Sunday, November 7, 2010

Exhaustingly Inexhaustible

As a dance form, Butoh is relatively young, having only emerged in Japan post-World War II. And yet it seems so much older, what with the traditional shaved heads and white-painted bodies of its performers, and the slow, hyper-controlled nature of its basic movement vocabulary. Sankai Juku, founded by Ushio Amagatsu in 1975, is considered one of the premiere second generation Butoh companies in the world, pushing the form's traditional exploration of the relationship of the body to gravity in new thematic and stylistic directions.

Sankai Juku's most recent work, Tobari: As if in an inexhaustible flux, arrived at the Vancouver Playhouse this weekend as the opening production of the third season of DanceHouse, the wonderful subscription series that brings the best of large-scale, contemporary international dance to our city. Watching it was in part an exercise in testing the limits of exhaustion. For Butoh, it seems to me, requires as much discipline from its audience as it does from its performers (although, it should be noted, many Butoh pieces are performed without an audience). Following that slow unfurling of an arm or even finger, the impossibly long holding of an extended leg, a contorted crouch, or full pelvic floor lift: if, as dance theorist Susan Leigh Foster has suggested, mirror neurons in our brains (among other things) prompt us to respond kinesthetically to choreographed movement on stage, then there's every reason to understand why a Butoh performance would leave us drained, as unconsciously our limbs and muscles and nerves have been contracting and releasing, tensing and unfolding along with the performers'.

Tobari, Amagatsu helpfully explains in his program notes, refers to a "veil of fabric hung in a space as a partition" and is also frequently employed metaphorically to "express the passage from day to night." Other divisions, or passages, were at play in the 90-minute piece, including masculine/feminine (a classic concern of Butoh, more generally), old/young, vertical/horizontal, birth/death, earth/sky, etc. If, to begin, I found some of the sequences bordering on kitsch (there was that "Walk Like an Egyptian" bit at the beginning that I'm still trying to figure out), the work gradually grew more complex, and the floor work by the four younger dancers in the final scene was amazing (talk about working one's inner core!), as was their earlier sand crab crawl across the stage. Genta Iwamura's lighting design, Masayo Iizuka's stunning costumes, and especially the terrific score by Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz, and Yoichiro Yoshikawa also added to my overall enjoyment. I reserve judgement, however, on whether the whole thing merited the standing ovation that most of the audience gave it (a sign of how easy we are to please, or of how desperately we crave challenging international dance?). Despite my experience of Vancouver's own "post-butoh" company, Kokoro Dance (whose style is, among other things, much more "athletic"), I simply do not have enough to compare this performance to.

While the house was definitely enthusiastic, it was not full, a first in my attendance of the DanceHouse series. I hope this is an anomaly and not a sign of some larger post-Olympics, post-HST trend. The donor and fundraising rhetoric was also more prominently on display in the program and again one hopes that Barb and Jim's reference to wanting to lessen their "dependence on more volatile funding sources" (i.e. non-existent provincial grants) does not belie a deeper shortfall than they might have anticipated.

If so, ante up people! This series is no where near exhausting the potential roster of stellar companies and dance artists it can and should bring to Vancouver.


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