WONDER WOMAN GARMENT STORIES // Deanne Butterworth, dancer & choreographer
Deanne Butterworth is a wonder woman.
A highly acclaimed dancer and choreographer, Deanne has spent more than 25 years pursuing and performing her craft around the world.
Best known for producing works that are responsive to the space in which they are shown, Deanne’s oeuvre includes the use of still images, sound, music, text and video to tell her stories through dance. She has shown her work at West Space, Lucy Guerin Inc, National Gallery of Victoria, Dancehouse, PAF (France), Dance New Amsterdam (NYC)
Deanne’s natural ease and quiet grace come almost in opposition to the truly fearless approach she has to her practice.
Deanne embodies a definitive type of feminine strength that we are often thinking about when designing our ranges. The ideas that Deanne talks about in her interview draw parallels with many of the intentions we try to encapsulate in our own products. Bold, purposeful and strong, and above all a willingness to risk failure in an attempt to explore the creative process. Things we think are radial, yes.
This is Deanne Butterworth and these are her garment stories.
Interview by Kerryn Moscicki, Photography shot on location at Deanne’s Melbourne Apartment by Holly Graham for Siy Studio.
You are a dancer, choreographer and performer. What is your earliest garment memory in the context of your practice?
During creative dance classes when I was four years old I had a chiffon scarf I danced around with. It wasn’t really a complete garment but it was a simple object with a different weight, becoming transformative and encouraging exploration and play while moving. The teacher had a bag full of different coloured scarves, some being quite glittery and I loved the texture and smell of them all.
Much later, once I had done a lot more study and started a professional practice, the garments I chose to wear were connected to the American post-modern ideal of dance. In the pre-internet days I obsessively looked at photos in the University library of works from another time, and I think I absorbed a particular aesthetic and adopted a costume through that. In the early 90s I hadn’t fully formed my own language, style or individual ideas and I was using the simple garments worn by others in another time as a ‘uniform’ to access a historical aesthetic while making contemporary work- the ‘uniform’ consisted of everyday clothes like trackpants and tops. I adopted that costume for while as I liked the idea of that historical connection, and the lineage of my mentors was in some ways drawn from that time anyway. My favourite garment which was more deliberately designed and constructed by someone else, is a poodle costume which included in the headpiece some wool from my now deceased dog’s first haircut.
Fashion Historian Quentin Bell once commented that “Our clothes are too much a part of us for most of us ever to be entirely indifferent to their condition: it is as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the body, or even the soul.’ In relationship to dance and choreography, in what ways does a garment transform performance?
The garment or costume works in collaboration with other things such as lights, the space, other dancers, sound, and a particular focus leading to a moment of transformation in the performance. Different costumes have different weights, shapes and textures or they might be more representational- sometimes the transition from rehearsal clothes to the costume garment can be really easy, but if the costume consists of multiple garments sometimes it can add another layer to negotiate and work with as it sets new conditions upon the body.
During the creation and rehearsal of a new work particular choreographic patterns are set up while wearing something pretty loose and practical, such as sweats. The sweats are usually so well worn and loved that they are a natural extension of the body! At that point each dancer knows their specific pathways and understands their role without thinking about the garment. Closer to opening and when we might start working in costumes, there are really practical things to consider. If the garment has funny fastenings making it tricky to roll on the ground, inhibits movement, or if the fabric is slippery against the floor or creations friction it can be quite intense to negotiate which might slightly change how the movement happened pre-costume.
It’s always really exciting to experiment with the possibilities of how a garment moves and how it might affect the movement. But none of the transformation can happen without the presence of an audience. It’s a bit of a buzz. It works much the same way as when someone get dressed up for a particular occasion- the garment is prepared, the ensemble is rehearsed, and you sort of know it’s going to all work together.
Deanne wears our Awakening Bootie in Moss Green.
