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ButohN-less – If Becket were Asian

Insights on Butoh

Yes, button-less. Precisely. Loose and floating, yet anchored into the universal. There is nothing really to bewilder – no technique, no virtuosity. No “dada” moments to marvel. Yet there is everything to behold. To hold you in awe. You are watching pure movement in its essence, nothing spectacular, nothing grandiose, yet absolutely stunning. More so… numbing. You are speechless, breath-taken by the ageless minimalist design of the set and the eternal music of the naked body. And that is the hallmark of good Butoh. The piece Umusuna “Memories before history” performed recently at BAM by Sankai Juku under the tutelage and conceptual choreography of Ushio Amagatsu was simply captivating.

A striking set – sand cascading like a waterfall, trailing center stage. Two sand candle bars of trickling time on both sides of the stage negotiate with gravity – balancing silently like a teeter-totter. The action is sparse and minimalist – taking place in no man’s land – nowhere and anywhere. Like in “The End Game” of Becket the movements are absurd and existential. The choreography feels like a melting haiku verse or a Zen flower arrangement of ikebana. Everything seems anchored in gravity. Yet the Butoh aesthetic defies gravity in the sense that it molds moving sculptures that look somewhat surreal, rooted in the ephemeral, floating in space, time and through dimensions.

Although the marble statues seem to be a Western/European idea, Sankai Juku diverges from the Western aesthetics in dance in many ways. The biggest one is the ideas surrounding “tension” — Amagatsu describes Butoh as “a conversation with gravity”, in which the dancers seek to achieve “relaxation” by going along with gravity in their movements as much as possible.

The choreography incorporates lying down, crawling, bending, gasping for air, and many other movements that are vital in our life — “UMUSUNA” is the concept of entering into a world, on a blank slate. In the simplistic stage setup for “UMUSUNA,” sand constantly falling from the ceiling reminds us of time that never fails to flow. One scene flows to the next seamlessly. In winds blown to the far distance four dancers spent the entire act crawling, sliding, and lying down on the sand-covered platform, the lighting changes to cast shadow on the traces that these dancers have made. Then, the dancers gradually switch out — and the new dancers stare at the traces made by their predecessors — as if they are looking back to their infancy and childhood, their “birthplace (ubusuna)”.

The effect was thrilling and brought me into a place of inner belonging and pertinence to the Earth. The “earthing” of this ephemeral dance is an oxymoron and stems from the powerful aesthetics of Butoh cultivating a body that is resonant and lucid.

Butoh is a walk from that outer space into the inner space of the soul. In that walk things happen. I would call it the art of Happenstance. It is a form of Becket’s Theatre of the Absurd when you wait for Godot, and you know that Godot will never come because he is inside of you. You know that you have already arrived. There is nowhere to head, no place to be, just the need to stop and listen to where you are in the present moment. And stretch that present moment to infinity.

Doing Butoh and watching Butoh transports you into the eternal now. The silent cry reverberates through your body and moves you deeply, infinitesimally. You are in awe. Held captive by the unfolding landscapes of the soul – bending and creasing like a piece of origami. And you are invited to partake in the act of making. You feel both at home and as an inextricable part of the universal flux. You are immersed in some kind of epic intimacy. Boundary-less and boundless-ness are the words to describe the epic scale; minuteness is the energy that takes you into the infinitesimal parts of your cells to stir a quantum leap. Quantum changes can be infinitesimally small, but create far-reaching and dramatic results. That is what the Theatre of the Absurd reckons.

If Becket were Asian he would tease us with Godot through haiku verse and Butoh minimalism to remind us that we don’t need to go BIG, we need to go DEEP. Because the devil is in the detail, in the nuance, and to invite Godot we need to relinquish the corset and break the rules. Then a new order will emerge.

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