are still trying to get the art out there and keep the organizations running and jobs kept. The effort to engage more and find new things within the dance community is lovely to see. I have never seen certain dance companies online and it is nice to have a moment to sit down and watch things and see what my algorithms are picking up.

Q: How have people’s priorities shifted during the pandemic?

I see people social distancing but it doesn't feel vicious. For example, when I go to the grocery store, I see people yielding to each other but not in a vicious or fearful way. I think as a country, we have a hard time being caring. Our motto is “work hard, bigger, better, faster.” And so now I can see our community coming together more. I do feel like there is this openness that is starting to happen. It's a good thing we are all hibernating for now, but I hope we hold on to this collectiveness. I am really interested to see the response when things do get better, because sometimes in a blink of an eye, you forget the bad moments and I wonder if people will hold onto this feeling. It's exciting in a way.

Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)

I'm hoping it just blends more. I'm hoping that it's just... that we are all more open and gutsier and more accepting of one another. I do feel like having danced in different places, there are moments when you feel self-doubt in the business. I feel like it doesn’t come from one person — it's because we work so hard and we are in the mirror every day. We self-critique a lot and we get outside critique from our superiors and possibly our peers all the time. That stuff manifests in your body in very malignant ways sometimes. It’s emotional, it’s pent-up, it’s there, and there is an inability at one point. I'm hoping with this, things will start to blend and fall off us more so we can all have a healthier dance experience, and a more meaningful artistic experience overall. I hope we can be more accepting, of others and ourselves. 

Transcription courtesy of