The Portal

Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy

Jean Butler. Photograph by Conor Horgan.

In June 2019 Irish dance practitioner, contemporary choreographer, and Artistic director of Our Steps 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. 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.

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 and former Verlin students 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.

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 forthcoming performance installation and exhibition, which 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.