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NY Butoh Festival

Ko Murobushi & Edge Company - 'Handsome Blue Sky'

Akira Kasai - 'Flowers - Lovely Jean Paul'

by Alissa Cardone

October 8 and 23, 2005 -- Japan Society and Theatre for the New City, New York

The biennial New York Butoh Festival conceived and produced by the Brooklyn based CAVE gallery is a recent and captivating addition to NYC performing arts.  Piloted in 2003, the second iteration was presented this past October 2005 and featured diverse programming that gave audiences access to films, performances, lectures and workshops by a host of salient initiators in this vibrant yet controversial field of contemporary dance.

Although US Butoh has a hard time liberating itself from a stifling archetype, growing public familiarity and visibility of Butoh artists is helping audiences understand its versatility, thanks to labor-of-love festivals like the New York Butoh Fest which pull seasoned artists from far pockets of the world to share compelling visions. A diverse international community of both young and well-established dancers/choreographers working in the lineage and philosophy of Butoh, is creating broad ranging work, each artist probing distinctly for insight into the body and its well of mysteries.   I was able to catch two performances this year, Akira Kasai (with Katsura Kan opening), and Ko Murobushi & Edge Co.

Hosted by Japan Society and opening the festival, Ko Murobushi and Edge Co. performed “Handsome Blue Sky”, an investigation into the works of Tatsumi Hijikata, Butoh’s mythologized founder.  It drew on Murobushi’s skill for transposing the senses.  The evening-length work centered around four large rectangular sheets of copper which were wrapped, bent, banged and eventually hung in the space and crashed into by an ensemble of Murobushi and three young, striking butoh dancers, Daiji Meguro, Yukio Suzuki and Sadayuki Hayashi.   The piece began with a stark and chilling solo by Murobushi, the climax of which was three penetrating guttural screams.  He started face down with only the bottom of his feet peering out of a prolonged and disorienting black-out.  I didn’t understand what I was seeing until I realized it was his feet, upside down, the wide calloused soles looking like a voluptuous female silhouette.   He dragged himself downstage slowly and then suddenly flipped over, like a flopping fish out of water.

The use of echo and reverberation was continuous in the work; knocking and slapping of the ground and of the copper boards was at times faint, but hopeful and at others fierce and urgent.  It made space more tangible – calling attention to its limits, while gesturing beyond.  Murobushi created a series of shifting tableaux for his dancers, touching on many of the themes Hijiakta was famous for exploiting: namely, male eroticism, violence and animalism. In all this, a sense of humor and irony flourished, dark never present, where a light didn’t beg to shine.

Closing the festival at Theatre for the New City, Akira Kasai performed a riveting solo “Flowers – Lovely Jean Paul,” inspired by the writings of Jean Genet and a poem by Bertolt Brecht.  I was transfixed by his command over quality, as he slipped seamlessly between dynamic extremes – heavy/light, slow/fast, direct/indirect.  He is the devil and the angel conjuring movement like magic, so curiously that he almost sparkles.  His dance leaves no corner of the human soul unswept.  Influenced by German idealist philosophy, Kasai believes in the power of the human spirit and the will to transform.  He brings the essence of dance back to the raw vitality of the body – a kind of magic, sans tricks or tropism. Kasai commands space and time with physical reality, infused with hope and a pure love of creative movement.

“Flowers” was an earnest and evident work.  Kasai embodied child, woman, dog and drag queen, with a limitless abandon.  Like a scalpel, his intention and energy made deep, clean, penetrating cuts, with no hesitation.  I know no other dancer alive who is as compelling, fluid, or able to sustain such clear energy for such great lengths of time.  Aided by costume changes (costumes designed by Hisako Kasai), and a diverse music score collaged by Takashi Ito, “Flowers” evoked a fairy tale landscape, a non-linear storytelling of movement, gesture and words.  Kasai often uses language in his performances, desiring to connect with his audiences on as many levels as possible.  In “Flowers,” he recited parts of “Children’s Crusade” a poem by Bertolt Brecht.  A message of human perseverance ran like blood in the veins of the piece. 

Butoh is endowed with certain delicious powers that make you want to follow it further.  You never know what to expect from a Butoh performance.   A deliberate use of the body and its power to transform, characterizes most Butoh performances and makes them an essential part of contemporary dance programming.  I look forward to seeing what the CAVE gallery curators have in store for us in 2007.

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