writers on dancing


Inspired Absurdity from Japan 

June 27
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

reviewed by Rita Felciano

Thanks to the efforts of the yearly San Francisco Butoh Festival (1995-2002) the Bay Area has built a considerable appetite for this Japan-born dance form. So it should have come as no particular surprise that audiences in late June packed the Yerba Buena Center's Forum theater for Dairakudakan, a thirty-year old Butoh group from Japan. The only surprise was that this extraordinarily skilled, theatrically savvy and at times hilariously funny troupe made its first US appearance only two years ago.

The company is still under the artistic leadership of founding director Akaji Maro who started his career studying and performing with Butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata. Like no other Butoh company that has performed in the Bay Area—Koichi Tamano's Harupin Ha in Berkeley comes the closest—the kinship between those two artists was visible. Dairakudakan excavates sub-conscious and primal impulses in a way that may speak more directly to Japanese audiences but ultimately they go beyond cultural specificity in addressing such broad human issues as generation, identity and change. Sometimes they do it subversively, sometimes with broad strokes, sometimes with the proverbial twinkle in their heavily made-up eyes. Few companies perform with the kind of ingrained sense of the absurd that seems to be Dairakudakan signature stance.

Company choreographer Kumotaro Mukai's Kochuten: Paradise in a Jar, was a disciplined, tightly structured extravaganza of non-sequiturs that those lucky enough to have been in attendance are not likely to forget very soon. It was a show as non-sensical as it was creepy, full of imagery that its performers yanked out of context with the greatest of glee, constantly setting up expectations only to undercut them. Not least of Kochuten's accomplishments was a smart use of music which ranged from Euro-pop to avantgarde classical to Bob Marley to movie favorites.

Kochuten's seven scenes smoothly flowed into each other with the last one circling back to the beginning. "Portrait of a family" opened in an atmosphere of beatific idiocy as snow-like confetti rained on a group of grinning dancers. After the performance an acquaintance said that the cherry blossom season in Japan is a period of extended merrymaking, including, as she put it, "a great deal of drunkenness." So maybe the confetti, accompanied by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman's pop hit "Quando sono sola" (Time to Say Goodbye) was meant to suggest those heady days of spring. It may explain why a Pietà configuration ended with a kiss of the "son" who promptly resurrected himself to join his now grumpy sobered-up companions. The idea of re-generation may have also parented the following scene in which the dancers, at first in catatonic poses slowly came to life, first by maybe twitching a finger or lifting an eyebrow until their whole bodies twisted and shook and one of dancer began to engage in a prolonged humping of an unseen partner. That latter became almost unbearable to watch, not because of its sexually explicit nature but because it suggested unremitting, involuntary struggle. Gyorgy Ligeti's ominous choral score, familiar from Kubrick's "2001 Space Odyssey", didn't exactly dispel that notion.

But not all of Kochuten was as densely layered. Sections of the solo "A tea table and a man" demanded a juggler's deftness to metamorphose a little round table into a protective cover, an athlete's discus, a globe of the world and a hat among others. At first the disk seemed to roll across the floor independently, then gradually fingers emerged on the side; finally a frightened head popped up only to immediately disappear. Deeply stooped over and carrying it on his back, the dancer at one point uncannily looked like one of those tiny beast of burden farmers in Japanese paintings.

The most extraordinary scenes, "At the Harbor of the River Styx" and "On the Sandbank" were both hilarious and chilling. To the sound of children laughing and playing, a Cerberus-type figure, decorated with Christmas tree lights who called himself Godzilla, beat haplessly lost creatures towards the back of the stage. Then one by one they re-emerged and put their manhood onto a scale to be evaluated by a crouching judge, in a woman's slip of all things. Screaming at the top of their voices, each of them sliced into pieces a strategically placed sausage. For the rest of the performance these ten now naked men appeared sexless. The impact, however, outrageously made, was striking. These dancers were not women, nor were they clearly identifiable men. So what kind of sub human were these genderless beings that floated across the stage, bumping into each other, babbling in a heap unable to even to use their hands and finally playing a game follow-the leader who made locomotive noises and had burning incense sticks glued to his skin?

Just before the choke-hold finale in which the dancers backed into opening scene like a film in reverse, Kochuten took on Hollywood. The dancers on their bellies, chin cupped in their hands, looked like kids spread on the floor to watch TV. Two of them in best Karaoke style mouthed Doris Day's mother and son duet of "Que sera, sera" from "The Man Who Knew too Much." It was a moment of pure theater, delicious in its mocking naivete but also maybe an answer to some of the questions this remarkable show raised: "What will be, will be."

copyright 2003 by Rita Felciano




 Want to read more about butoh?

Here are some links to sites about butoh as an art form and some sites of butho companies.

Butoh Net
Includes an article "Defining Butoh."

The World of Butoh Dance
Lots of links to reviews and articles

Butoh - The Dance of Darkness
Brief, poetic description of Butoh.

What is Butoh?
An Argentine site (in English)

Flesh and Blood Mystery Theater
Material about Butoh and Butoh artists

A Genealogy of Butoh
Just what it says, complete with family tree.

Collapsing Silence
A history of Butoh, with bibliography and some stunning photos.

Don McLeod's History of Butoh

Butoh: Dance of Darkness
A brief article, originally published in Dutch, by Harmen Sikkenga

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(c) 2003 by danceviewwest
page last updated: July 19, 2003