Portrait of Rena Butler
I first met Rena close to 10 years ago when I saw her dance at Jacob’s Pillow with Kyle Abraham’s (then very new) company, and once you see Rena dance you do not forget her!
Born and raised in South Chicago, Rena grew up in a family, as she described it to me,“with high expectations for their children, and with a strong affinity for art and culture”. That led her to study theatre and dance at the Chicago Academy of the Arts in High School, before enrolling for her BFA at SUNY Purchase’s Conservatory of Dance, which is where she met and was ultimately hired by Kyle Abraham.
Her journey academically had some interesting twists and turns which have informed her personal evolution since then – studying Southeast Asian Literature, Dadaism and Surrealism, and most notably studying abroad at the Taipei National University of the Arts – when I photographed her she had just returned from 5 months in Bali where she was studying Balinese dance.
Rena’s dance career began with AIM by Kyle Abraham, and it was Kyle who encouraged her to not only develop as a dancer, but also as a choreographer, pushing her to constantly challenge herself to grow artistically.
She spent 4 ½ tough and challenging years dancing for Bill T. Jones – before she moved to work for Glenn Edgerton at Hubbard Street where in her own words “she learned she could be multifunctional and open, a facilitator and creator”.
Rena is now well on her way to becoming an established choreographer. She was awarded the prestigious Princess Grace award in 2019 and has been commissioned for numerous works, and most recently was the 2022 Choreographic Associate at Gibney Dance.
Capturing these disparate threads was my opportunity and intent in my portrait series of Rena.
She is driven and demanding, but also sensitive and, at times, vulnerable.
She is a creator, a director, an artist, and an athlete with strong points of view and an acute social antenna and sensibility.
She also worked modeling athletic apparel for 3 years when she was in high school (an example of her work ethic and it paid her way through college) which brought a deep familiarity with interacting with a photographer -and her own photographer’s mind’s eye.
The result was a great collaboration in multiple forms and moods.
Our work with fabric allowed Rena to express her sculptural and spatial sensibility beautifully, and the addition of a low, long table as a prop (Rena’s idea) created an additional element of structure and shape for her to interact with physically and emotionally.
But above all, and this is what I am most grateful for, the power, grace, and sensitivity of her artistry shines through clearly, strongly and without ambiguity.