By Charles Boone
Any concerns I harbored about Butoh lapsing so soon after in inception into a set of too-familiar practices-white body paint, grimaces-were blown away by Maureen Fleming's and Akira Kasai's breathtaking performances. They broke ever rule of the genre, demonstrated the breadth and depth of present-day Butoh, and provided views of their own electrifying artistry.
Though both share strong cross-cultural attitudes, it is hard to imagine two artists more different from one another. Maureen Fleming seemed as much the creator of millennia-old, but thoroughly modern, human sculpture as a performer of myth-evoking dance. In the first section of her three-part Eros, perched on a black pedestal perhaps thirty inches above the dimly lighted stage, she appeared to be floating as she moved through what for anyone else would have been impossible contortions. The first of these, an unimaginably slow, complete backwards bend into a perfect hands-to-heels circle was stunning. Other tableaux, all gotten into and out of at less than snail's pace, were clearly of the human body, but did not reference it as unequivocally as one would expect in traditional dance.
Fleming's performance called to mind a duality in John Chamberlain's soft sculpture: bundles of irregularly shaped foam rubber tied tightly with heavy cord. These are abstracted views of the human body, sensual in their feminine, fleshly forms while simultaneously taut and muscular as a result of their constraint. Also, like a James Turrell light installation, the first section was so dark as to be almost invisible. Body detail was so dark as to be almost invisible. Body detail was largely obscured and one saw only general outlines and shapes, heightening the sculptural quality of the work. A purist might say she created something other than Butoh; I say, more power to her.
In the course of the long second movement, Fleming rose very slowly from a shallow pool of water lifting in each hand white-bleached tree branches. This section, s study of the symmetries of her body and its water reflection, felt like a nature ode-a depiction of nascent evolution, new forms of life emerging from the marsh. The final section, whose musical component was the highly unlikely "Waltz of the Flower" (Tchaikovsky), found Fleming clad in a disheveled tutu draped with roses, engaged in a slow motion struggle to flee invisible bonds of traditional ballet. This intense dance of restricted motions concluded, in fact, with that very liberation: a mad dash from the stage in the most histrionic of classical ballet exits. This unexpected closing was touching and funny at the same time.
Akira Kasai, who was making his American debut, began his performance before the audience drifted in after the intermission. My first impression was that he was a mad man. Clad in a pleated floor-length dress, he strode around the stage and hall, climbing over seats and partitions with great abandon. His shouting and ranting in Japanese, English, and German and insistence on total engagement of and with the viewers, was spellbinding.
One audience member who decided to become part of the show was immediately taken on as a gladly accepted participant. When someone else - evidently a dancer of the "don't- mess-with-Butoh" school - noisily heckled, Kasai absorbed this hostile energy, including it as part of his show rather than letting it be a real annoyance. After whipping off the dress, he was joined by an equally naked, singularly remarkable young woman dancer, Yoshie Ishii, with whom he performed aggressively perverse, erotic body polyphonies that recalled the brutality of some of Butoh's earliest manifestations. It was not so much titillating as awesome and energizing.
Kasai's quotes from other parts of his Butoh heritage (Nijinsky and Hijikata) and references to being in America (the black slave trade, a fragment of "I left my heart in San Francisco") were striking proof of the breadth of his artistic vision. This all-embracing work had about it a sense of the apocalyptic - its title was, in fact, My Own Apocalypse. Nonetheless, it seemed more a commentary on Butoh's view of apocalypse, minus the agonizing of traditional Butoh, than on apocalypse itself.
Toward the end, after almost an hour of near chaos, one heard a few moments of The Musical Offering, one of J.S. Bach's most drastically rational and simultaneously, serene compositions. It is hard to imagine a more radical juxtaposition of music and dance. It provided instant grounding plus a chance for reflection on conflicts set up in the course of the performance. This was a striking coup de theatre.
Under the direction of Brechin Flournoy and Takami Craddock, this new festival, with its workshops, symposia, master classes and large audiences, was a tremendous success. It would be unthinkable not to go on with it in seasons to come.