writers on dancing


Woman in the Dunes

Yumiko Yoshioko:  Before the Dawn
Daisuke Yoshimoto:  Eros and Thanatos
New York Butoh Festival
Theater for the New City
New York, N.Y.
October 20, 2005

by Tom Phillips
copyright ©2005 by Tom Phillips

In a workshop at the Japan Society for the New York Butoh Festival last week, Yumiko Yoshioko taught her students to walk like “smiling buddhas,” slowly and serenely centered.  Then she turned them into “perverse turtles.” They crossed their eyes, thrust out their upper teeth, pinned their upper arms to their sides, wiggled their fingers, bowed their backs and lurched around grasping for gratification of 108 desires hidden under their shells. Yoshioko demonstrated at length, transforming her lithe and liquid movements into jerky spasms, her serene face into a ridiculous mask. The perverse turtle made its U.S. stage debut Thursday night, along with many other sub- and pre-human creatures, in the American premiere of Yoshioko’s “Before the Dawn.” It’s a tour de force of metamorphosis, from the protozoan to the nearly human. 

Yoshioko comes on in silence, totally wrapped in a red shroud, and lurches around the stage like an amoeba, then falls down and lies still. The soundscape evokes transformations under heavy stress, with hints of both a rain forest and a construction project. Two hands emerge from the shroud, and long agile fingers dance over its surface  like insects, then peck at it like birds. Gradually the whole body emerges; the creature tries out its snake-like tongue and jaws, tasting life. She turns her back and crosses her arms, and her hands float out like fins. In all of this, her movements seem driven by natural forces not of her own making—she’s a medium for a mysterious process of growth and exploration.

Most of the piece is danced on a narrow strip of red light between two conical piles of what turns out to be ordinary sand. She determines this by approaching the larger of the two piles, inspecting it, then tasting, chewing, and spitting it out in disgust. It’s not good to eat—we hear it grinding between her teeth—but it’s a joyful medium for life. It could be the sand that the first of the turtles crawled out onto, and made a home in. Yoshioko pours it on her head and into her waist-length hair, crawls and rolls in it, dumps it down her dress and rubs it on her breasts.  

The climax of the dance is ecstatic; she leaps to her feet and plants them like a sumo wrestler, ready to rumble with all existence. But “Before the Dawn” ends with a reprise of the first metamorphosis, with the performer on her back, her long arms, hands and fingers making bird and insect forms, pecking, exploring, eating, evolving.

The story of “Before the Dawn” is familiar to any schoolchild, or at least those still allowed to study evolution. But its presentation is utterly original. Yoshioko uses no standard vocabulary of movement. Rather she calls on images which she maintains are buried in the cellular memory of humanity, images which expand our range of expression both up and down the great chain of being. Her technique emphasizes the plasticity of every part of the body, and especially the hands and face. Her gift is an extraordinary body—with long, loose arms and playful fingers, and a sculpted head with an angular, mobile jaw—a body she has trained to find its limits, both inside and out. 

Also on the program was a long solo by a venerable Butoh performer, Daisuke Yoshimoto, now in his mid-sixties.  His “Eros and Thanatos” seemed a lot more thanatopsical than erotic, except for a prologue in which two bodies wrestle furiously with only the light of a flashlight between them, and a postlude where he puts on red pumps and a slinky black dress and dances like a drunken bag lady to a Klezmer polka.

Most of the work is agonizingly slow, including a walk from the rear to he front of the stage, bent over double, that must take at least fifteen minutes to complete. This uncompromising performance earned robust ovation from the capacity crowd of Butoh believers.  They are out there— younger and more radical-looking than any other dance crowd I’ve seen in New York. In a way they remind me of another radical subculture—the devotees of old-time Appalachian fiddle and banjo tunes. They like to say old-time music is “better than it sounds,” by which they mean its integrity and authenticity are worth more than surface charm. In the same way, Butoh is better than it looks. Like old-time music, it’s more a personal discipline than a performance art.  According to Yoshioko at her workshop, performance is just the tip of the iceberg.  Butoh is a way of life, designed to find and release energies stored and forgotten within the human body.  

Many of Butoh’s practitioners and followers have a look of mischievous satisfaction—as though they’re the beatniks of the 21st century, the only ones getting the real deal, while the rest of the world gazes at the window dressings of a lost civilization. Could they be right? 

Volume 3, No. 39
October 24, 2005

copyright ©2005 Tom Phillips



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last updated on October 24, 2005