I know we discussed that the garment often comes later during your preparation for a performance. Have you ever been in a situation where once you arrived at the costuming decisions the performance changed? Or even just your feeling toward the performance?
Recently in other peoples work I’ve had a couple of moments where the costume might have changed right before the performance or even during the performance. There might be a selection of garments available to wear and we would get changed during the work. When that happens there’s not really time to conscious think about the affect of the garment or (no garment) on the body. What I might be feeling in the moment is a combination of many things related to how I interact with others and what choices I’m making while doing the choreography and thinking about what the audience is watching and thinking. It’s almost as if preparation and action happen simultaneously.
What sort of colours, textures and fabrics do you find yourself repeatedly drawn to in your wardrobe? How has this changed over the years?
I’ve always been really attracted to brighter colours and repetitive patterns. My wardrobe consists of a lot of colours- mostly reds, greens, blues, mustards, and strangely a lot of brown tones which I didn't ever realise until looking at it now. There is also a fair bit of metallic and glitter but I’m a bit shy about wearing that these days. I often like to try wearing clashing patterns and colours, which can be quite unsuccessful at times but I like to persevere with an idea sometimes walking out the door knowing it’s a bad choice. I went through a serious Eley Kishimoto phase in the naughties, then discovered Alexandre Herchcovitch in 2006, a few years later Peter Jensen, with A.P.C. always being of a favourite. These personal discoveries coincided with where I worked at the time in my ‘shop girl money job’ to support the artistic practice. I suppose the playful aspect of dressing has always been interesting to me and do I remember my mother being quite bold in her choices during the 70s and 80s- I have few of her dresses now. I’ve always enjoyed shopping at vintage stores and whenever I go overseas I tend to come home with a suitcase full of clothes, many of which are vintage.
I own a lot of bright patterned silk dresses and a couple of draws full of higher heeled vintage shoes that I don’t wear at all at the moment but I can’t seem to let go of. I’ve always thought I can save them for when I’m 70 years old getting dressed up to meet friends! Over the years I have had this in built desire to dress up but always wished that I could dress down and embrace casual attire. Jeans didn't really feature in my wardrobe until recently. Now that I feel as though I have mastered my own version of casual dressing, I look towards others in the street and think how much more together they look and I start to aspire to a more sophisticated look. In recent years my fabric choices have been a product of a busier lifestyle with a child- less silk, less pale colours, more patterns, a few more tees and a flatter shoe so I can chase a scooter down a city street.
Deanne wears our Saturn Returns in Burgundy Leather.
You have prepared three important dresses to wear for our shoot today. Let’s talk first about the Lanvin dress you bought in Antwerp and the occasions you have worn it.
At the end of a residency in Luxembourg with Phillip Adams Balletlab in 2012 I wanted to go somewhere I had never been before so ended up spending 2 weeks in Antwerp. I totally fell in love with the city! I stayed in this place on Nationalestraat previously listed in the Wallpaper pocket guide. At one time it would have been uber cool - it was all white but a few years on it was sort of faded and a bit scruffy. I bought the Lanvin dress from Rosier 41- they sell preloved clothing in excellent condition. The dress was sort of expensive and I kept going back to look- it wasn’t a colour I would normally wear but there was something about the shape and the way that it fell which I loved. It’s also a little tricky to get on- sometimes I mistake the head hole for an arm hole, but I like that about it too- it’s as if the dress makes me reassess it each time I put it on. On my last day in Antwerp and before my train to Paris I raced off to buy the dress. I was super happy with my purchase. I promptly rolled it into a little ball, stuffed it into the side of my case and hopped on the train. The dress has spent most of it’s time folded up at the back of my wardrobe but I sometimes get it out and try it on. I’ve only worn it once in Melbourne which was to the opening M Pavilion with a little A.P.C wedge. It’s a really beautiful feeling to wear it now with the beautiful lilac Toe Tapper shoe as it feels like I have a greater mobility and ease inside it.
Deanne wears our Abundance in Carpet Textile.
