Krystal Butler Choreographs Dance with Oberlin Students


Courtesy of John Seyfried

College third-year Evelyn Morrison, fourth-year Georgie Johnson, first-years Lena Golia and Emmacate Sauer, and second-year Analise LaRiviere in a piece choreographed by visiting artist Krystal Butler.

Six figures in electric blue shorts huddle in a circle on the smooth wooden stage, their arms held tightly around each other. Walking clockwise, their circle begins to spin, whirling faster and faster until every other dancer is able to lift off the ground. Supported on the shoulders of their peers, their legs spiral outwards, and the circle blooms like a parachute with air. Just as suddenly, they land and careen to separate ends of the room, the circle dispersing into blue light. 

The moment is one among many delightful experiences from Work in Progress, a Fall Forward performance developed by visiting artist Krystal Butler, a member of the Pilobolus repertory company. A graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Long Island University, Butler had a strong background in different dance techniques. 

“I did a lot of Horton [technique], a lot of ballet everyday, and I just knew that I was a little different,” Butler said. “I liked contact improv, I liked making work, I liked being very free in my movement and not so technical and strict. I saw Pilobolus perform at American Dance Festival in North Carolina, in 2004 and 2008, when I graduated college, and I fell in love. They were amazing.”

The style spoke to Butler’s athletic background in both gymnastics and dance, and she began performing with Pilobolus on tours. She joined the repertory company in 2014, learning seven repertory pieces in just two weeks under the guidance of veteran dancers. 

Prior to Pilobolus, Butler danced with the all-women dance company Inspirit, where she first met Assistant Professor of Dance Alysia Ramos in 2008. Later, the two reconnected at a Pilobolus summer workshop. In her brief one-week residency at Oberlin, Butler has already taught over 20 students contemporary dance and choreographed a six-minute piece on a group of student dancers. 

“I really want to make my pieces for the people, not just putting work on people but making them part of the conversation as well,” Butler said.

She has been teaching six dancers the basics of weight-sharing, base and perch, and other foundations of lifting.

“I wanted to share their physicality and also their strength because especially within my company that I work with, it’s very male-dominated,” Butler said. “But we do make sure to show our audience that women are as strong as men and we can lift each other up and throw each other around, put ’em upside our heads .… [I tried] to push [my dancers] as much as I can with the limited time that I had.” 

Ramos noted the importance of students seeing Krystal’s four-day project, as the endeavor combines professional work with fun experimentation.

“It was really important to me that Krystal make a piece,” Ramos said. “What’s so great about a college dance program is that you can just try stuff out. … It’s fun to make dances. It shouldn’t be so scary and pressured — just make something!” 

Ramos further reflected on what students can learn from Butler’s work in partnering. 

“I thought it would be great to bring her because, one, it is all that spirit of making stuff fast on the people who are there — it’s play, and it’s fun — but also there are not a lot of women of color who do partnering here,” Ramos said. “It feels like a little bit of an obstacle for people of color to take contact improv, and I thought it would be great to show a strong woman of color who’s made her career doing this, and is phenomenal at it … just to mix up peoples’ expectations of what you can do and what bodies do what movement.” 

Butler’s Work in Progress has challenged student dancers Georgie Johnson, Lena Golia, Maeve Dick, Analise LaRiviere, Emmacate Sauer, and Evelyn Morrison to partner and relate to gravity in novel ways. They spin, sway, slide, and invert their bodies, gently leaning on each other’s shoulders and using each other’s momentum to trace crescents on Warner Main’s wooden floor.

“It’s been a really fun experience, because [Butler] came in and built work based on what we could do instead of coming in with previously choreographed material,” said College second-year Analise LaRiviere. “So it was really interesting to watch her creative process and watch her choreograph on our bodies specifically.”

LaRaviere enjoyed developing her skills in weight-sharing and partner acrobatics while working with the other dancers. 

“I feel like we’ve become like a little team in the past four days,” she said. 

Georgie Johnson, a College fourth-year, was captured by Butler’s seamless movement style. 

“It’s great the way that Krystal seems to have taken information from her time at Pilobolus and before that as well, making something look weightless when it’s actually a lot of work,” said Johnson. “Creating illusions like that, of someone floating but they’re actually being supported, images like that are really strong images in the piece.”

Johnson, LaRiviere, and four other students will perform Butler’s piece at Fall Forward, an annual showcase of student and faculty choreography. Directed this year by Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance Alice Blumenfeld, students are able to audition and develop their work with the guidance of a faculty advisor. This year’s show also features eight new student works and a performance by dancers in Blumenfeld’s Introduction to Flamenco Dance course. 

Several performances in Fall Forward explore human connections to the natural world. Inventive works in collaboration with skilled musicians, along with trapeze, aerial silks, and other props, investigate our relationships to the local environment in surprising ways. Undoubtedly, this is a show the audience will fall for.

Fall Forward runs Nov. 7–9 at 8 p.m. in Warner Main Space, with floor and bleacher seating accessible by wheelchair through an electronic lift. Tickets are $5.