Butoh Utopias

3 July 2012

Butoh Utopias and Akira Kasai’s ‘Utrobne’

by Dominique Baron-Bonarjee © 2012

“Light is the fastest thing, but the dancer’s body is faster” Akira Kasai

During my time in Japan researching Butoh and its origins, I’ve had many conversations with ‘observers’ of Butoh, the critics, the writers, the producers.  One thing that I sensed very quickly was that Butoh was in danger of becoming a Utopia of sorts. It is difficult to define and so many performances fall far off the mark of what Butoh ‘should’ be, that it seems to have become an idealized form, which can’t copy its origins because it is not about forms but nobody nowadays seems to be doing it ‘right’… apart from perhaps Akira Kasai. Everyone in the dance world recommends Kasai’s work to me.

I took a workshop with Mr Kasai in March this year. He is a maverick dancer and I believe a well-seasoned, and ‘spicy’ Butoh artist: there is a saying in French, ‘avoir le diable au corps’ (‘to have the devil in the body’ meaning you can’t stop moving), and Akira Kasai has that. He likes fast movement, in an interview he says: “So I am very frustrated with so-called ‘Butoh’ dance, bcause countless words penetrate a body when it stands still in one place.”  In the workshop, he said the most interesting dances he saw were when he told us to dance as if we were in a precarious balancing situation on a very steep point and so we needed to move by reaction and instinct, without thought or judgement.

At Akira’s workshop

I went to see Kasai’s performance ‘Utrobne’ (Imaginary Ship) on 26 June and it brought a few thoughts to my mind.

Kasai wears shiny black PVC pants and a very stylish, square-cut jacket, his hair curled and darkened falling around his grimacing face…because Mr Kasai pulls a lot of faces. Kasai leaps on and falls off the stage throughout the performance. There are four female dancers in his piece and one male dancer and Kasai himself: he interferes with them, watches them, he seems to mimic or mock or try to do better than the male dancer, sometimes both of them shoving each other around. Kasai behaves a little like a conductor, master of ceremony, and reminds me of the way Tadeusz Kantor would be on stage with his actors, manipulating, changing and challenging the energy. He makes noises, addresses the audience. All this happens to the bombastic accompaniment of classical and lyrical music sometimes punctuated by the background sound of an Italian conversation. At one point the girls come on carrying big carp fish which they puppeteer about, Kasai makes a comment and everyone laughs. The dancers are obviously well trained and very technical. Their movement isn’t what you might associate with Butoh’s slowness although the clawing hands do feature and there is a feeling of broken grotesque movement, but it is mostly fast and wild and emotionless. My neighbour in the audience translated one memorable line that Kasai threw out at the audience: “Light is the fastest thing, but the dancer’s body is faster”. Kasai himself now approaching seventy has the movement and energy of a person half his age.

As the dancers jump and throw themselves on the floor for the twentieth time, I’m getting a sense of a pattern emerging in Kasai’s thoughts, through this speed, this breaking, putting the body out of balance and dancing by reaction. Kasai in his workshop talks about the different ways to experience the body on the stage. He mentions one, which is the feeling of being far away in space. He and his dancers seem to keep a very objective view of their bodies in ‘Utrobne’, and the body becomes a dancing object, by moments beautiful, skilled, ugly and fallible. There is the feeling of a consciousness looking from far away questioning ‘What is this body?’, ‘What is this dance?’ Kasai’s great strength though is that he does not look at the body coldly, he looks at it with humour and lightness, he is close to it and sees its possibility but also its tragicomedy. This is where I make the association with both of the Butoh founders, Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno.

“When a human being sees the essence of matter on stage, there is born an aberration which is neither matter nor a human being and goes far beyond any existing universe. It is not that I am dancing ‘in order to’ create such aberration, but it should come inevitably into being.” (Interview with Akira Kasai by Kuwabara from December 10 1995)

The reason I say Butoh is in danger of becoming a utopia, is because even this dancer who many agree is making very interesting work, has been described by critics and Butoh observers as no longer making ‘Butoh’! It’s true that Kasai’s work is heavily influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s ‘Eurhythmy’, which Akira spent seven years studying in Germany. And he is very concerned with the link between language and movement and what he presents doesn’t quite fit into what might have long been associated with Butoh. I believe that Hijikata opened a question with Butoh and did not give the answer. It is up to dancers and artists who want to explore this question to discover their own responses. Kasai is an artist whose work is constantly developing; his artistic trajectory has been a journey of discovery of methods for interrogating the body. Akira Kasai through his ideas and propositions brings Butoh into contemporaneity in an insightful, refreshing and comical way.


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