Arts: Trace elements

Rosemary Butcher is a choreographer who rarely lets her dancers tread the same ground twice - which is why they always come back for more. By John Percival
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The Independent Culture
You know the joke about the newcomer to Swan Lake who thought the dancers were making up their steps as they went along? Well, here is something related, the like of which I never saw before. I am watching Rosemary Butcher and her dancers rehearse Spaces 4 in preparation for performances at the Royal College of Art this week. After a few minutes, she stops them for a couple of comments, mostly about timing (the work is done in silence). The dancers start again from the beginning, but this time everything is different: the order in which they enter, leave and return, the way they occupy the four spaces that make up the setting, and even their actual movements and poses. They are playing what is recognisably the same game, to the same rules, but it is a different match. And when they have another complete run-through, it all changes again.

Later, Butcher explains to me how it works. Rather than give her cast a fixed choreography for this piece, they have a set of instructions within which they improvise. Certain actions have to be included, but when is up to them. They must relate to each other, and somehow link the spaces. But when one of the dancers, Fin Walker, starts to ask "Do you want..?" Butcher breaks in, laughing. "You're going to ask me something I can't answer." And when she does answer, it is not in terms of "Do this, don't do that" but rather "It would be good if it happened so that..." or a comment about what has generally occurred in the past.

So every time Spaces 4 is given, it is new, yet it remains clearly and recognisably the same work, and a fine work, too. No wonder that the woman capable of conceiving this has been a maverick among English choreographers for 21 years; she is so highly regarded that she is being given a retrospective of her work this month with funding and facilities provided by a dozen national, regional, municipal, academic or philanthropic bodies.

Getting to this point was not an easy ride. Her CV shows gaps in output - not for lack of inspiration or energy, but because funding was only intermittently available to someone who did not fit the usual patterns. For the same reason, she has not been able to keep a permanent company, yet many of our most interesting dancers have been eager to return to her whenever they could. One such has been Jonathan Burrows, who used to take time off from the Royal Ballet to dance for her, and has appeared with her recently even since starting his own company. His explanation of her achievement is: "It's a matter of her perseverance - she really has gone on following her clear vision in a very courageous way."

The starting-point for her ideas came through a happy chance. At 18, Bristol-born Rosemary Butcher was soon to leave what she describes as her "rather academic" school when a leaflet arrived about a new course at Dartington Hall in Devon. This centre of enlightened education, arts and progressive social ideas had famously been a haven in the 1930s for Kurt Jooss's expressive dance company when they fled Hitler's Germany. Thirty years on, it was advertising the "new American techniques" which had made a tremendous impact on British audiences and dancers during Martha Graham's 1963 season.

Butcher was one of the initial class in 1965. She flourished in the mixture of music, art and dance she experienced, and, after three years, she was given a scholarship to America. At Maryland University - and on vacation courses in New York - she was able to experience other techniques than the Graham method she already knew. Notably, these were the ways of Merce Cunningham, whom other British dancers caught up with later, and Doris Humphrey, who was largely disregarded here. More crucially, she says that "out of the corner of my eye I became aware of other non-techniques as a basis for dance".

It was these "non-techniques" that she returned to study, practise and observe in the 1970s, after an obligatory year back at Dartington to teach, as required by her scholarship. (She is a good teacher; she is patient and encouraging and seems to like doing it. She has used it to keep going between opportunities for creative work.)

At Judson Church, on the edge of New York's Greenwich Village, a new generation of choreographers had grown up who rebelled against established practices, using everyday movement and improvisation, dancing in art galleries or open spaces, and collaborating with artists from other disciplines. Now they were branching out independently and some soon became internationally known. Butcher was the first English dancer to discover them and adopted many of the same principles and practices.

This is not to say that her work is imitative; she had time to absorb these ideas completely and apply them her own way before beginning to present her work in 1976. Right from the start, a distinctive style was visible; for evidence, a duet from her first programme, Landings, has been revived for the present retrospective.

It was first given in the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park because the gym at Pimlico School, where she was working, suddenly became unavailable; undaunted, she rang the gallery out of the blue ("Anything seemed possible in those days," she says) and was accepted.

The degree of freedom given to the dancers in Spaces 4 is the most extreme example of how Butcher works. Although improvisation is regularly part of how she makes a piece, she moves towards refining and defining it for performance, so that the end result may be fully set or allow only specific decisions during performance. At rehearsals of Unbroken View last week, re-staging it after a gap of two years, she and the cast used a video to remind themselves of the action. There are complex patterns of standing, walking, lying, kneeling and crouching, often with striking arm gestures; sometimes rolling across the floor, or a sequence punctuated by a jump into someone's arms, or by lifting, holding and lowering another dancer. Her corrections concentrated first on placing and dynamics, then on line and the quality of movement. This is what transforms otherwise pedestrian actions into a fascinating dance. What gets shown in the end is essentially her vision.

Without good, responsive dancers, this would not be possible, but the responsibility she gives them must be an attraction. Also, as Burrows suggests, her method draws out what really suits their abilities and means that they always look their best. Many of her dancers have themselves become choreographers.

Another major factor in her work has been that she likes to collaborate with visual artists (sculptors, architects or film-makers rather than painters) and musicians. Working with the sculptor Hans-Dieter Pietsch, for instance, meant they could develop their contributions simultaneously, so that his installation and her choreography arise from the same joint concept. The contribution of such collaborators helps develop the dances into a complete experience, and often a dramatic one. It's better not to call it "theatrical" because Butcher has only ever once presented her work behind a proscenium arch. She prefers a studio space, such as Riverside Studios, which helped her early career by providing a base. Better still, she likes the art galleries where she generally works now. In early days, she gave dances sometimes in the open air; this has not happened lately, but she still likes to bring in the outdoors by means of film.

Butcher is unlikely to be a choreographer for the mass public, but her influence on British dance, by her example and her teaching, has been large - out of all proportion to the modest audiences she plays to. And now the present retrospective (all this month, and due to resume over the next two years) will be the occasion to preserve her work through video, notation and her own written account of how each piece was made.

Sheffield, Rotherham and Hull have already had performances, workshops and talks; now she moves to the Royal College of Art for two weeks. Among the programmes is a work-in-progress, expected to premiere at next autumn's Dance Umbrella Festival. With Rosemary Butcher, retrospection certainly does not imply forgetting the future.

Rosemary Butcher retrospective season: performances (five programmes, with two different shows on 25, 26 and 28 Feb) from this Friday to 28 Feb, Royal College of Art, London SW7 (advance booking through the Place Theatre: 0171-387 0031). Also at the RCA: Butcher herself talks about collaboration tonight and introduces an open rehearsal and filming on Thursday afternoon