By Deborah Jowitt
Japanese Butoh Performance is essentially a rebellious, anti-convention art form, yet no sooner had pioneers of Butoh like Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno made their first startling pieces, than performers began to project shared ideology, images, and techniques. In flights of fancy, I imagine a roomful of earnest students trying to master the art of ejecting a thin stream of saliva from the sides of their mouths.
American audiences have learned fast. We go to a Butoh performance anticipating painful, yet elegantly delivered visions of our primal existence: slow, slow, contorted motions of bodies washed down with grayish pink makeup, frozen in narrow beams of light. Rapt, we contemplate the faces-calm or grimacing furiously -the dancers' ability to metamorphose into fetuses, rocks, trees; we ponder the androgyny of shaven heads and long gowns, we drink in the mystery of their reflections in the shallow pools of water that may form their dancing floor.
My colleague said she knew that Eros was going to be a long work when she heard that there was to be a black velvet staircase. What actually happened, in true Butoh fashion, was that the staircase, behind a scrim, was used for only a few minutes, but those minutes lasted forever. A pale naked woman slowly, exquisitely swam down the staircase, head first, on her back, while a distant soprano sang a passage from Faure's Requiem. As the woman neared the bottom of her descent, red petals spewed from her mouth.
Eros is a sensitive melding of solos old and new by Maureen Fleming and Yoshito Ohno, son of Kazuo Ohno: her lighting was designed by Howard Thies, his by Toshio Mizohata. The solos work together quite beautifully, Ohno-wearing trailing, flesh-colored pants and (sometimes) a matching shirt-might be a pilgrim come to some ancient source of wisdom. He moves stiffly, his arms like those of a doll, he steps in the water and his reflection is thrown onto the backcloth as a dark void amid shining ripples; he pours water from a pail into the pool; he contemplates existence through a picture frame: he runs across the pool in little rushes, once, in a solo created in collaboration with Hijikata, he draws his hand suddenly across his throat like a knife, and his head twists.
Fleming seems to incarnate the primal stages he is confronting or remembering. Woman becoming rock. Becoming flesh. Turning into a tree. Dying. Being born. The images are beautiful, cruel. In Sphere, a collaboration between her and Ohno, she takes almost the whole solo, the whole of Mickey Hart's soft, nasal, rhythmic chanting and pattering percussion to arch deeply backward until her head almost touches her heels, to slowly kneel in that position, to rise again and bend forward. Whether sliding down stairs or, in Birth Song, stretching like bat wings the white fabric that encases her upper body, this remarkable performer turns struggle into something calm and ordered. Only in Axis Mundi does she seem endangered: holding gnarled branches and falling in the water, breathing convulsively, her body gashed and bleeding, a tiny branch stuck to her rib cage. Yet in this too, there is a feeling of inevitability, and, as she arches back and sinks again. Ohno enters and pours no water from his bucket into the pool.
The Butoh world is beginning to have for me the haunting familiarity of a recurring dream. Maybe that's part of the point.