In 2015 Jay Hirabayashi and Barbara Bourget welcomed the Japanese butoh company Dairakudakan to the Vancouver International Dance Festival. Their presentation of the wild and surreal Mushi no Hoshi (Space Insect) was a sensation (I wrote about that performance here). Since then Hirabayashi and Bourget have gotten to know the company and its charismatic founder and lead performer, Akaji Maro, quite well, traveling to Japan to train with them and now inviting Dairakudakan back to Vancouver on the occasion of the company's 45th anniversary to present Paradise, their latest full-length work.
In the program notes Maro says that he has no problem imagining what hell looks like. For paradise, however, it's another story. His solution was to begin with the word itself, specifically its Persian etymological root, which means "enclosed garden." This of course synchs up with a Christian cosmology that begins with Adam and Eve romping through an earthly paradise, and that supposedly ends with a rapturous rising of the righteous and redeemed to a heavenly one. However, as Maro additionally notes, in Buddhism another word for hell is Sukhavati, or "Western Paradise." And it is this very dialectical relationship between apparent opposites--heaven and hell, garden and desert, life and death, misery and ecstasy--that constitutes Maro's vision of paradise in this piece.
The work is structured in eight movements. In the first, "Nature," the curtains part to reveal the full company, in traditional white body paint, crouched downstage, a single trembling mass that is punctuated by individual heads every now and then twisting this way and that. Slowly the twenty dancers stand up and fan out in a circle, their bodies attached by chains to the central figure of a green-robed Maro, who had been hidden amongst them, and around whom they now pivot like slaves to an all-powerful god, or maybe just cogs in the wheel of some churning elemental force that needs them as much as they need him. For when the company members eventually release themselves and leave Maro alone on stage dragging his chains about his skirts against a projected backdrop of lush forest he appears like a once mighty tree that is about to teeter and fall.
The piece is filled with stunning imagistic moments that play with both religious and popular conceptions of paradise: two snake-like figures, their bodies wound with rope, who tempt two trios of men and women with forbidden fruit; wooden containers atop which six women contort their bodies, their bottoms at one point pushed skywards by the utterly surprising appearance of six male heads rising up from unseen holes in the boxes and pressing against the women's pelvises; a disco parade of "Club Paradise" revellers roller-skating about the stage; the deaths and burials of these same revellers in a rainstorm of rose petals presided over by Maro; and finally a re-chaining of the entire company to the central figure of Maro, who over the course of this paradisal journey seems to have become unsettled in his being. "Who am I? What am I?," he asks at the end. It's an accounting of self that in many traditions we have to make before being granted access to paradise. But here, in the feverishly imaginative worlds conjured by Maro and Dairakudakan on stage, the suggestion is that such questions are prompted through a by no means benign encounter with paradise itself.