The Anntian dress also has an inspiring story related to Miranda July and your life before motherhood when travel was obviously a bigger focus of your life. Can you tell us why this dress is special? We asked you impromptu to dance in these pieces wearing our flat sole Moccasins which is obviously a departure from the ways you may have worn it before. Did this make you see the garment perhaps in a different light?
I initially tried on the Anntian dress in November 2011 at Creatures of Comfort in NYC after being there for the biennial Performa Festival. I fell in love with it straight away but it was a size small and there wasn’t a larger size available. I think I tried it on four times before I left for home and had to accept it wasn’t meant for me. Once home I saw an image of Miranda July wearing that exact Anntian dress with bright green tights to the opening of the BFI London Film Festival. She was gazing directly at the camera in that ethereal, being very quiet and still, yet slightly awkward way she does so well, and it made me really want the dress. I searched for the dress and eventually bought it through the Henrik Vibskov store in Copenhagen and the day that dress arrived I was the most excited I have ever been about a purchase! There’s something about the colours and lightness of the dress, the way it falls across the body sort of like a sash, the simple round neck and the fact it’s higher at the back then falls and drapes elegantly at the front.
In the past I have worn this dress with a heavier boots and tights, or even with my much adored A.P.C. wedge sandals. Wearing it with a flatter and lighter shoe feels really beautiful and connected to the ground in a way I haven’t felt before. I really love the lightness of the silk and in some ways I associate silk with a more formal or dressed up ensemble, so it is really nice to access a different feeling wearing the flat soled moccasin. I also like playing with the weight of the brass tassel on the end of the laces.
Deanne wears our Serendipity in Lilac leather.
The Green jumpsuit was bought at Beacon’s Closet in New York and was used for a performance you did there in 2007. How did it feel to put this on again? Tell us more about the photo shoot you did in this piece.
The green jumpsuit now has withered elastic in the waist and I think it’s always felt a bit funny to wear. It’s as if I don’t quite fit inside it correctly and it must have been made as a costume for someone else in another time. When I first bought the jumpsuit the elastic wasn’t quite as perished so it was a bit more cinched in at the lower ribs and waist but the proportions have always felt a bit wrong. But I love it because it’s so effortless to move in even if it doesn’t look that great on. My exceptional dancer friend Tim Harvey and I were both in NYC following a performance we did there back in January 2007. We both stayed on for a little longer to make some work together and show it at a works-in-progess performance. Prior to the performance we did a photo shoot on the rooftop of where he was living in Brooklyn. It was the clearest January day imaginable with perfect blue skies making it absolutely freezing. I was wearing the synthetic jumpsuit with a pair of boots dancing around on the rooftop trying to keep warm and Tim was taking consecutive photos being as fast as possible. Then we swapped roles so he danced and I shot. The whole shoot took about ten minutes and the document from those minutes is a frame by frame movie of us both trying to keep warm while dancing. The funny thing is that when we did the performance we asked audience to write feedback and someone wrote something along the lines of ‘the man should have been wearing a suit and the girl could have worn a dress!’
Deanne wears our Saturn Returns in Burgundy Leather.
I was really interested when we were talking on the shoot to hear you speak of dance in the context of ‘phrasing’. So that the movement or sequence of movement is like a language in itself. Can you explain this idea in more detail. As your practice has developed over 20 years has your language changed? Do you find the body becoming more eloquent or harder to contain?
Wow that’s a big question. I suppose there’s a lot of verbal language used in dance which is understood in a specific way by those using it and it’s not until a word is understood differently by someone else that I realise that specificity. My use of the word ‘phrase’ related to a sequence of movement. Phrases can be differently lengths and include different movements and often get named as something. For example, the ‘left corner poke’ phrase; ‘shunt cube’ phrase; ‘pelvis wobble’ phrase; ‘zigzag flourish’ phrase; or ‘ornamental vase’ phrase. They’re just names that maybe describe a direction, a little of the movement and what part of the body it focusses on but isn’t what the phrase is about. They act a little like triggers for the memory. The stuff that makes up phrases might also be called material. I think another word for phrase is ‘routine’ which I never really understood because I always thought there was never anything routine about moving.
