Dances of the grotesque

March 22, 2010

Last night I went to see a Butoh performance by Ima-Tenko. It was my first (and possibly last) time to see Butoh. Before the performance I had a vague idea about Butoh dance – that it is esoteric, avant garde, surreal. I imagined something like Dadaism for the dance world – I wasn’t far wrong.

The performance was in the Gojo Rakuen Kaburenjo, a Taisho-period theatre tucked away in the back streets of Gojo that is famous in Kyoto for being the training venue of geiko and maiko. We were seated on zabuton on the floor and the proscenium-arch stage had additional stages running down each side of the room. I was seated on the right. The band, a traditional Japanese accompaniment of shamisen and percussion, began playing on the left. Suddenly, I realised that the dancers were all posed down the right side, whitened faces grimacing, eyes rolling, pretending to eat fruit in over-exaggerated actions. I hadn’t heard them appear and the intended dramatic result was effective. They slowly crawled off, still eating, twisting their arms and legs in grasping motions.

Next came a tall dancer in a long ragged gown holding golden balls in each hand that appeared to be magnetic forces, pushing and pulling her up, down, lifting her, dragging her body while she fought it. Then three large red pomegranates sat on stage. Heads started to peep out of the tops, and white hands pulled and ripped the pods until they emerged, the pod peeling down and becoming the lower part of the costume. Each dancer had red and orange balls sewn to their backs, perhaps supposed to be the seeds of a pomegranate but they reminded me of pustules. The dancers then began to eat, gorging themselves on imaginary things from the air and their own bodies. A dancer in a red fishtail dress fluttered a large black feather fan. Two other dancers joined her and they performed a semi-erotic mechanical wiggle. These were the only Western-style clothes; the rest of the costumes were based on kimono in royal blues and purples or tunics in oranges and greens.

A dancer jumped about the stage to music, doing wild leaps like a monkey, her mouth open in a gape of silent anguish and pain, stopping occasionally to pant and watch us. Three black-clad dancers stood in a line, only their white hands lit, disembodied and curled into witch-like claws. A pair of dancers stretched their feet out like vines searching for something, encountering each other and then struggling as if in sibling rivalry, their bodies rolling and thrashing on the floor. There were a few moments of comedy: one dance was followed by a dancer sitting on a squeaky scooter, following the others and laughing maniacally; Ima-Tenko lifted her ruffled skirt and flashed her bottom at the end of another dance, with a sly mocking leer.

The dancers were amazing. They gave the appearance of having out-of-control bodies by maintaining extreme control. They were very fit and the performance was obviously strenuous. What they do takes skill and dynamism. They have to know the capability of their bodies thoroughly and push themselves to the limit. Having said that, I couldn’t bring myself to like or enjoy the performance. When I finished school I did life-drawing classes for a couple of years. Our teacher once asked the model to strike the ugliest pose they could, in order to prove to us that the body is always beautiful. At the time I agreed, but that was before I saw Butoh. These dancers managed to put the human body into the ugliest positions imaginable. They twisted and contorted themselves, convulsing in fits while grimacing as if in pain. The dances were all about emerging, painful births followed by gorging sessions, appetites insatiable as they pretended to shove food into their mouths, bodies spasming and limbs jutting out at odd angles like bones. They rolled and flailed their bodies about the stage in a primordial arrhythmic motion. Their whitened skin, yellowed or blackened teeth and red eyes, seemed to accentuate the deathlike pall. The costumes, although in lovely colours, were ripped and ragged, giving the dancers the air of penniless travelling players. Their hair was teased into wild birds nests, adding to the impoverished impression.

Ima-Tenko’s solo dance left me confused and repulsed. She was wearing only a red fundoshi (the traditional Japanese undergarment for adult males comprising of a strip of cloth), her entire body painted white, her flat chest and prominent ribs accentuated by the lighting. She writhed and stretched, sometimes emitting yelps, staring at the audience like someone unhinged, her face pulled into a kabuki mask of angst. She turned her back on us and jiggled her not-so-young butt cheeks at us – was it supposed to be amusing, erotic, a mockery? I felt that, although an amazing use of the body, Butoh is one long complaint about the human condition, about our failing bodies, our base instincts, our worst fears about our own mortality. I’ve always thought that to dance is to celebrate life, but these performances show the repulsive aspects of human bodies. Butoh is the antithesis of a geisha’s dance. If Butoh celebrates anything, it celebrates the grotesque. Perhaps that is the point but I can’t help feeling that focusing on this is not enjoyable. What is the audience supposed to take away with them? It certainly made me think, made me feel uncomfortable, sometimes revolted me, and I’m glad I went but I can’t say I’d like to see Butoh again.

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