For their 30th anniversary season Kokoro Dance’s Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi have created Book of Love, a quartet they have been building over the past two years with company members Molly McDermott and Billy Marchenski, and excerpts of which they have previously unveiled at the Vancouver International Dance Festival and the Powell Street Festival. Set to a dynamic original score by Jeffrey Ryan that is performed live by the StandingWave Ensemble, and that builds dramatically in tempo and tone, the sixty-one minute piece takes its cheeky inspiration from a song by The Magnetic Fields: “The book of love is long and boring.” However, what Bourget and Hirabayashi and their collaborators have put together is anything but ennui-inducing; instead, the piece manages to be tender and funny and surreal and lusty all at once--which is my ideal description not just of a butoh performance, but also of any lasting relationship.
Part of the surreality of Book of Love comes courtesy of London-based Jonathan Baldock’s otherworldly costumes, which clad both the dancers and musicians in priest-like cassocks of vibrant hues, albeit with longer drapey arm sleeves for the dancers, which they fling about and pitch into the air with controlled abandon in the first section of the piece. That this control comes from a finely tuned spatial and kinaesthetic awareness becomes clear when one takes note of the other distinctive element of Baldock’s costume design for the dancers: headpieces made out of overturned woven baskets, with only the tiniest of openings for eyes and mouth, making direct visual connection with one’s fellow dancers (let alone the rest of one’s own body) nearly impossible. All the more remarkable, then, that this section features the evening’s most extensive use of unison choreography, including a series of spins and turns that in this context gives new meaning to bobble-headed.
Following the removal of the headpieces and the placement of them centrestage in a sculptural configuration, like miniature, torsoless versions of the Maoi humanoid statues on Easter Island, for me the piece more or less divides into two complementary parts. In the first, the dancers pair off along gendered lines. Jay and Billy, having reconfigured their cassocks as sarongs tied at the waist, and reattaching the headpieces as humps that they now wear at their backs, slowly pivot back and forth in a central spotlight, like replica selves whose bodies and not-quite matching movements have been distorted by an invisible funhouse mirror. Meanwhile, Barbara and Molly are positioned upstage of the male dancers, each bent at the waist and taking tiny, delicate steps in tandem, two gypsy Esmereldas in search of their Quasimodos.
In the second part of the piece, the dancers discard their cassocks altogether, arranging them under their respective headpieces, with sleeves stuffed into eyes and mouths, or curled around the small side handles that stand in for ears. Now completely naked except for butoh’s traditional white body paint and fundoshi thongs, the dancers form opposite-sex partners, beginning with Jay, in a gorgeously solicitous move, repeatedly lifting Barbara, wrapping her body around his face, doing a slow quarter turn, before setting her back down and then starting the process all over again. Behind the older couple Molly and Billy are crouched in low squats, their arms raised to the sky in a hieratic pose, as if in some ritual celebration of faith and fecundity. For both, this piece suggests, are facing pages in the book of love. As Jay and Barbara come together in a series of tight pelvic clinches and spins and fumbling waltz steps, each trusting the other to find the right timing and direction and rhythm of the steps, Molly and Billy encircle each other on all fours like animals in heat, occasionally pausing to preen in an armstand and twice crossing to meet--one with tongue extended, one with mouth open to receive said tongue--in their own version of an embrace. It is on just such a strange and compelling imagistic juxtaposition of mah and maw that the piece ends--that is, we are presented with both the comforting stillness of the space between and the terrifying unknowingness of being swallowed up that defines two-becoming-one in love as in dance.
Book of Love continues at the Roundhouse through this Saturday, with a special benefit performance beginning at 5 pm December 5th. Tickets can be purchased here.