Over the last twenty years there are things that have been constant but many things which have consciously changed. I realised the other day when I was warming up that I have been doing some of the same exercises for over 25 years. Warming up the body using these repeat exercises sort of encourages it to retain something of another time even as my body changes. It took me a long time to find my own genuine voice and it’s only been as recent as 2009 that has happened. I have been much more active in dance in the last eight years than in the previous twelve years which maybe comes down to being more adventurous and willing to take risks with the idea of failure. There was a time when I thought it was all too hard and I thought about leaving it for something else but then I realised I had been doing it for such a long time it was as if I had only just really scratched the surface and had to keep going. The things which consistently keep me going are my fascination with space, music, observing people, moving with others, improvising, my peers and the work of others, and the rush I get when I am moving especially when I don’t know exactly how I arrived somewhere in space. I used to be more dedicated and try to go to a class each morning but as things have expanded it’s harder to juggle that into the day. I’m in a place where I feel really comfortable with my body although there is the impact of aging and change but the desire to move how I did in my 20s isn’t as strong. Generally I think my body is more eloquent but that’s related to my awareness of it. The work I want to make now is also different and sometimes includes less dancing.
Deanne wears our Awakening Bootie in Moss Green.
How has motherhood changed your practice? For myself I have found deep reserves of determination to continue my work in spite of the demands of juggling it all, which has in some ways lead to my best ideas (I think anyway). There is something about the resilience you have to build up to continue that helps you do better work. Maybe a type of maturity, and stubbornness. What would be your response to that?
Since having a child I have undertaken many interesting projects which I wasn’t offered in the past. I think it’s a timing thing more to do with the trajectory of where my career was going anyway, but I found myself in a place where I had a small baby and I was saying ‘yes’ to everything. When my son was almost 3 months old I did a performance at NGV for Melbourne Now and I think having that invitation and launching myself right back into things set me up on a pathway of believing many things were possible. Maybe I’m inherently stubborn in some ways too so I just believed I would be able to do stuff. I’ve always been attracted to squeezing too much into my day so juggling stuff works well for me. Looking back now I’m really surprised it worked out and I was able to manage everything. I certainly have more bravery and have become much more organised in small windows of time – even when it comes to writing funding applications I now allocate less time and try to be more streamlined. I’ve embraced this idea of potential failure as option in my work and through doing this it led me to being a bit more confident in what I can do and I have a ‘just get on with it’ sort of attitude. Maybe I just finally matured and realised the set of skills I had was valuable and that I could do more. Everything became a bit more experimental and for once I started to seek out opportunities rather than sort of sit back and hope that things might just appear.
If people wanted to learn more about your work, which piece would you recommend they view? Is there a single work that you feel demonstrates your range and accomplishment or is it the body of work as a whole that is important?
‘Two Parts of Easy Action’ (September 2016 at The Substation) was pretty special. I worked with the incredible musician Evelyn Morris and we sort of switched roles in the performance- it was really just an experiment. Evelyn danced and I played the guitar, and then I danced and she drummed. Another work made for Bus Projects last year, ‘All Our Dreams Come True’ with the brilliant Jo Lloyd was also really great because of the organic way we worked with each other and the playfulness in our relationship. These two works are really different so I would say maybe the whole body of work is important as it keeps evolving. Over the next 2 years I’m a studio artist at Gertrude Contemporary so I’m hoping to have some open studio sessions where others can come and observe and maybe even participate in some new ideas. I’ll keep you posted!
What does being radical mean to you?
Cultivating energy, being generous and taking risks with ideas.
Deanne wears our Awakening Bootie in Moss Green.