The John Butler papers consist of correspondence, programs, clippings, photographs, scrapbooks, and other professional records. The collection illustrates Butler's career from his earliest modeling days through his work as a dancer, and, ultimately, an important freelance choreographer. There are script outlines for many of Butler's more famous dance pieces, but no notes on the choreography itself. There is little primary material from Butler's early life in Mississippi, although those early years are frequently discussed in clippings and transcripts of interviews with Butler. Those transcripts, part of a planned autobiographical project, are quite extensive and provide an in-depth examination of Butler's career and the people with whom he worked. Most of the material in the collection is of a professional nature, although some of the correspondence with colleagues is personal, or at least touches on personal subjects. Similarly, there are some handwritten diaries of Butler's in which he shares his views, both artistic and personal.
Difficult to classify, John Butler (1918-1993) was an American dancer and choreographer who achieved considerable success by combining his training in classical ballet and modern dance to forge his own path as an independent choreographer, creating numerous works for dance and opera companies, as well as for television. Butler grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi, but moved to New York in 1942 to pursue opportunities to train as a dancer, including a scholarship with the School of American Ballet. He also sought out Martha Graham after arriving in New York and soon was accepted into her school. During his time as a dance student, Butler had to find additional sources of income, which included stints on Broadway, as a ballroom dance instructor, and extensive work as a photographic model. He joined Graham's company in 1945, and would become a prominent member over his ten years of performing with the troupe; Graham would remain a profound influence on Butler. After a brief period leading his own dance company (the John Butler Dance Theatre), Butler chose instead to focus on more lucrative television work and to become a freelance choreographer, working for a variety of companies around the world. In 1959, he choreographed Carmina Burana for the New York City Opera, which would become perhaps his most famous piece. Often associated with contemporary composers, such as Gian Carlo Menotti, Butler's other notable works included After Eden (1967; score by Lee Hoiby) originally created for the Harkness Ballet, According to Eve (1972; music by George Crumb) for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Portrait of Billie (1960), to the music of Billie Holiday. Butler's choice to give up his own dance company in favor of freelancing had the initial effect of giving him a greater reputation in Europe, where he frequently worked, than in the United States. By the time of his death, however, he was a well-regarded figure in American dance.