Partner Charles Saint-Amant, Melvin Dwork
Cypress St, Charleston, MS 38921
Bethel Cemetery Enid, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, USA
John Neilson Butler (September 29, 1918 - September 10, 1993) was an US dancer, choreographer, and director.
John Neilson Butler was born in Charleston, Tennessee, to Minnie Neilson Butler and Kenyon Latimer "Kent" Butler Jr., and moved to Greenwood, Mississippi at a very early age. Kent Butler was the operator of the Threeway Service Station at the intersection of Highways 32 and 35. His father died when John was very young. His widowed mother moved to Greenwood where John attended the city schools. He graduated from Greenwood High School in 1936 and attended Mississippi State University. Butler was interested in dance as a young man, and took any available opportunity to take part in ballets. After attending MSU, Butler returned to Charleston and opened a ballroom dance studio on the south side of the Courthouse Square. One of his students was Lillian Meriwether, co-editor of the old Mississippi Sun. A fortmer New Yorker, she encouraged the young artist to go to New York and try his talents on Broadway. He moved to New York in his late teens, supporting himself by teaching the ballroom dancing, at which he excelled. After training with Eugene Loring, he studied at the Martha Graham School and at the School of American Ballet before dancing with the Martha Graham company (1945–55) and appearing in musicals and on television.
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.
In 1944 he appeared on Broadway dancing the lead role of Dream Curly in Agnes de Mille's Oklahoma! ballet. He founded his own company in 1955 (later renamed American Dance Theater), which toured Europe until it disbanded in 1961. He was one of the first dancemakers to marry classical ballet and modern dance and as well as creating works for his own company he choreographed for Broadway, New York City Opera, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Batsheva Dance Company, Harkness Ballet, Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Paris Opera Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
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.
Butler was dance director for Gian Carlo Menotti's annual Spoleto festival, and choreographed Menotti's television opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, in 1951. He also choreographed for television and for ice shows. A noted teacher, he counted Lar Lubovitch and Glen Tetley among his pupils.
His works include The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore (1956), created for Gian Carlo Menotti and later taken into the repertoire of New York City Ballet, Carmina Burana (1959) for New York City Opera and revived for over 30 other companies, After Eden (mus. Lee Hoiby, 1967), for the Harkness Ballet, and Portrait of Billie, choreographed for Carmen de Lavallade and himself for the Newport Jazz Festival (1960) and taken into the repertoire of the Ailey company in 1974. At the Spoleto Festival in 1975 he choreographed Medea for Fracci and Baryshnikov, the first new work created for the Russian following his defection to the West and revived for ABT (1976).
Peggy Glanville-Hicks and John Butler met in February or March 1958, shortly after the disastrous New York premiere of Glanville-Hicks’s opera The Transposed Heads. He was tall, lean and boyish, with large eyebrows, large lips and an obviously Southern accent. She already knew of him, as a former student of Martha Graham and as the choreographer of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors for television and The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore for New York City Ballet, which led to him being engaged by New York City Opera. The opportunity now to work with Menotti’s choreographer, one of the busiest in the business and someone whose works received rave reviews from critics as influential as Walter Terry, was an unexpected gift. Butler wanted a score for the forthcoming Festival of Two Worlds at Spoleto in Italy—the first of Menotti’s festivals—and he needed it as soon as possible. She provided existing music for the ballet Triad and original music for The Masque of the Wild Man, first performed on 10 June 1958 with Butler’s company, consisting of Glen Tetley, Buzz Miller, Carmen de Lavallade, Charles Saint-Amant, Tina Ramirez and Coco Ramirez.
John Butler chose Mykonos for a holiday in summer 1958, when Glanville-Hicks was in Athens. There he met the local matriarch, Vienoula Kousathana, who arranged accommodation for him and his lover, the dancer and gifted photographer Charles Saint-Amant. Vienoula was a legend on the island, the mother of five children, a weaver with a unique love of colour and herself a poet and composer of songs. When Peggy Glanville-Hicks visited Mykonos she found she could stay in a fisherman’s house so close to the sea—probably in Little Venice—that the spray showered her face. Best of all, it cost her only 25 cents a night. Everyone stopped at Vienoula’s shop to chat and ask for advice—she spoke good English, was always cheerful and witty and her shop with its myriad brightly coloured weavings, her large loom and the village atmosphere made it seem cosy and familiar.
