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Rubbed Raw: Recent Investigations in Butoh

at the Spareroom, August 5-7

Chicago Human Rhythm Project: Rhythm Asia

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, July 30-August 1

Chicago Human Rhythm Project: Juba! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance

at Northwestern University, Josephine Louis Theatre, August 6-8

Two examples of Japanese dance showed up recently on Chicago stages, one a program of tap dance by Japanese and Japanese-American companies and the other butoh performances by Americans. As it turns out, the Americans were more successful--by virtue of hewing closely to the original Japanese form.

"Rubbed Raw"--a well-named evening showcasing a form that arose in Japan in response to World War II--was everything it set out to be: foreign, transgressive, and thrilling. It had the force of Samuel Beckett at his most postapocalyptic, the Beckett of Play, in which three people are stuck up to their necks in funeral urns. It's dance for people who might not like dance but love silent performance art.

The highlight of "Rubbed Raw" was World Seeds, by Mizu Desierto and Nathan Montgomery. Though it resists literal interpretation, this frankly sexual dance appears to represent the last two people on earth. Dressed in skimpy rags, the couple presents not the smarmy teasing so often dubbed "sexy" but an evocation of the real thing that emphasizes the sweat, awkward moves, and sense of urgency. Desierto and Montgomery come tottering onstage wearing ski goggles and jointly carrying a tattered umbrella festooned with old photos. They don't always move in sync but nevertheless seem glued together. After planting the umbrella in a dirt pile center stage, they separate and perform alternate solos. As is common in butoh, the movement is slow and highly articulated, reminiscent of yoga poses that make you wonder why you're sweating when you're not doing much. Desierto takes a series of exaggerated steps, her thighs the focus of attention as she lifts her legs high, then plants her feet gingerly. It's impossible to imagine what this movement would be like without her powerful, supple approach--or what Montgomery's corkscrewing on the ground would be like without his strength and purpose. But they are so able--and, more important, so real--that when they finally come back together and she tears off his dark glasses, it seems a moment too intimate to be witnessed.

The other performers couldn't match the brilliance of World Seeds, but a solo by Lani Fand Weissbach, Exit Eden, offered another taste of butoh's confrontational sensibility. As the piece begins, she's covered in a pile of plastic dry-cleaning sheaths, head and all, on a stage littered with such piles. Though obviously Weissbach isn't going to suffocate herself, like Desierto and Montgomery she's so engaged in the process that I watched with real unease as she struggled to escape. Again the movement is slow and deliberate, often repeated with tiny variations--it's like watching someone do yoga but with a story to tell. Dressed in red trunks and a red bra, she seems to be displaying the body to emphasize its frailty and the danger of exposure. Eventually she frees herself, but her movement remains constrained--arms reaching backward in a fruitless attempt to meet, torso twisted into a nearly seated posture that she holds for an impossibly long time while windmilling her arms.

The piece by Nicole LeGette, who deserves credit for curating the evening, didn't rise to the occasion. Her look was scarily intriguing: an enormous toilet-paper Afro wig, a pair of white underpants whose crotch was decorated with a sanitary napkin, or perhaps enormous labia, and red face paint resembling the grin of a terrifying clown. But nothing about Unearth/Mine (Feminine) built on this foundation, so it seemed pointless. The evening's untitled opener--created by Weissbach and performed by butoh students Tara Hill and Beth Hollingsworth--featured some effective play with the idea of mirror images but lacked the focused, expert execution that made the other pieces such visceral experiences.

Two dance groups with roots in Japan showed their stuff under the auspices of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project in its first program of two, "Rhythm Asia." New York-based Cobu and its two leading artists, Japanese natives Yako Miyamoto and Hana Ogata, are appealing tap dancers--or rather stomp dancers, for their moves have none of the ease of mainstream tap. Indeed their tap riffs (like the women's hair, dyed blond and red) seemed designed to bang out a protest against everything quiet and conformist--everything traditionally Japanese. The performers did creditable hip-hop moves as well; but if they were trying to be transgressive, they failed. They looked more like kids dressing up in their parents' clothes than kids setting fire to the house.

The Tokyo-based Boxmen are extremely able conventional tappers with a gimmick: they dance inside wooden frames. Sometimes these are just plywood squares on the floor--an allusion to tappers who dance on small squares dusted with sand. It's interesting to see how many moves these confined spaces can accommodate, but the intentional limitation is hardly revolutionary. Likewise the group's big gimmick, dancing within box frames about four feet high. The Boxmen also dance against these props, like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson tapping up the stairs, and show their strength by jumping the boxes around with them as though they were in a sack race. There's a long tradition of gimmickry in tap, but the Boxmen would be more interesting if they'd just relax and dance.

There was little gimmickry--but every type of tap--on display in "Juba!," the multiartist conclusion of this year's Chicago Human Rhythm Project. On the program I saw, all of the dozen individuals or groups were capable, but a few stood out. An astonishing number by Seattle youth troupe T.T.A.A.P.P. Central combined modern dance and tap to a song from The Lion King, while another by the same group featured two amazing young men (Brian Davis and Alex Jackson) in zoot suits and spats performing classic tap--complete with splits--to a scratchy old recording of "Groovin'." Heather Cornell did a sand dance with the most delightful lack of artifice, then returned to improvise a rhythm-tap piece with the evening's three-piece band. As host Lane Alexander observed, Dormeisha Sumbry Edwards may "single-footedly bring women back to tapping in heels"; her extraordinary footwork was as light and complex as Eleanor Powell's in the old MGM musicals.

What had looked like an overlong evening proved to be barely long enough as every strand of tap had its day, and the rising generation of tappers--overwhelmingly women--strutted its stuff. Working from deep within their tradition, as the butoh dancers worked from deep within theirs, they gave greater satisfaction than the artists who attempted to blend disparate styles or genres. Maybe "ya gotta have a gimmick," but no amount of fusion can beat an art's pure form.

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