Talking Rollercoasters and Pop Stars With Choreographer Rena Butler
Finding Inspiration, From MTV to Janet Jackson
Winner of the Princess Grace Award for her choreography—one of the most prestigious prizes in the performing arts—Butler has been chasing new horizons since she was a child. If her older brother was playing water polo, she wanted her shot too. If he was mastering back flips or dancing like Will Smith, she was going to follow in his footsteps.
The daughter of a stay-at-home mom and the deputy comptroller for the city of Chicago, Butler describes her upbringing like a “choose-your-own-adventure” story.
Her parents wanted to expose her to as many opportunities as possible, from art to sports and beyond. Swimming was a family passion. They even signed the family up for American Coaster Enthusiasts, a nonprofit dedicated to the appreciation of rollercoasters.
“Dance is what captured me, arrested me,” she recalls. “It was a way to be glamorous and gritty.”
Butler discovered she could channel her athleticism into art-making, creating characters with the same physicality she used in sports. And there was always music in the house.
Growing up in the Beverly neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, she would groove to the sounds of Soul Train on Saturday mornings. And episodes of the MTV series Making the Video would have her glued to the television screen, as pop stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna dissected their music videos.
She found herself thinking: Either I could be in those music videos, or I want to be part of making them. Those dreams became all the more tangible when her parents took her to see her first concert, part of Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope Tour.
Butler was only 7 or 8 years old, but she still remembers watching the concert from the floor of the United Center arena. She was “completely obsessed” with Jackson, and there the pop star was, so close to where Butler and her family stood.
“I wanted to be more than just her background dancer,” Butler says. “I was like: I can make those moves.”
Back at home, Butler and her siblings—an older brother and two younger sisters—started to stage their own performances, creating a mock circus to entertain the family on holidays like Thanksgiving.
“Step right up! Step right up! Come see the show,” her brother, the ringmaster, would announce, collecting the shredded paper they had distributed as tickets. Butler, ever the choreographer, created dance routines for her sisters to perform.
Confronting Racism and Finding Acceptance in Dance
But as much as her parents tried to create a carefree environment for Butler and her siblings, they grew up acutely aware of the social divides that fractured their city. Chicago has a reputation for being culturally diverse—but also highly segregated, the result of racist housing policies and historic inequities.
“Being the one of the few Black families in the neighborhood, everybody knew who we were,” Butler recalls.
Her elementary school was predominantly white, and so was junior high. Butler remembers being the first Black student ever to win the role of student council president. But with that recognition came bullying and racism: She says classmates pushed her to the ground and called her the N-word.
“I remember having to swallow a lot of that in junior high, in particular, with puberty and things changing and my skin and my body and my hair looking different than the majority of my classmates,” Butler explains.
Dance became her “safe space,” a tool she could use to navigate the world around her. She set her sights on going to high school at The Chicago Academy for the Arts, comforting herself with the thought: “If I can make it through eighth grade, then I'm home-free to go to this art school where I can really be myself.”
But even in the world of dance, Butler couldn’t escape the racism and disparities. At age 12, she auditioned for the ballet The Nutcracker and got a part. But her excitement waned when she noticed a troubling trend.
“As the children were cast across the entire evening of The Nutcracker, you started to see all the children of color were either in masks or with very, very insignificant roles. And you had people that weren’t of color totally visible, with cute stick-on red cheeks,” she says. Butler herself was assigned a horse’s mask and asked to gallop.
But high school proved to be a turning point. Accepted to The Chicago Academy for the Arts, Butler discovered a “utopia” compared to what she had endured in junior high: a creative space where she could concentrate on her craft.
The academy was small—only about 120 students, she reckons—but it was much more diverse than her previous schools. She felt supported there. By age 14, she was serious about a career in dance.
Forging a Career in Both Dance and Choreography
Still, the performing arts were a tough industry to enter, and most of the arts schools Butler applied to for college waitlisted or rejected her. She got accepted, however, to the dance conservatory at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase, a program that pushed her to think of herself as more than a dancer.
