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Behind the Mask 


Buto-Sha Tenkei

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, February 13-15

By Terry Brennan

Within Japanese tradition butoh is an unusual form. For much of Japan's history, the center of creativity has been the natural world rather than the human. Haiku, its highest form of poetry, usually conveys a very simple image of nature. In sumi-e ink paintings, humans enter the natural world only to observe it, then disappear again. Yet butoh is squarely about people, and specifically about people's entrapment. In this way, butoh is Western rather than Japanese, so it's not surprising that butoh has found substantial acceptance in the West.

Yet much of the performance at the Dance Center by Japanese troupe Buto-Sha Tenkei conveyed a sense of foreignness. Almost nothing in Nocturne makes sense on a conscious or narrative level, though many moments have an almost unendurable emotion. The program notes state that "night is the theme of the work" and that "the work unfolds as...the strange radiance of life emerging from the depths of sleep." The metaphors of sleep and dreaming give Buto-Sha Tenkei permission to create a dance out of disconnected images. Like other companies practicing the Japanese dance form called butoh, Buto-Sha Tenkei often moves very slowly, allowing a sense of disquiet to build gradually out of gnarled body shapes and vivid stage images.

Vivid, but seldom clear. The first image in Nocturne is of a woman in a voluminous medieval robe covering her body except for her face and hands; the robe spills all around her. Motionless at first, she begins moving her face slowly from side to side; after about five minutes, she's twisting her torso as if it were bread dough. Her hands begin to writhe, and she lifts them to block her face. After the light fades, invisible wires pull the robe 20 feet in the air, where it becomes a floor-to-ceiling column of green fabric that remains center stage. It's an astonishing image but not an eloquent one; its power lies in the agitation of the woman's writhing hands and twisting spine. This section works because the dancer (Mutsuko Tanaka) is committed to the movement, and because the glacial time scale ensures that we cannot ignore her suffering.

The next image is not connected with the first. A woman wearing a Japanese flag on her back dashes in from the wings and performs a fast stomping dance to a loud mambo; since she never faces us, we focus on her frizzed-out hair decorated with brightly colored plastic ornaments. Another woman crawls on her hands and knees from behind the green robe; she's naked except for a loincloth and a headdress of bells, and her body is painted white with a red streak down her spine, which reminded me of blood. The mambo dancer and the naked woman meet briefly but don't respond to each other in any way. Again the image is stunning but opaque.

Though no logic seems to connect the images, each image in itself seems expressive, and as a result the dance seems expressionistic. In the West, expressionism usually comes with a history--the artist's overwhelming emotion won't fit any existing form, so the artist creates a work that ignores form; intense, harsh emotion is expressionism's hallmark. Buto-Sha Tenkei's expressionism, and butoh expressionism in general, seems to have its own story: butoh is generally said to be a response to the horrors of Hiroshima. But instead of intense, harsh emotions and abandonment of form, Buto-Sha Tenkei uses polished images that suggest rather than depict suffering. Apparently the polite social mask the Japanese often wear is so pervasive that even expressionistic suffering has to be recast into a more pleasing form. Paradoxically, this makes the audience's experience of suffering more intense, perhaps because the artist isn't allowed even the release of emotion.

I suspect that the true subject of Nocturne is the contradiction in Japanese culture between traditional and Western values. Consider the juxtaposition of the first two images, a woman entrapped in her medieval robe and a mambo-crazed dancer wearing a Japanese flag: one is imprisoned by her traditional role, the other by mindless imitation of a Western dance. Throughout Nocturne synthesized pop music signals danger, and Western classical music is a treacherous sign of rest followed by danger.

The contradictions come together in an extraordinary solo by Ebisu Torii. We first see him inside one of three columns of muslin onstage. He's naked except for black trunks, his head is shaved and bent forward at a 90-degree angle, and he's bent over at the waist. He twists and turns like a caged animal. Eventually he frees himself from the column, and we see a man with what seems black ash rubbed into his skin. Potbellied and with rickety arms and legs, he looks like a malnourished child or burned corpse. He casts shadows onto the hanging medieval robe, then goes up to it, less curious about what he sees than stunned. My overwhelming impression was of a Hiroshima victim discovering what was left after the bomb exploded. Less menacing than he is wanly comic and pathetic, this figure is a depiction of total loss.

Perhaps the truism that butoh began in the ashes of Hiroshima is more than figurative. Japan's military adventurism in World War II can easily be traced to the samurai mind-set of a period not so distant. Hiroshima destroyed both Japan's will to fight at the time and the possibility of ever seriously entertaining such a mind-set again. In a sense, Hiroshima destroyed Japan's soul. Butoh is an attempt to reforge that soul. But on the evidence of Buto-Sha Tenkei and Nocturne, it's a hopeless attempt. Japan is caught between its past and its former enemies, with nowhere to go.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Buto-Sha Tenkei photo.

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