Biographical/historical: John Butler (1918-1993) was a dancer and choreographer who combined both classical and modern dance styles in his work. After a brief period leading his own dance company, Butler became a successful freelance choreographer on television and for dance companies around the world.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Butler moved to Greenwood, Mississippi at a very early age. He was interested in dance as a young man, and took any available opportunity to take part in ballets. He felt that Greenwood was not a conducive environment for a man pursuing a dance career and left as soon as he could. Upon arriving in New York in the early 1940s, Butler saw an article about Martha Graham. Excited by what he read, Butler went to her studio and asked to see her. Graham met him, saw what he referred to later as his “bad ballet”, and decided to allow him to work with her. Her one condition, however, was that he simultaneously studied ballet with George Balanchine. Consequently, he spent part of his time learning traditional ballet and part of his time on Graham’s modern dance concepts. The combination eventually led to Butler’s unique style of joining elements from both dance worlds in his work.
Butler gained enormous satisfaction from his dance studies, but very little money, as performances were paid, but rehearsals, which comprised the bulk of his time, were not. He managed to find more lucrative work as a photographic model, frequently working for photographer Richard Avedon. He also worked in Broadway musicals, including Hollywood Pinafore and On The Town. While in the chorus of the latter, he met Allyn Ann McLerie and the two became friends. When they left the show, McLerie suggested that they put together a nightclub dance act and tour with it. When Butler asked who would choreograph the act, McLerie informed him that he would. The act was a success and represented Butler’s first professional choreography.
Television gave Butler some of his first major opportunities to choreograph for a larger audience. On television, he choreographed brief dances for variety shows, as well as full-length ballets and operas. His staging of Amahl and the Night Visitors from 1951 was recreated for NBC holiday specials for nine consecutive years. Some of Butler’s fellow “serious” dancers disdained television, but Butler liked working in television and believed it increased the audience for dance in America. Although he continued choreographing the occasional theatrical dance, Butler spent most of his time in the early 1950s working in television, ultimately becoming the permanent choreographer for two seasons of The Kate Smith Show. While he enjoyed the excitement of working in live television, and always credited the experience with honing his ability to work quickly, Butler felt restricted by the medium. Having earned a lot of money for the first time in his career, Butler used his salary from The Kate Smith Show to finance his own dance company, which toured the United States and Europe in 1955 and 1956. The experience was not what he had hoped, however. Butler did not enjoy the administrative aspect of running a dance company, preferring to devote his full attention to his art. The company was also not financially successful, spurring Butler on to disband the company after its single season.
While he returned to television in the late 1950s, most notably as a regular choreographer for The Ed Sullivan Show, Butler began to freelance with dance companies around the United States. While other top American choreographers worked only with the dancers in their own dance companies, Butler enjoyed the challenge of creating dances for different performers each time. After very well-received ballets at the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1958 and 1959, Butler developed an international reputation and spent the 1960s traveling Europe as well as the United States. During this period, he choreographed Carmina Burana, which would become perhaps his most famous piece. The ballet initially received some shocked responses for its erotic overtones, but ultimately became Butler’s most often repeated work. Through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Butler traveled the world choreographing newly commissioned dances and restaging several of his greatest successes with various companies. In addition to Carmina Burana, Catulli Carmina, Othello and After Eden were among his most requested ballets. He was a frequent guest with dance companies in Israel and Australia as well as all through Europe and the United States. Although stage work occupied more and more of his time, he continued to choreograph the occasional dance for television through the 1980s.
Butler’s choice to give up his own dance company in favor of freelancing his choreography had the initial effect of giving him a greater reputation in Europe than in the United States. By the time he died in 1993, however, he was a major figure in American dance, having created lasting works and shown that there was more than one way to practice the art of choreography.