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Flash Interview, 2-15: Talking at Right Angles
A Conversation (near/with) Dairakudakan's Akaji Maro

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2001 Byron Woods

DURHAM, North Carolina -- I first learned the degree to which translation is an approximate art about a decade ago. A friend had introduced me to the dark and lyrical metaphysics of Rilke by showing me a copy of his Eighth elegy. Several days later, I went to look the poem up in the university library.

I jotted down the call number and found the book, but the words on the page at best were only vaguely familiar. They clearly weren't the ones I had savored a few nights before. What was going on here?

I scanned the shelf. There were at least a dozen other volumes of his "Duino Elegies," the collection in which the work appears. "That's funny," I thought. "Why so many?"

Then I noticed each had a different translator.

By now I was curious. So I paged through one book, and then another, looking for the work I'd read that other night. In some ways, they weren't even close to the poem I'd read. In some ways, they weren't even close to each other.

The disorientation abated a bit as I continued. The different translations had a certain thematic consistency, to be sure. But their discontinuity seemed just as fundamental.

Some seemed to be particularly focused on the verbal rhythms and music we call poetic style. Others read more like intellectual treatises, but ones whose typography had inexplicably been randomized at the last minute.

Each translation seemed to have a fragment of the center, of the common text. None had the whole of it.

It was as if translating Rilke into English involved turning the work into a hologram that had shattered immediately after its creation. Each translation contained a fragment of the larger work, a portion of the picture they all shared -- from one angle, one aspect.

The clearest picture of that larger work could only come from reassembling the pieces. Unfortunately, some were missing. And the fault lines on which the present pieces had originally snapped kept interrupting the bigger picture.


I learn that choreographer Akaji Maro, artistic director of Dairakudakan, speaks about as much English as I do Japanese as we sit, amicably enough, at a table outdoors, on a sunny afternoon, relatively warm for February in North Carolina. Maro and Dairakudakan are here as part of a current U.S. tour. An open black leather jacket reveals a black t-shirt underneath; a black silk scarf, well used, around his throat keeps what's left of the chill at bay. Long, articulate fingers curl around a cigarette: Premiere Pianissimo, a brand RJR Nabisco introduced in Japan five years ago when consumers complained about the smell of American cigarettes.

We are both at the mercy of our translator. He is an earnest young man to be sure, but one who has apparently not devoted considerable time to the discussion of aesthetics, art or philosophy up to now. I have to simplify my questions into words he understands, explaining terms where needed. It appears that Maro has to do the same, repeatedly: the two go back and forth, as Maro appears to explain or clarify the points he has in mind, almost as often as I do.

Our conversation has little chance to be stronger than the weakest link: our translator. We proceed carefully, over the space of a half-hour; talking at right angles. We look at one another as we speak; at times it almost seems we're trying to construct another channel of communication, one that goes around him.

The transcript of the problematic verbal channel follows. After replaying the tape, rehearing the conversation, I'm struck by how finite my little fragment of this picture is; how fuzzy, how scratched the image.

And yet, the form it conveys is in some ways still familiar. In the midst of imprecision, the occasional sharp facet comes, briefly, into focus. Butoh as requiem. The cheerful apocalypse. The briefest account of its birth, which took place in a storm.

Not a useless conversation, at the end.


Byron: In what ways has sea-dappled horse changed since 1982?

Translator: Maro is the only member from 1982, and all the other dancers are young dancers now. Maybe the biggest difference based on choreography - choreography...?

B: Yes, choreography.

T: ...basically same as 1982.

[Not true, nor did I expect it to be so. I'd seen the 1982 videotape provided by the American Dance Festival. The work differed considerably, as might be expected from a ritual nearly twenty years old at this writing.]

B: After seeing the videotape, one thing that strikes me to say to it is this. It seems easy to interpret the pictures, the images we see, it's easy to picture these images as criticisms, critiques....

T: ...hmmm...

B: ...responding to the way a civilization treats animals, a social order....

T: Uh, please make it short each time that I way I can more like exact I can, uh, my English is not that good.

B: I understand. Fine. What I'm wondering I guess is: It's easy for us to view Sea Dappled Horse as a work of critique. I'm wondering what degree does he think it is a work of criticism?

T: You mean toward society? Toward civilization?

B: Yes.

T: Uh, could be seen that way. He thinks maybe that's okay. He thinks basically it's a bit different. What he wants to express is different than that. Not so direct. Not so simple. Complex.

B: Help me to understand here, then. If it's not primarily critical --

T: What is "primarily"?