“SUNY Purchase was where my world really expanded, where I could be a multifaceted performer as well as a creator,” she says. “Because you had to choreograph as a requirement every year while you were there.”
Nowadays, Butler works with many of the schools that initially waitlisted her. “Life has a really funny way of winking at you every once in a while,” she laughs.
It was through SUNY Purchase that Butler came to know Kyle Abraham, a MacArthur “genius” fellowship winner and founder of his own dance company. He would be a lifelong mentor. As soon as she graduated, she left to tour with his company A.I.M by Kyle Abraham.
From there, she went to work with legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones and later Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance, “one of the holy grails of dance companies.” Its artistic director Glenn Edgerton gave her the opportunity to choreograph the kinds of work that would ultimately land her the Princess Grace Award.
And around the time that the COVID pandemic started, she took a role as choreographic associate to Gibney Dance, the first in the company’s history.
Curiosity, Butler says, is what drives her to pursue new opportunities. It’s also what led her to work on her first opera.
For a long time, opera wasn’t an art form that particularly spoke to Butler. She would only attend a performance if a colleague was dancing in it. But in 2017, she was in Paris with her partner, a French dancer and choreographer. They had hoped to see a ballet at the city’s historic Palais Garnier theater. But they arrived to find an opera being staged that night instead.
The couple had a choice to make: Either stay and watch Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, or leave and chow down on some crêpes. They decided to stay.
“It was really quite beautiful,” Butler remembers. “I downloaded the music and it's my ring tone. It's been my ring tone since 2017.”
Exploring Opera With Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Masterpiece
Butler was in awe of how opera singers “can make their voices dance and vibrate.” So when Chicago-based opera director Matthew Ozawa reached out with an opportunity, Butler was intrigued.
He was assembling a team to create an all-new production of the 1762 opera Orpheus and Eurydice, by reformist composer Christoph Willibald Gluck.
Orpheus and Eurydice is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, the musician with a broken heart. Crushed by the sudden death of his wife Eurydice, Orpheus appeals to the gods for a chance to save her from the underworld—but the opportunity comes with a catch.
Ozawa and Butler found they shared a common goal in democratizing the performing arts. They agreed to collaborate. “We have this desire to make it accessible, to open it up and still let it be complex,” Butler says of the opera. “For people to identify themselves in these legendary characters, how do we bring it back down to earth?”
But approaching that challenge has meant negotiating the specific hurdles of the art form. Singing opera is a complex, full-body experience, requiring performers to produce a fusillade of notes at such a high volume that it can be heard over a full orchestra.
As such, Butler has had to be mindful of how to choreograph the lead performers as they sing. Stomach-crunching moves are out. And in the lead-up to big arias, the intensity of the dance has to be adjusted, so that the singer has enough energy to hit the high notes.
“Beautiful art is a communal thing,” Butler says of balancing everyone’s needs. “You have so many brilliant artists in the room to work with. So it's making space for each other. But also, having that common vision to reach for is just super invigorating for me.”
The theme of grief in Orpheus and Eurydice is something dance is uniquely positioned to convey, Butler says. She considers dance to be the “most extreme form of human expression.”
“Movement is really our soul's way of flushing out our deepest emotions,” she explains. She points to how the language surrounding grief and recovery—phrases like moving forward, moving on—hinge on the premise of movement.
“What happens when we are denied access to our safest place, which is love itself? And so I think Orpheus is offering us that relative scenario of love and and loss,” Butler says.
As she processes the pain the opera conveys, Butler finds herself thinking back to that little girl who was pushed down and called racial slurs. It helps her to organize those emotions in her body—understanding how to hold them, release them, express them.
“Art is just an extension of our every day,” Butler says. “It's the imagination that goes into it that can help us release whatever it is that we're holding onto, to gain something we might not have yet, to peer into someone else's experience and hopefully relate it to our own.”
With her first foray into opera, Butler is discovering a new outlet for that rich interior life—the latest horizon for a lifelong thrill-seeker.
See Rena Butler’s work in Orpheus and Eurydice, on stage at San Francisco Opera from October 15 through December 1, 2022. And follow her adventures on Instagram using the handle @renabutler.