The showcase event of this year's Vancouver International Dance Festival, Dairakudakan's Mushi no Hoshi (Space Insect) concluded its two night run at the Vancouver Playhouse last evening. Founded and led by Akaji Maro, who studied with the legendary Tatsumi Hijikata (together with Kazuo Ohno, one of the pioneers of butoh as a form), Dairakudakan is one of the oldest and most respected butoh companies in Japan. The company brought its latest evening-length creation to VIDF, an epic blending of the ancient and the futuristic that, like all great works of butoh, is about animating metamorphosis--both in terms of image and in terms of movement. In the case of Mushi no Hoshi there was an added thematic resonance to butoh's traditional post-atomic, in extremis somatic concerns, as movies from Them to Starship Troopers have repeatedly reminded us that if any creatures are going to survive--and even thrive--after a nuclear apocalypse, it's insects.
Thus, on a set dominated by one large central and four smaller surrounding platforms encircled by long vertical poles (suggesting at once wind chimes and prison bars), the piece begins with a scene entitled "End of Days." The full company, which numbers more than 20, moves automaton-like in a circle around the main platform; each dancer is clad in street clothes, though their exposed limbs and faces are covered in butoh's signature white chalk. Sliding one leg forward, and then the next, while bending in the opposite direction at the waist, the shell-shocked group slowly progresses in a circuit. At a certain point, one of the women turns to face the audience, opening her eyes and mouth in horror, before falling back in line with the onward march of the group. Each of the other dancers will greet us in a similar manner, their individual expressions of distress or stupefaction variations on a collective trauma. Eventually pairs of dancers will break out of the group and join each other inside the enclosed main platform, adopting poses or executing repetitive movements suggestive of extreme agitation.
Following a brief blackout we are immediately transported to the world of our insect visitors, with five men in the company emerging from the wings on all fours; they wear overturned teapots on their heads and rope girdles wrapped around their waists. The effect is comic, but in a suitably disturbing way; the point is that they look alien, and whether dancing upright with jazz hands on crawling about the stage on the tips of their fingers, the sense images these dancers convey can't help insinuating themselves with a shudder into one's own body. Especially when five women from the company seem to be imprisoned within the platforms, at once guarded and baited by the men in teapots, as well as by four apparent overlords--distinguished by the fact that we can see their faces and they wear rope epaulets (my favourite detail among all the brilliant costuming effects). Soon, however, the women are freed by a sage-like figure who is very visibly coded as from another era, and who will return at various crucial points throughout the piece.
At first, based largely on this opening establishment of Mushi no Hoshi's "insect zone," I was wont to see Maro as reinscribing various traditional gender hierarchies--binaries which, in the insect world, don't always pertain in the ways they still unfortunately do among most human societies. But the women will get their revenge on the men, as when, in a stunning sequence involving a series of swooping butterfly nets, the mesh from the nets descends upon the heads of the men. As for Maro himself, he plays an enigmatic and deliberately gender-ambiguous central figure who emerges from a downstage pupa-like sandbox every now and then to show us the successive stages of his transformation--which are only partly, I would argue, about the fluid spaces between male and female. Maro's character will eventually end up inside the central platform dancing a duet with a fearsome and powerfully resistive woman who somehow transcends her apparent sacrificial status, the viscera of her body turned outward on her all-white dress--a scabrous badge of honour, and an indictment, rather than a victimizing wound.
In a show filled with amazing visual tableaux, Maro saves the best for last: the full company, now caked in shiny silver body paint, and with their faces covered by mesh cloths, emerging as a chorus-line, their twisted arachnid-like homogeneity offset by the distinguishing facial self-image that each of them wears around their necks. It's an ending entirely appropriate to the story Maro is telling, but also to butoh as a form: for underneath the white body paint each dancer is encouraged to find and express his or her own distinct movement vocabulary.