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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

BUT OH, IS IT BUTOH? 

Akira Kasai: Pollen Revolution

“[The] dance exhibited serpentine movements of an ethereal type. . . For us, who have never witnessed such dances, it was indeed a revelation. The impression left on our minds was a combination of surprise and elevation.”— Swami Papa Ramdas on Ruth St. Denis


Writing here the other day, Kristan Collins said that “Akira Kasai's [Pollen Revolution] was both over my head, and under my skin. . . My knowledge of traditional Japanese performance forms is quite limited, but I do know it is entrenched in precisely codified movement patterns that are as foreign to me as, well, Japanese. . .As the performance progressed, Kasai began to break free of the restricted kabuki form in a slowly building expression of tension and resistance, until finally literally breaking out of this form with an on-stage costume change. . .This was not a demonstration of his agility, strength, or mastery of technique, but rather a demonstration of his body as a voice for forces of life and existence that cannot be verbalized.”

Kristan, you understood much more than you’re giving yourself credit for—especially picking up on the duality of beauty and horror (a good summation of one of Kasai’s “unity of opposites”) and the poetry of the unsayable that is the groundwater of Butoh.

So much of butoh is about the primordial, urgency and decay, regeneration—a halting, pulsepoint lament on the intrinsic difficulties of maintaining a humanness in a world where being human may not be the best poker hand to play. But bear in mind, butoh is not a traditional form and shouldn’t be confused with one (and as opposed to a restrictive form like kabuki, butoh is an expansive form unbeholding to any set of rigid vocabulary).

At Butoh’s more gripping, scarred-landscape-evoking extremes (DaiRakudaKan or Min Tanaka), I’m reminded of poet Paul Celan's powerful Todesfuge ("Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall/we drink it and drink it/we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there") and the full-throttle power of art to address the impossible made possible. In butoh’s anguishing bare-torsoed, silent scream, we’re confronted with the notion of complete and utter annihilation. Taking back his famous statement that “Writing a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Teddy Adorno said (in’61, around the time of Hijikata’s early shocking works) that “Through the aesthetic principle of stylisation…an unimaginable fate still seems as if it had some meaning: it becomes transfigured, [and] something of the horror is removed.” That, I believe, was the original intent of Hijikata’s “dance of darkness.”

While looming spectres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki certainly informed much of butoh’s early work, the harnessing of the grotesque could surely be linked to the visceral energy of Ab Ex painting, Mishima (an early text source), Genet, Artaud, and most importantly the expressionist dance of Mary Wigman and folks like Harald Kreutzberg.

Like jazz (oh, there he goes again with the jazz-thing), butoh is an art of mix, loop, transgression and avant-garde extensions—cinematic at its best—but is not a static form. And like jazz, butoh began as a hybrid form—incorporating elements of theatre, dance, mime, Noh, Kabuki, Chinese martial arts, flamenco, American modern dance, jazz—but hit its experimental stride during the ‘60s as social, artistic, and student unrest and innovation became amplified. Tatsumi Hijikata's early work was jarring über-grotesque, dark and transgressive—used to begin dances as images (“Butterflies are landing on your right arm, your left arm is covered with cockroaches.”). Kazuo Ohno's work was far more romantic and Schumannesque—billowy even, very light-infused (perhaps due to his devout Christian ethos, maybe?). Kasai was for many years a proponent of both approaches—and while he maintains the indelible mark of both masters, his hand-arm expressivity has all the characteristics of Eurythmy—his power and lithe-ness is truly beautiful.

Butoh is veering towards its 50-year mark, but is still young as a developing movement language, and as such is susceptible to change, expansion, redefinition, reinterpretation on a regular basis. As Kasai (during his excellent workshop) said it should be a "dance" of discovery, rather than a calculated series of movements meant to manipulate the audience into a desired response—which is what Pollen seemed to be leaning toward—despite claims of its improvisatory creation.

While Kasai’s lighting, with its Malevich-like composition of suprematist beauty, was stunning, I couldn’t help feeling manipulated by a display of concept-less.hollow virtuosity (a bit like the pilfered Tiomkin-Shostakovich soundtracks of James Horner— aggressively banal in their emotiveness). It tugged at me offering clues to feeling and belief, but remained somehow unmagical. There was no repose or weighted spaces, which is something I like served with my butoh. And while Wigman may have “looked even toward the Orient for a mystic answer to a wordless riddle,” to great effect—Kasai’s opposite time-travelling to the ursprung of Ausdruckstanz (with an emphasis on the more cloying surface elements of its interpretive-ness) felt a little more like one of Ruth St. Denis’ “Oriental dance translations.”

The spirit of the form needn’t be all powdered and contorted Gollemesque figures. Too much of the same can seem mawkish at times (or ho-hum in its pain—like Kakuya’s Hardcoredance in the Escalle film on Sunday at MachineWorks)—this kind of diluted, tossed-off effect comes from the codification of any form. (In the '50s when bebop was barely out of its outlaw infancy, Thelonious Monk remarked that it was starting to sound as formulaic and rickety as Dixieland). A work like Pollen Revolution may be confusing to some because butoh is frequently mistaken as a folkloric form with specific rules— instead of the reflexive, modernist attitude it really is. It’s generative grammar and can’t be held hostage against encroaching innovation or stylistic judgment calls (like Kasai’s use of Steiner-based Eurythmy)—which can make questions like authenticity, service to the form, subordinate to I-liked-I-didn’t reactions.

In the wake of a generation of rule-breaking, freeze-dried transgression in performance (butoh, Viennese Actionists, Chris Burden, Acconci, Schneeman, ad infinitum), it's no wonder that we're seeing a fierce return to beauty, a reinvestigation of classic narrative forms and an interest in audience engagement (and I applaud Kasai for his commitment here). Lord knows Warholian boredom and stasis (Frank O'Hara said he was a prophet of doom who was killing laughter) and shoe-gazing rock-n-roll certainly kept us away from engagement long enough. But instead of the Japanese, candy-colored love affair with American pop (Kasai’s incorporating hip-hop for example), I’d be intrigued by the Butohization of something like Bruce Nauman's WITHDRAWAL AS AN ART FORM: “sensory manipulation/amplification/ deprivation/sensory overload (fatigue)”—which as an instruction piece contains all the classic elements of the form, while possibly opening a door toward more conceptual edges.

But oh, it is butoh?
—Tim DuRoche

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