Saturday, December 13, 2008

Fred Lim's Buto Article in StarMag!

Sunday December 14, 2008

Mixed butoh batter

Review by FRED LIM

A showcase of the wonderfully quirky Japanese dance form called butoh teased its audience but failed to dazzle.

  • Butoh Caravan Paris -Tokyo Dec 5, Orchestra Hall, Akademi Seni, Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (Aswara)
In his opening lecture that launched Butoh Caravan, a week of butoh dance events in Kuala Lumpur recently, exponent Katsura Kan has likened watching this Japanese dance form as “watching a UFO in front of you”.

“It cannot be described and cannot be explained,” he added, alluding to the fact that butoh should be felt and experienced emotionally rather than having to follow a narrative.

Was the female duo Shinonome performing butoh or contemporary dance?

Indeed no other dance form in the world defies description and categorisation asbutoh does. Historically speaking, the birth of butoh has been credited to dancer Tatsumi Hijikata in the late 1950s. Together with his student Kazuo Ohno, they forged the fundamental form of this new dance that would be embraced by butoh practitioners all over the world today.

In one respect, butoh as a form came out of a protest by Japanese artists in the 50s and 60s to reject Western dance styles such as ballet. But there is a larger political significance to the movement. The curious, and often seen as mysterious, dance was a critical response to Japanese culture and politics of those times. In the wake of their WWII defeat and the American Occupation, there was a call in Japan to return to traditional culture and feudal traditions. So in another respect, butoh was a protest against the traditional Japanese artforms of kabuki andnoh that were hierarchical in their organisations and systematic and rigid in their art.

Butoh artists adopted a more fluid and open form of expression that was inspired by expressionist dance in Germany. Hijikata was a student of expressionist dancer Mary Wigman, so many dance theorists believed that butoh was partly derived from this European dance concept.

Today, butoh has been described as “animalistic”, “mysterious”, “depressing”, “lyrical”, “grotesque” and even “comedic”. Some of the descriptions are at odds with one another and yet they do represent certain qualities of the dance. Entrenched in the philosophy of personal expressionof the individual and body, it is easy to believe why there are so many “types” of butoh. While the common image of bodies painted all-white and twisted into contorted shapes still prevail – this being a direct influence of Hijikata – many butoh troupes and dancers have evolved their own styles.

The performance event, entitled Butoh Caravan Paris-Tokyo, that was headed by Katsura Kan, illustrated the diversity of this dance form in one single night. In the past, KL has seen different butoh performances from the epic stagings of Sankai Juku (2006) to the emotional and soul-shaking dances of Ko Murobushi (2004 & 2006).

Bizarre butoh ... two dancers in red burst forth from a polystyrene cow and played music!

What this show promised was four different acts in one show where the audience could see how butoh meant much more than just tortured white bodies. While the audience did experience a variety of butoh, there were certainly doubts regarding the performance quality.

First up was Californian Bob Web, a member of Kan’s group Saltimbanques, who presented Symphony. The piece could have been a “classic” representation of Hijikata’s butoh with contorted shapes and grotesque facial expressions made by Web. However, one could not help but feel that the contortions and grimaces were just forms that he had mastered while no emotional resonance carried throughout his performance. Instead, it became almost a parody of the “classical” form of butoh with a rotund dancer grappling with his balance and looking like a crazed ascetic.

While founder Hijikata concentrated on the grotesque and depressive nature of butoh - not unlike atom bomb victims of WWII Hiroshima - his student Kazuo Ohno often did comedic and slapstick butoh. Even then, Ohno’s funny antics have an underlying streak of darkness and sadness. So, when the second group Spiro-Ha entered with a man slowly, painfully dragging his stumbling, styrofoam cow, there was an air of expectation that their Unexpected Organs may be darkly comical.

The twist came when two other dancers painted in red burst forth from the cow playing musical instruments! No sooner than the three dancers had become a comically odd music band, the red ‘organs’ would run back into the cow. The whole scene was then repeated twice with no build-up in comic timing nor was there any signs of mounting horror.Unexpected Organs didn’t really do much to draw laughter nor any other feeling.

Katsumi Kan did ‘anti-taichi’ and various other gestures in his version of butoh dance.

The strongest piece of the night came from the master himself, Katsura Kan. His Curious was a graceful work that had him battling the wind as suggested by a violent sound effect of fierce winds, underscored by what sounded like a heartbeat. His nimble movements reminded one of tai-chi, or rather ‘anti-tai-chi’. Even then, it is questionable whetherCurious was a remarkable piece of butoh.

How does one question, gauge or grade good butoh?

Like any other dance, performance energy is a prerequisite and Kan did not seem to project much of that. Furthermore, the different flow of movements from ‘anti-tai-chi’ to just him miming, munching and on to several other gestures just didn’t seem cohesive.

Lastly, the female duo Shinonome performed their all-too-long three-part Song of Spring that became rather laborious. Also, it became an interesting debate over whether we were watching butoh or contemporary dance. As Kan said in his lecture, butoh is like an UFO, unidentified and unexplained. However, Shinonome seemed to have been trying out an interesting hybrid of just plain contemporary dance and butoh.

In the end, it may be true that butoh defies definition and that the beauty of butoh is in the eye of the beholder.

Having said that, certain standards of performance were not truly upheld in Butoh Caravan Paris-Tokyo, such as dancers’ energy and going beyond visual oddity. Unfortunately, the seemingly mysterious yet attractive qualities of butoh may have eluded first-time butoh goers in this particular event.

  • ‘Butoh Caravan’ was part of week-long butoh activities that consisted of an opening lecture, multiple workshops and performances around Kuala Lumpur. Fred Lim recently completed his Masters in Theatre in Royal Holloway University of London under the Chevening Programme. Aside from being an arts practitioner, his new interest is in dramaturgical studies for performance.

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