|Dancing in the Dark
"Handsome Blue Sky"
by Tom Phillips
Butoh is the “dance of utter darkness,” the extreme antidote to Japan’s relentlessly cheery, brightly lit mass culture. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s not meant to be.
Butoh master Ko Morobushi’s “Handsome Blue Sky,” which opened the New York Butoh Festival at Japan Society last week, opens with a single light shining on the soles of two feet. They belong to a black-clad man facing rear, lying crumpled on his face. Slowly the feet come to life; the toes scrunch under and struggle to push upward. After a couple of minutes the feet start to look like two potatoes with tiny legs, dancing clumsily. Then suddenly, Morobushi flips over, whirls around and slaps the floor, and fixes the audience with a stare of pure horror. Good morning!
In his fifties, powerful but stooped in appearance, Morobushi slowly and awkwardly rises to his feet, wearing a black suit with no shirt or shoes. He begins a distorted tai-chi sequence, flinching instead of flowing, his hands tensed like claws. He grunts and mumbles something about “mistakes.” Then he stands up and lets out a scream like a train whistle, then another, that reverberate on the live soundtrack. End of prologue.
Three young men in black shorts perform the next section, holding 6-foot-long flexible brass boards that roar like high-pitched thunder when they move. The dancers shake them, fling them on the floor and stomp on them, then lift them overhead and walk under them, bowed down by their cumbersome weight. Finally they throw them down and lie on them, making a people-pile that rises and falls with their collective breath. A locker-room atmosphere sets in; they wrestle and cuddle, then run and leap around the stage like kindergartners.
The fun ends as the master re-enters. The three kneel on their boards like Zen students, and sit immobile while Morobushi delivers a lecture in movement. Tai chi turns into break dancing as he slams himself repeatedly backwards onto the floor. His students follow, leaping and smashing themselves down, grappling wildly with their own bodies. The climax comes as another metal sheet slowly descends from above. Morobushi beats it in frustration, spins it, even tries to eat it, but cannot stop its inexorable descent. In the end it bears down on his neck like a slow-motion guillotine. All we see is his head as he is pinned to the floor in agony.
A fog rolls in. Beaten, Morobushi retires as his students advance through the smoke. A light shines from above. The three young guys stretch their arms and look toward it. Morobushi, out of step and crumpled over, struggles to raise his own eyes, jerking them upward by millimeters. Barbra Streisand comes on the soundtrack, singing in Italian, clear and calm as a handsome blue sky. All eyes are on Morobushi’s face as it slowly lifts to the light, up there somewhere above the fog.
Butoh avoids and even resists definitions, but it may have some observable traits. Unlike other forms of dance it has no recognizable technique, although it requires tremendous strength and control. Its goal is not to smooth out or reconcile the body’s contradictions but to emphasize and bring them out. In this way it looks more like life than art. Rather than distill art out of life, it aims to restore life to art. As for its negativity, it is not absolute. As in Zen, the path leads through emptiness and despair, but the goal is the fullness of existence. And there are even some laughs along the way. Enjoy!
The second biennial New York Butoh Festival runs through October 26, at venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Details can be found at www.CAVEartspace.org.
Volume 3, No. 37