Dance originates from a primal place and is then is usually molded into or filtered through various codified forms. Butoh, though, does not mold, filter, or codify. It is raw existence.
The New York Butoh Festival—the Butoh-Kan Phase, organized by CAVE Arts Space in Williamsburg, brought a refreshingly stark contrast into this city’s dance scene for three weeks in October and November. While previous festivals focused on presenting butoh masters only, the Fourth Biennial celebrated the culmination of CAVE’s two-year pilot Butoh-Kan training program by including works by CAVE’s resident company LEIMAY and by emerging artists in the training program along with renowned butoh masters Ko Murobushi, Daisuke Yoshimoto, Mari Osanai, and Yuko Kaseki. The festival also offered workshops with butoh masters and discussion panels with the artists.
Murobushi and Yoshimoto trained and collaborated with butoh’s creators themselves, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, respectively. Hijikata and Ohno created butoh during the cultural upheaval of the early 60s as a reaction against the dance trends in Japan at the time, which they felt were too reliant on the West and Noh theater. Instead they explored life at its most pure and most extreme, physically and emotionally, and often used dreamlike situations to expand the perception of reality.
Murobushi’s solo Quick Silver, presented at Dance New Amsterdam (DNA), is a haunting and exultant dream. In a suit with thick gauze wrapped around his head and face, his body moves as if by an outside force in slow shuddering undulations. He groans and mumbles to himself and looks like death. A mirror-like sheet of metal hangs at the back of the stage. As he bangs and violently shakes it, the reflection of his zombie head stretches back in space like an overgrown skull. I jump in my seat twice.
Naked except for a thong, and painted silver head to toe, he convulses and gasps on the floor. He drags himself into a pool of light, torturously struggles to erect himself, falls desperately, and repeats. The last human on earth. His eyes flicker, he whispers, chokes, laughs, slams flat on his back like a felled tree. What strikes me is his ability to be simultaneously a fetus, an old man, an insect, a rock, and an alien. In this existential world, there is only the self—the inner world—and the struggle to exist in an unknowable universe.
Murobushi nuzzles a pile of white sand at the front left of the stage as heavy waves crash, evoking the infinite and the finite at once. He then begins to fling the sand wildly with his body; he jumps and crashes and howls on his knees as the waves crash even more loudly. As the final blackout drops my mouth is agape.
Yoshimoto’s Ruined Body at DNA takes us around different dark corners as it stretches time and some nerves as well. He appears painted white, with blue eye shadow, red lips, and a spray of gray hair, in a magnificent tapestried paper cloak with renaissance ruffle. The candle he holds is the only light onstage; it illuminates the maniacal grin stretched across his face as we listen to what sounds like Bach on a dusty gramophone. He advances slowly, slowly, slowly towards us. I’m afraid he’ll eat me. He makes his way glacially to a chair and sinks into a crouch, his open mouth weirdly sexual, looking like the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. He balls his costume up above his knees so painstakingly it grates my nerves. I feel as if I’m watching a man in prison organizing dust or counting toothpicks, filling the void of his life with small meaningless tasks. Time feels expanded and compressed.
Later, the timeless, nightmarish court jester half-dons a dress and throws his red shoes. He slips one shoe on and walks haltingly, bobbing his head. He is an old lady with Alzheimer’s flirting with herself. He limps slowly, each step like a day, creating a string of days, like the arc of one life.
The female butoh body was a stark contrast and great pleasure to watch. Sadly, I was only able to see Yuko Kaseki’s half of a split bill with Mari Osanai at DNA. Kaseki’s Unspelled is an airy poem. She enters in a polka dot dress, striding in lilting slow motion amongst multi-colored plastic bags. She lifts a bag and carries it until its burden stoops her. She gulps air, laugh-cries, and tries to talk and restrain her voice at the same time. Her movement and voice seem to originate from the same place. Shaking, she removes her dress to the waist and places a pink plastic bag over her head. Her skin is luminous against the pink plastic. I think of the way these wiry, aging human butoh bodies are heroic in a non-heroic way. They contain the heroism of exposing the truth of the body without apologies or masks or gimmicks.
