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Flash Flashback, 11-1: Grounded Flight — Butcher Returns to Judson

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2008, 2016 Josephine Leask

(First published on December 4, 2008. Rosemary Butcher died of cancer on July 14 in London where, on December 17, Independent Dance is organizing a “Remembering Butcher” day.)

LONDON — Rosemary Butcher has been a quiet but significant presence in the British dance community for more than 25 years. An independent choreographer who has always been riveted by architecture and the visual arts, Butcher has chosen to work on the margins rather than at the center of dance, mainly situating her work in galleries or other buildings not specifically designed for dance. While she has detached herself from the mainstream, her work has always been included in both large and small dance and arts festivals, nationally and internationally. This year’s Dance Umbrella presented her recent creation “Episodes of Flight,” which I saw November 5 at the Riverside Studios in West London.

Conceived for one dancer — Elena Giannotti — “Episodes of Flight” is based on Butcher’s recent research trip to New York, in which she retraced the time she had spent there from 1969 to 1972, immersed in the Judson Church movement and its many off-shoots. On her return visit, she searched for the people and places that had influenced her own development and reflected on how the Judson legacy had been carried on in the work of many other choreographers over the last 40 years.

In the program notes, Butcher talks about how memory maps, prompted by places, sounds, and conversations with acquaintances in New York guided her back to her past; “Episodes of Flight” is a reflection on how she felt after her journey. A bare, intimate room at Riverside Studios, the performance space is long and thin, bordered by the audience, with two screens marking the extremities of the stage, on which are projected a moving collage of abstract diagrams and grids. The installation created by both the screens themselves and the diagrams projected onto them, by architects Matthew Butcher (the choreographer’s son) and Melissa Appleton frames and limits the performance space as well as illuminating the geometry of the city. It also responds to Giannotti’s movement, like a form of dance notation.

Cathy Lane’s soundscore mixes fleeting sounds recorded from the urban jungle — police car sirens, snippets of conversations, children’s voices, and traffic noise — with synthesized material. What is so powerful is how the soundscape travels up and down the studio and creates a three-dimensional environment which is both evocative and immediate. It reminds me of sitting in some quiet little square in the Lower East Side, just off a busy huge high street, immersed in the city but distanced from it as well.

I mention the aural and visual components before the choreographic because each are just as important in the realization of “Episodes of Flight.” Giannotti has worked intensively with Butcher over the years and has a deep understanding of how Butcher likes to represent movement, economically and with a neutral body. Here the material is uncompromisingly minimal and highly contemplative. Pedestrian movements are employed by Giannotti as she rigorously travels round her confined performance space: standing, lying on the floor, sitting or crouching. Prolonged periods of stillness are followed by fast scurrying dynamics as she shunts herself awkwardly backwards semi-reclined, supporting her weight on her forearms, or lying down, dragging her body over the length of the stage. Through the effort of enacting some of the more punishing actions, Gianotti’s visual countenance, which is otherwise calm, neutral and expressionless, stirs just a little in the wake of exhaustion. Because we the audience are sitting close to her we can detect that the absence of emotion in the choreography is replaced by an introverted intensity which lasts for the 45-minute donation of her solo. She is so absorbed in her own journey, physical, aural and visual, that any extraneous factor is denied in her performance. Thus the essence of Judson minimalism is recalled.

For some at the performance I attended, “Episodes of Flight” was just 45 minutes too long. There was some fidgeting and whispering, and a couple walked out, but mostly the audience seemed captivated. To be familiar with the ground-breaking work of Judson and the city in which it took place definitely helps one make a connection with Butcher’s work. But so do choreography, sound and installation which portray how memories are triggered and convey the indefatigable energy of New York.