Our steps, our story: An Irish dance legacy archive

June 2019

This June, renowned Irish dance practitioner and contemporary choreographer Jean Butler returns to The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for a second year with her ever-expanding project Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive. A collaboration between Butler's Our Steps Foundation (OSF) and the Library's Jerome Robbins Dance Division, Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive is the first archive solely dedicated to preserving the solo steps and stories of Irish dance master practitioners and style influencers from An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha. Butler’s residency at the Library will take place from June 3 through June 13, 2019.

After initiating the first archive of Irish solo dances last summer, Butler traveled to Jacob’s Pillow in March 2019 for a ten-day creative residency to re-calibrate archival material for The Stepping Fields, a performance installation scheduled to premiere in Dublin in 2021. Assembling an intergenerational team of dancer-researchers, Butler spent the residency mining the archival material across choreographic, written, and filmed experiments.

This summer, Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive expands upon the work compiled over the past year, going deeper into an exploration of styles and a contemporary response to traditional dance. Continuing to braid her choreographic investigations and embodied scholarship, Butler will work closely with choreographer and dancer Kristyn Fontanella in a duet that formed initially at Jacob’s Pillow. Using a score derived from memory and music, they work across movement vernaculars and inflections (in bare feet and Irish hard shoes) to invent and revise habituated ways of perceiving the Irish dancing body. 

The Library will record this process as part of the Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive, which is part of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division’s collection. The Library is the permanent custodian of this archive, which will be made available to the public, in perpetuity. The mission of Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive is to foster a critical dialogue between generations of Irish dancers, and connect Irish step dance to the greater field of dance.

In the afternoons, Butler will work with a younger generation of Irish dancers to transmit the style of historical dances as they were originally performed. Attention will be paid to rhythm and musicality as a way to recover the style of the day, asking what it means to bridge historical and contemporary embodiments. The second half of the residency extends the archive by looking at the lineage of Kenny Verlin, a remarkable Irish dancing style influencer who passed away tragically in 1986 after opening his school, Verlin School of Irish Dance in 1974. Verlin’s dances will be taught by special guest practitioners Ellen Riordan, John Jennings, and Siobhan Gorman, who will also have their oral histories recorded for the Library’s collection by Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive writer-in-residence Siobhan Burke. 

A longstanding issue with dance archiving has been the ephemeral nature of the form. Unless one intervenes and actively documents, often no trace survives. The Jerome Robbins Dance Division understood this early on and since the 1960s has been filming public performances throughout New York City and nationally in an attempt to preserve the field. However, this activity does not enable a community to work together to remember and reconstruct a dance. Dance archival practice is becoming more sensitive to this issue, working to find new ways to document dance beyond recording performances. By providing a studio space for multiple generations of dancers to convene and by filming the process, the Dance Division hopes to create a new road map for enabling and sustaining dance memory.

Innovating new methods of performance documentation, this project places focus on the intricacies of the body moving in space to capture the idiosyncratic stylistic variations that once defined Irish step dance. Last year, the workshops produced over 85 hours of filmed recorded material, as well as 15 hours of oral history interviews with master teachers and key participants. The creation of this rare archive will be celebrated in a performance installation and exhibition, entitled The Stepping Fields set to premiere in 2021 in Dublin. The Stepping Fields confidently places the Irish body, past and present, under meticulous examination in an aim to reintroduce the form and engage new audiences in the lost cultural dance history of Ireland and the diaspora. 

July 2018

The inaugural project of Our Steps Foundation completed the first  of four residencies in partnership with the New York Public Library of Performing Arts, Jerome Robbins Dance Divsion. Entitled Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive, this groundbreaking work will create the first Irish solo dance archive in the world. During  two weeks from July 16 -27, more than 30 solo dances were recreated, performed and filmed for prosperity. These dances date from as early as 1958 up until today. The project connected generations and geographies, tracing a part of the living history of Irish dance in NY from master teacher and style influencers Cryil McNiff, Jimmy Erwin and Donny Golden.