Butoh Dance Performance Pairs the Sublime with the Macabre

Laage lived in Krakow for a couple of years before returning recently to the States, and the audience contained many ex-students and acquaintances, lending the whole event a bizarre homecoming aura.

Butoh is a hybrid Expressionist dance form that emerged in traumatized post-war Japan and combines elements of theater, improvisation and traditional Japanese performance art in an attempt to discover what it means to be human. Reality is often grotesquely distorted in an attempt to get to the heart of the matter and anger and pain, and the other raw primeval emotions that we share with our cousins in the animal world are unleashed and allowed to roam free or snuffed out as the performer sees fit. In order to further emphasize humanity’s increasingly tenuous relationship with nature (and by implication, cast off the twin curses of modern society, technology and progress), some performers attempt to “transform” themselves into other beings. Many performers also have an ambiguous attitude towards their sexuality while performing and this is probably why the fetal state and old age have an important symbolic significance in many performances.

A very basic narrative sequence was decided before the performance. Laage started off nestled inside an alcove above the stage in fetal position, a spindly finger gesturing mysteriously, and ended up making her way through the audience to a raised platform behind the seating area, encouraging participation as she went. Everything that happened in between was freely improvised. The musicians and dancer had agreed before the performance to try not to follow each other, so sometimes the music matched the dancing, sometimes it didn’t, which led both to moments of glorious serendipity when the music perfectly seemed to mirror or add something extra to the dance and moments of alienation, where frenetic stage activity was accompanied by momentous silences or tender moments by cacophony.
Further distance was created by Laage’s use of reality-distorting contortions and flickering reptilian movements. She explained to me after the performance that it is assumed that in a standing position, we are perfectly balanced, but, in fact, “stillness is an illusion,” and through using minute movements, she believes it is possible to discover life’s rhythm, our bodies and our internal state.

As she transformed herself into different states of being, often portraying various emotions in the process, what had happened before was conveniently forgotten. At one point she shielded her face in terror from the lamp that hung above the stage. Later, she playfully dangled it below her face, which was plastered in the customary white Butoh face paint, giving it a ghostly aura. She removed her sailor’s cap to reveal a fluffy parrot that was carefully placed on the pipe that ringed the stage, and sat there for the rest of the performance, forlorn and unloved. As she removed her top layer of clothes, her emotions changed. With her pants, went her prudery and a sensuous interlude followed involving splayed legs and a red rose. With her jacket, went her cocksureness, to be replaced by a beseeching childlike wonder.
Laage told me after the performance that she hoped I had discovered more about my own body. I am not so sure about that, but the performance certainly challenged staunchly-held assumptions in a very original way and somehow managed to draw the audience in, despite the numerous distance-creating effects.

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