Seeing Butoh

Seeing Butoh:  watching Temmetsu’s ‘Sacred Things’

4 December 2012

by Dominique Baron-Bonarjee ©

"...what you are able to express emerges somehow by not expressing it, don’t you think?” 
Hijikata Tatsumi

There is a great deal of Butoh to see around Tokyo, some of it more successful than the rest. The difficulty in watching Butoh is that there is no form to judge it by, usually no narrative to follow, and because a solo is a notoriously difficult format, and Butoh is to a large extent, a solo form, it can be too indulgent, narcissistic, abstract, or ‘boring’…as I have heard many Butoh audience-members comment. After yet another performance, I often find myself silently posing the question “why do I like Butoh again?”

In May this year (2012), I attended a series of performances at a theatre in Asagaya. One of them, ‘Sacred Things’ by Temmetsu, stayed with me and I decided to attempt to review it, not as a critic, but as a fellow artist and Butoh inquisitor, trying to verbalise what I am sensing when I see Butoh.

The golden finale
photo   |   NIYA

How can I read Butoh? Like many other arts, I’ve come to the conclusion that Butoh needs some prior knowledge of its ideas. Just as, knowledge of art history can open up new layers of understanding and meaning within a painting or knowledge of classical music helps in appreciating the subtleties of a concert. From my conversations with critics and my own post-show reflections I’ve become aware of three elements.

Transformation is primordial in Butoh and it inhabits its forms and themes: the human ‘becomes’ other entities, objects, animals, energies.

Relationship to the space: Butoh in some sense is an ontology of performance and an awareness of the event of the body in the space.

Time changes: time is that of moments in the Butoh space, no longer linear, chronometric time but malleable, circular, extended, slowed down, time bubbles.

These elements are all in evidence in ‘Sacred Things’, and in addition something that really distinguishes Temmetsu’s performance from many solos I’ve seen: his stagecraft. I’m told that he is a stage designer, so his skills are well put to use in his own performance. The minimalism of the scenography, a sort of altar arrangement of three bowls atop pedestals, is contrasted with a richly textured soundscape and music, inspired use of light and lighting and the metamorphic presence of Temmetsu himself.

It begins in pitch darkness, a cave where suddenly a tiny bright light appears, moving fast and extinguishing itself before we have time to see anything, leaving a hallucinatory circle of light as it does. This small bright light is magically ‘puppeteered’, rising, falling, turning and highlighting strange shadows in an evocation of Plato’s cave. It is only when the light projects the shadow of a hand that the presence inside this cave, of a, as yet formless creature, is felt. The hand becomes a recurring theme of this solo as the stage lights come on revealing a roving hand, attached to the creature.

Dancing hands
Photo | NIYA Dancing hands

The hand sets off a discovery of the body, feeling it’s way feverishly. There is a brief look at the audience, an eye, which reveals a self-awareness and confrontation. As the dancer topples over onto his back and convulses, I see a beetle or a baby in the terror of that temporary loss of control. He quickly finds his feet again and rises becoming biped. As the hand continues to scratch I’m reminded of Hijikata speaking of “people festering due to their own turbid eroticism”: somewhere between the child secretly discovering its own sexuality and the shame of one who despises his human cravings for tenderness, the hand claws away at the body and genitals finally discovering the costume of its own gendered sexuality as it splays open the skirt and indulges in a wild and erotic dance.

Pulling contorted faces, leaping and grimacing, a grotesque clown, he eventually whirls in on himself, finding a contrasting energy in this form of sacred dance. In a ritualized manner he drinks from the two side bowls, placing himself in a perfect visual tableau as he does so. We are given the space of ‘Ma’, a still moment to take in everything we have seen up to this point.

