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Oh Captain, My (Dance) Captain

By: Mark Blankenship
Date: Aug 10, 2009


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When people talk about dance as a universal language, they're generally speaking in metaphors. But not Gregory Butler. From Argentina to Spain to Korea, he has literally used movement to communicate with huge groups of performers.
As the associate choreographer of Chicago, the Broadway musical revival that's been running since 1996, Butler's responsible for teaching the show's choreography to international casts. And though the show does hire an interpreter, he often just talks with his body.

"Dancers, they figure it out," he says. "I pat my head, and it means 'take it from the top.' They know if I'm there and I'm moving, they all need to move like me. We all have that language."

When it comes to the language of Chicago, Butler is one of the most fluent in the world. He first joined the show---which follows the sensational lives of "merry murderesses" Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly---in early 1997, when he performed in the first American touring company. He joined the Broadway cast soon after, and he's been there every since.  (When he's not traveling the world, he plays Fred Casely, the gruff lover who meets the wrong end of Roxie's gun.)

Butler is also Chicago's co-dance captain, which means he maintains all the staging and choreography set by Walter Bobbie, the production's director, and Anne Reinking, its choreographer. When new stars step into their roles, they immediately start rehearsing with Butler, who has about four weeks to teach them every step. (His list of protégés includes Usher Raymond, Melanie Griffith, and "Dancing With the Stars" host Samantha Harris.)

"The opportunities given to me as dance captain are what keep me here," he says. "Thirteen years doing just Fred Casely? That wouldn't have happened. But because I get to teach so many people, it keeps me fresh."

He says the show's choreography gives every performer a chance to shine, even if they aren't known for their dancing. "I'm just following Annie's lead," he explains. "She has an amazing way of finding out what it is you do and then incorporating it, and that’s what I'm trying to do. I find out how a new star moves, and I try to figure out how to get them, through the way that they move, into the choreography."

When Melanie Griffith signed on to play Roxie in 2003, for instance, Butler created a step just for her. And when Usher Raymond, a megawatt pop star known for his smooth dancing, debuted as the shady lawyer Billy Flynn in 2006, Butler crafted a moment in the number "Razzle Dazzle" where the entire cast froze while Usher displayed some special moves. "That was a challenge," he says. "You want to stay true to the show, and you don't want it to be another video. But at the same time, it's Usher. You want to give his fans a little somethin'-somethin'."

It's worth noting that not every show allows its dancers to show so much personality. Some choreography is much more uniform, and cast members are expected to mimic exactly what everyone before them has done. "That's another reason I've stayed with our show," Butler says. "It's performer driven and there's a lot of improv, so everyone's able to bring their little flavor into it."

Butler says his "flavor" involves highly fluid movements. ("I dance like water, baby!" he laughs.) He adds, however, that dancing in "Chicago" isn't only about finding the moments where you can improvise. It's also about trusting the show's overall commitment to stillness and tiny gestures. That's a concept that many of the people he trains don't initially accept.

"We're so used to dancing very big now: Kicks and flips and eighteen turns," Butler says. "On this stage, in 'All That Jazz,' you have thirteen people plus Velma going 'start the car, I know a whoopie spot.'"

With that line from the musical's opening number, Butler cups his hand---he calls it a "tea hand"---and slightly tilts his wrist, like he's turning the key in an ignition. It's a small movement, but even in an interview, he performs it with enough precision to make it interesting. According to Butler, dancers can't grasp Chicago unless they know how to sell those tiny moments.

He says, "Gwen Verdon used to talk a bout the sewing machine needle that's running inside of you. You've got to be able to keep that motor going. That's what enables you to stand up there, and do a tea hand, and a turn and a quarter, and have that be enough. When everybody connects with that, it fills the stage."
Mark Blankenship