B: -- in the main, in the center, then what is it?

T: It's a matter of human beings. Say like, uh, how human beings survive in this society or civilization. Like, uh, how less oxygen -- it's kind of hard to...there's a limitation that there's like we're living on earth and there is a limit. Oxygen and tanzo and other elements, like carbon, sea water. Carbon monoxide. They are limited. We are living in a limited situation or environment. We live on oxygen. So not try to, uh -- okay, like when oil gets bad -- how do you say that?

[Tour manager: crude?]

T: Oxygen-wise, I mean. Like it's sour. Maybe another word like how to keep itself fresh. He's making it symbolic or example.

T: It's a basic philosophy toward butoh in him, somehow. In some side, also close to some philosophy of zen. Stop the breath, breathing, or maybe the way of the breath.

T: So like the way he makes Butoh is like that, maybe in like respect to like limited things, so as he makes in that philosophy the results could be like anti-civilization, or... teze, I'm not sure of the word; anti-civilization, or anti-techno things.

B: In the 1920s, T. S. Eliot, the poet was convinced --

T: What does "convinced" mean?

B: -- sure, certain that the civilization was dying. That's why he wrote the poems he did. Do I understand that this is speaking to the same thing? You talk about oil going bad, limited resources, civilization fouling air, poisoning water, poisoning relationships between each other. Is this an antidote.

T: -- Attitude?

B: -- Antidote, cure, work to make bad things better?

T: You mean his work?

B: Yes.

T: Okay, maybe a little, but he's so, uh, what's the wordá okay, I can find the word: someone's going to suicide, okay, so he's, uh, really, what's the word --

B: Intervening? Stopping him?

T: -- No hope. He doesn't expect things to get better. It's more, that main theme could be said like, uh, "Requiem?" (looks at Maro, looks at me) Is that the right word?

B: Sounds like the very right word.

T: ...Like a music they call like that for the soul. Like it could be say, what's the last chapter of the Bible? "Apocalypse?"

B: The Apocalypse, yes.

T: But we also have like a bright side, positive side. Not all like, uh, darkness. Maybe it's from his natural character. Maybe it's like a cheerful apocalypse.

B: I had read about Butoh, that it started as a response to massive social change, erasing traditions, cultures vanishing --

T: Um, could you give me something to explain it by?

B: I'd read it was a response to a world going far too technological, to an influx of Western influences on Japanese culture in the middle of the twentieth century.

T: You mean in the Fifties?

B: Yes. It's now forty years later since the first Butoh performances in 1959. I'm wondering how Butoh has changed --

T: Since '59?

B: Yes. I'm also wondering how the world it's responding to changed since then.

T: I can say in '59 or 60s so many things moved, it could be some of the most important time, in art-wise or create-wise. We learn democracy from America in '45, and fifteen years later in 1960, do we, have we really got democracy? Has Japan really got democracy?

T: To look back or see the, to think what we have done since 1945, it was a time to look back and think. We are looking at America and Europe. It was like a turning point, and okay, we look at America and Europe and we turn. His eyes -- or their eyes -- looked back to Japan, for what's the roots of Japan. To find own...identity? Where can I find it in Japan or Japanese history?

T: It was at a time he thought in other hand there's destruction, like a storm. Maybe Butoh was born in that sort of situation.... As for the pleasure of destroying things. Reconstruct after the violently destroyed things. Gravity, forced pull each other -- destruction? Like, uh, to, theme-wise, break things, analyze them, and put pieces back together. Rebirth.... Hijikata had really started in 1959. His theme was mostly like a breaking of things. Starting in the '70s, it was reassemble things. Things all broken and destroyed. Then, started reborning, reassembled, in a way he died, he didn't complete, it was like time to new movement or reassemble things.... So meaning of Maro is like reassembling all those factors again, in the '70s.

B: It's now 2001, thirty years later. What have we, or he, learned since then?

T: Him?

B: Him, Butoh, us all?

T: He's concerned about science went maybe too far. Biotechnology, DNA, cloning things, robotics. He feels that the, uh, tension is maybe a stimulus for him, for these things are quite extreme -- computer things, NASA, DNA things. There's like a tense between these science things. He is just like one dancer living and there's science things going on, almost scary. He enjoys the tense, or maybe say the contrast.... It's just his own character as a dancer, maybe not for the other dancers or Butoh. I'm sure that younger dancers have a different point of viewá. He saying that you're quiet, philosophical.

B: Perhaps.


Byron Woods is a dance and theater critic and correspondent for the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer who will begin graduate work in dramaturgy this fall.

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