Telegram came as the prodigious finale of French dancer and filmmaker Virginie Marchand’s three-year project honoring the work and inspiration of Japanese Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno. The film was projected as Marchand performed at the Emily Harvey Gallery in December in celebration of Ohno’s 101st birthday.
The New Year’s Eve performance of live dance, music and film projections at the Emily Harvey Foundation, opened to an old harpsichord melody. Marchand descended a spiral staircase followed by two sentinel-like cameramen and a musician in a bear costume. Marchand roused herself with small hand gestures that seemed to communicate “leave me alone,” or “just forget it.” In these moments she would adopt the phlegmatic posture of resolute apathy and exhaustion after bombardment, before regaining momentum. She clutched a bear paw, a symbolic object from her first meeting with Ohno, which became a sort of pet she tamed throughout the piece. Marchand’s movement in Telegram seemed to be as much about the unmitigated flow of seemingly involuntary motions from the body in trance as it was about unyielding and resolute stasis. Despite the overwhelming throng of sight and sound that surrounded her—the bear spent most of the show howling into the microphone at uneven intervals, or hammering out primitive rhythms on a toy xylophone—Marchand would often pause and close her eyes. Her motions came in periodic jolts like the slow thaw of a marionette regaining its sensation after being cut from its strings and instilled with a new confidence in its surroundings.
Marchand’s subtle movements were projected and magnified on screens above the stage. She has worked over time with the cameramen to learn how to inflect her gestures in the way that would be most revelatory before the camera. A steadycam worked by Zoltan Hauville lent a refined, dramatic and composed view, while Jonas Mekas’s handheld filming provided a more real counterpoint to the rest of the presentation. Their live footage was edited together with some films from at trip Marchand took to India, and excerpts from Marchand’s first Ohno film, “Love on the Beat,” in which Ohno lies still in his bed and Marchand begins to knead her hands together with his, slowly raising his awareness of her, almost as if to conjure a telekinetic transference of energy.
The collage of performance and video, mixed with live music brought to light the relationship that Marchand has had with Ohno since they met and started collaborating on films in 2005. Marchand had returned to Japan to visit the town where she had spent her early childhood, and to begin work on the film “Epileptic Opera Butoh,” which gets its title from the medical condition that she has harnessed through her practice of Butoh. Marchand met with Ohno after learning of his birthday wish to dance with a bear. She had been given a bear paw as a talisman while traveling through India and saw this as a sign.
Above all, Telegram seemed a provocative and eclectic demonstration of the ways in which Marchand’s deeply visceral understanding of the legacy and language of Butoh has evolved into her own personal and visceral language. Her convulsive dancing shows the body in distress, as a corrupted vessel that is afflicted by the overwhelming stream of visual and audible information along with a sensual deprivation. Telegram also spoke to the difficulty of realizing the self as any kind of pristine gracefully contained entity. The performance’s message was a cautionary one that in many ways entreated the audience to reconsider the nature of how easily appearances are distorted, overblown, and broadcast across so many mediums in the digital age. Even if the catharsis first appears to be one-sided, it will be interesting to see how Marchand’s personal interpretation of Butoh continues to evolve.
Ben Tripp is a poet and editor of the literary magazine Gerry Mulligan.