Rena Butler
Photo: Lindsay Linton Buk

Getting to know choreographer Rena Butler

29 February 2024

Her irrepressible energy and individuality make Rena Butler a dancer who is said to immediately draw eyes to her among hundreds of others. Although there are still a couple of choreographers on her dancing wish list, she now spends most of her time creating her own work. So who is this flamboyant American, who is making her Dutch debut as a choreographer in Generation Dance?

As a 14-year-old student at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, she had to choose whether to study drama or dance. “Instinctively, I chose for dance, as I knew that dance training was tougher and that dance is a much more extreme way of expressing yourself.” This extremeness has always appealed to her, says Butler: having to dig deep and really get your teeth into something. “It’s like the saying, ‘You have to go on the most difficult hike to enjoy the most beautiful view’. And I also realised that a dancing career is so fleeting that I had to start working on it right away.”

Rena Butler

“I always relate to what I see around me”

Following her training, Butler danced with prominent contemporary companies in America, like Kyle Abraham’s A.I.M., Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Company, Hubbard Street Dance Company and the Gibney Company. But no matter how many opportunities she was given, she never stayed anywhere for more than a few years, because: “My curiosity is greater than anything else. It’s what keeps me inventive, what stimulates my imagination. As much as I enjoyed my time with these companies, I always had this feeling of: ‘Oh, what’s happening over there? Let’s try that!’”

Kyle Abraham

She was curious about creating her own work even before starting her dance training. “When my parents had people over and my sisters, my brother and I were bored to tears, I made up little dances for them. I had no idea what choreography was, but at the age of ten I was already fascinated by television programmes like Soul Train and MTV’s Making the Video, where you saw how ideas were expressed purely through movement.”

Rena Butler

“My curiosity is greater than anything else”

It was choreographer Kyle Abraham (still her most important mentor) who encouraged her to take part in a festival for young choreographers, shortly after she joined his company. “He laid the foundation for my choreographic career and, as the most generous person I know, became a real blueprint for the sort of artist I want to be myself.”

Athletic and physical

Since her official debut in 2014, Butler has created works for numerous contemporary dance groups, schools and festivals, and she has now made her entrance into the ballet world as well, with creations for Charlotte Ballet, in America, and The National Ballet of Canada, among others. Here, too, she’s driven by curiosity. “My work is very athletic and physical, which makes it incredibly exciting to see how ballet dancers interpret it.”

When she started choreographing, Butler says, she couldn’t avoid themes like racial equality, identity and gender. “I always relate to what I see around me, and certainly in the period leading up to the murder of George Floyd I was fully engaged with these topics.” But even though she’s still confronted on an almost daily basis with racism and ignorance, ‘black themes’ are no longer, her trademark. “When people watch my work, I don’t want them to think, ‘Oh, a black woman made this’. No! A creative artist made this, regardless of their colour or gender.” 

Text: Astrid van Leeuwen

  • Generation Dance is performed from 11 to 25 September 2024 at Dutch National Opera & Ballet