Kaseki structures impressions and memories like poetry. She stands and hyperventilates in nothing but old lady underwear. She pulls the underwear to her knees, descends to the floor and tilts rigid towards the audience. She crumples and throws the bags, then throws herself like a bag, and lands with her entire body arching up away from her toes and shoulders. She offers her palms to the audience. Her sincerity is enthralling.
Ximena Garcia and Shige Moriya, LEIMAY’s directors, collaborated with Murobushi to create Furnace. Parts of Furnace, at Dixon Place, seem like studies rather than polished choices, but still it is a beautiful compilation of scenes and bodies. The theater is completely cloaked in mylar, which creates stunning watery shadows, but is also a bit distracting. A one-legged silver mannequin reclines on the floor. Denisa Musilova reclines on the mannequin, verging on tears and holding her body like a twig. Four women lift her and the mannequin upright as the Beatles sing “Carry that Weight.” It’s a bit illustrative, but it’s a pleasing variation on the World War II photo of U.S. Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. Musilova trembles as her eyes flutter and roll back. She seems not to own her eyes; they are god’s or the devil’s.
There is a scene in which three women pose and bob their heads psychotically, while babbling incoherently. There is a scene in which the dancers walk in patterns until one seizes up or convulses and the rest rescue her. There is a scene in which Garcia dismembers the mannequin, cleans it to the sound of bombs exploding, reassembles it, and then shoulders it so that it resembles a gun.
In the end the war themes and various studies melt into a stunning and timeless group tableau. The dancers, all naked, tread slowly, hands curling like ferns.
They crouch on the ground and rock gently, like eggs. They unfurl like larva being born, then sway like seaweed. In butoh, the naked body is essential. It is the story. Here it cements the dancers’ commonality, but also emphasizes their isolation as individual bodies.
Several of these dancers also create butoh-inspired work of their own which they presented as part of the Emerging Artists series at CAVE. Only a couple captivated, but all were earnest and interesting efforts.
In Your Body Wandered Close, Erin Ellen Kelly arches up against the wall in a centerfold pose, a hood over eyes. Later she crouches and chews, licks her hand, then crosses her eyes. Stephanie Lanckton begins OpenCloseUnhinge in a frog position on the floor. Birds chirp. She pulls herself across the floor excruciatingly slowly and finally drags herself to her feet. She falls to corpse pose and convulses to the beat of Roland Toledo’s “Suit.” Though these two were beautiful in their own ways, they felt unfinished.
Bill Mullen created a Beckettian piece that seemed more like a spoof. He begins in a suit with a bag over his head, then walks around with a plastic ear on a cane. “It’s all empty,” he tells us. It’s not the content that lacks; it’s his delivery that seems strained.
Irem Calikusu and Denisa Musilova offered the most captivating performances. In Calikusu’s Texture II, a block of ice hangs in the dark and drips over her naked bent body. She jolts intermittently, as if involuntarily, and slowly, brokenly unfurls. She’s like an insect trapped in a glacier. Musilova hangs upside down from a swath of fabric in Loud. Heavy machinery sounds blare and a bare light bulb dangles, sputtering on and off as Musilova, in a tight red top, hangs motionless, her eyes possessed. She gallops and rolls wildly and incessantly across the floor, kicking and hitting herself. Knees knocked inwards, she stands and stares at the audience, her head shaking and eyes fluttering, like a little girl betrayed. She walks a beautiful line between darkness and vulnerability.
Butoh has many incarnations, but it is always sincere. In a world where sincerity is often viewed as a weakness, this festival was a welcome reminder of its importance.
ERIKA EICHELBERGER is a dancer and writer based in Brooklyn.