Glanville-Hicks and Butler continued to collaborate on a series of ballets for the stage and television, these scores enabling her to continue working for New York companies while living in Greece. These ballets were Saul and the Witch of Endor (1959) for CBS TV, Jephthah’s Daughter (1966) for CBS TV and Rimbaud/A Season in Hell (1967) for Harkness Ballet. Butler also toured those works, Masque danced by the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1963 and Rimbaud being produced at the Brooklyn Academy in 1969. While the Biblical ballets followed the story more or less, Rimbaud was a psychological drama of Butler’s creation. “Even my most pure dance piece, for me, still must be dramatic, have a sense of theater even if I’m not getting into the actual narrative’, he explained to Jill Silverman (Horizon, April 1988).
While Butler 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.
Butler only reluctantly agreed to become the choreographer for Glanville-Hicks’s opera Nausicaa, scheduled for the Athens Festival in 1961, not because he didn’t want to be part of Glanville-Hicks’s greatest enterprise, but because he had no great love for opera. But he was prepared to take it on for Glanville-Hicks’s sake and he knew of Robert Graves and had read his books so meeting him and touring archaeological sites with the two of them in the days before the opera’s premiere was a special pleasure. On his arrival Butler discovered that the Greek dancers he would be working with had little idea about modern dance and were “bug-eyed” at the things he was suggesting they do. Rehearsals were difficult, having to take place in the middle of the night because of the heat and because the theatre was occupied, with constant tension between him and the conductor of the Greek choir, but the performance itself was an enormous success. Although some of the Greek critics were unimpressed by the costumes, most found the use of the theatre imaginative and ingenious, some even claiming it was a revelation.
Glanville-Hicks developed friendships with several of those in Butler’s troupe, including Carmen de Lavallade, who visited her on Mykonos, and Charles Saint-Amant, who took several stunning photos of her with Butler when they travelled together in the Greek islands in 1958. She also met and admired Butler’s partner from 1961, the interior designer Melvin Dwork. After war service (and being thrown out of the navy because of his homosexuality), he studied at the Parsons School of Design, ran an antiques store on 57th Street, became a partner at the antiques and decorating firm of Altman-Dwork and was regularly featured in magazines such as Architectural Digest and House & Garden. In 1967 Dwork built a rough-hewn “tree house” on Fire Island. Looking like a set of stacked cubes, its interiors are panelled in golden-coloured timber with oak floors and in Dwork’s lifetime with Scandinavian furniture and neutral tones. The house was probably still being built when Glanville-Hicks visited for a weekend in 1966. Either Dwork or Butler took a photo of her sitting in the sun, but this was immediately before her brain surgery when she had almost completely lost her sight, had constant headaches and problems with her balance. In later years she would return from Greece to collaborate with Butler, and he and Dwork visited her in Athens. Dwork admired the simplicity and elegance of the furnishing of her small house on Odos Erechthiou: like him she admired timeless quality, aesthetic beauty and pieces that were storehouses of memories and stories.
Butler travelled incessantly, working with the Nederlands Dans Theater, Jacob’s Pillow festivals, Santa Fe Opera, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and later the Australian Ballet. Several of his ballets became repertoire staples, such as Carmina Burana, Portrait of Billie and Sebastian. He and Glanville-Hicks exchanged many gifts—according to Melvin Dwork he had a childlike love of gifts—and she constantly wore a brooch he had bought for her as a token of their friendship. She adored his apartment, stuffed full of African and South Pacific art, sculptures from New Guinea and paintings that Agnes De Mille described as works of real worth.
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.
He and Glanville-Hicks maintained a correspondence at least as late as 1987 but he realised on her last visit to New York that her mind was fixed on an era that had long gone and regretted that she had left New York and the creative life she had built there.
Although stage work occupied more and more of his time, Butler 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.
John Butler died on 10 Sep 1993 at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, New York. He is buried beside his mother, Minnie Butler, in the family burial plot of the Bethel Cemetery near Enid.
After Butler’s death in 1993, Melvin Dwork decided to donate to a museum a Greek vase that Glanville-Hicks had given Butler. After offering it to the Metropolitan Museum he chose instead to give it to a museum in Kansas City, Missouri, his own home town. This fifth-century figure vase, a fragile and priceless memento of friendship, is now part of the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
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