In another episode of darkness, during Temmetsu’s costume change for the second part, I become aware of the atmospheric use of sound in this performance. I call it the ‘cymbal circle’ because it begins with a percussive metal crashing and through the use of the four speakers of the surround-sound system a sense of total entrapment is felt. Recalling aspects of tribal ritual drum circles this sound sequence creates an invisible enclosure of deafening sound within the space, which in the darkness really begins to feel like a sealed chamber. Perhaps a metaphor for the modern world we live in, the constant sounds of beeping, announcements and instructions in this mega-city.

Temmetsu returns bare-chested with a gold skirt/cloth on. As a performer, Temmetsu, has a highly expressive face that can veer from Gollum to mystic. In a serene, cross-legged pose he seems to be working with Butoh-fu images (surreal visual choreography) as he pulls on invisible threads passing through his body, his hands eventually settling in a mudra, thumb to middle finger. Tapping into different energies he veers between beatitude and broken body: gazing at infinity then staring down to his own fitful disintegration. His dance becomes a duet of the ‘anatomically hypnotic and the disturbingly deformed’ as his back moves from the freedom of outspread wings to the unsightly hunch of a Nostradamus, another inhabitant of sacred spaces.

Making his tortuous path to the altar, under a solitary light, he seems to conjure spirits as he prepares for his final act. To the frantic sound of a cacophony of bells (religious and alarm bells) he reaches into the central bowl and smears its golden contents over his body, as a mesmerizing music (composed by Musio Funazawa) swells in, pulling the emotional carpet from under the audience: what sounds like a sweeping cello wave, washes up a trembling golden figure, turning to us in the glare of the lights. A man who can not rise to the state of being ‘golden’, shaking in the pain of his human form. Slowly, so slowly, out of this skin of fear, he finds a release, hands reaching upwards, metamorphosing as he flies forwards, finally clutching his hands softly, his fate accepted through this alchemical ritual.

Yoshito Ohno uses three words, ‘Snow, Moon, Flower’ to convey the way a dancer should end a performance. Snowfall is magical but in the morning the snow has melted. The full moon brings light and lunacy; but the next day it starts to wane. The cherry blossom flowers bloom giving us visual pleasure but soon the wind blows them away. Each of these situations, Yoshito says, leaves us wanting more. As the lights fade on the dancer’s golden form, the ‘snow, moon, flower’ feeling lingers, leaving me wanting more.

Temmetsu’s aesthetic is ‘traditionally Butoh’ in terms of his make up: white body, shaved head and his choice of costumes, he seems to have settled on the ‘Buddhist image’ of Butoh also favoured by Sankai Juku. This aspect may deter from the performance for those (including me) looking for something more contemporary in Butoh. Also at times his stagecraft risks tipping his performance into the overly theatrical: the sparkling golden glitter in the finale, veers into ‘spectacle’ and diverts somewhat from the strength of the ending of ‘Sacred Things’. But then again haven’t so many ‘sacred ideas’ dissolved into kitschness with time. Despite this Temmetsu doesn’t ‘act out’ emotions in a theatrical way, I never felt I was being coerced towards emotional states. This for me is another essential to Butoh: emotions may emerge, or ‘leak out’ but the performance needs to be detached, not trying to express emotions.

Of course Butoh is not about narratives and what I write, is based in my own intuitive connections that I feel rather than see. What Hijikata was doing in the early ‘gestation’ period of Butoh, in performances such as ‘Anma’, where he changed the spectator/performer relationship by having the audience seated on the stage, was readdressing it, by demanding that the viewer become involved. The action required is a different way of ‘seeing’. It is an active state of receptiveness, where the eyes and ears are not the way to understanding, but another sense, an imaginative intuition, awakens which allows the ‘seer’ to inscribe his own experience on what he/she is seeing. The successful Butoh dancer is the one who can create powerful moments of such connection. Some people mention archetypes in relation to this: perhaps it is a spark of recognition at the level of the collective unconscious. It happens in many forms of art and when it happens, we feel like we are being spoken to directly, something within it “compels conviction” as art critic Michael Fried puts it. These connections resonated both in the moment and long after I had seen ‘Sacred Things’.

Link to Temmetsu’s site >>

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