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Flash Review, 8-15: Butoh's Last Song
Out with an Elongated Bang In Frisco

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- I was saddened to learn that this year's San Francisco Butoh Festival was "the Grand Finale." For the past five years (I missed the first three), I have looked forward to this bright spot in an otherwise traditionally slow summer season of dance. I guess I had gotten caught up in the festival's momentum and it seemed like it should keep going for many years; not that I ever took it for granted, but I had come to rely on it for providing a place to see dancers who mostly likely would never have otherwise made it to San Francisco's stages. Where else would I have had the opportunity to see Akira Kasai, Katsura Kan, and Anzu Furukawa, all brilliant Butoh dancers?

After eight years, festival founder/director/curator Brechin Flournoy is stopping to take the time to reflect, assess and reassess the festival's successes and failures and hopefully come up with a new model. Flournoy says she feels that she has completed the main job that she originally set out to do -- creating a means of deepening our understanding of Butoh through performances and workshops -- and in the process has shown how diverse and vibrant this art is. We have learned that Butoh is more than the more traditional forms represented by Sankai Juku and Eiko and Koma, and that it has influenced many artists aesthetically and philosophically in other fields.

Thanks to Flournoy's dedication, the SF Butoh Festival has fostered international communication between Butoh groups throughout the world, particularly between master artists abroad and students in the United States. Fortunately, Flournoy also says, "It is my sincerest hope that we'll be successful in transforming this entity into a new butterfly." But there are practical matters that stand in the way -- namely, the economic climate in San Francisco has changed drastically over the past five years and many artists were forced out of the city by high rents. Now, since the dot-com debacle, money is tighter than ever and arts funding is suffering. Perhaps the Darwinian process will yield a survival of the fittest, but there is a vast difference between fiscal strength and artistic merit and the survivors may not be the most interesting performers or creators.

This year's festival, doubly entitled "Past to Future: Women in Butoh" and "New Visions: American Butoh," spanned everything from very traditional, as danced by the incomparable Hiroko Tamano, who worked in Japan for many years with Tatsumi Hijikata, the originator of Butoh, to the very contemporary multi-disciplinary work of Kathy Rose from New York and Helena Thevenot from Miami, both using projections in very striking ways.

The program last Friday, a repeat of the opening night at the Cowell Theater, begins with a series of four excerpts of longer works by Kathy Rose. I wish we could see an entire work, but I am not willing to give up the amazing range of imagination presented in these four very different sections. Rose's "Oriental Interplay"(1991) projects animated imagery of hats and dresses onto the canvass of Rose's face and body. Her movement is minimal and highly stylized in a way that sets off both the surrealistic and humorous aspects of this work. "Syncopations"(1987) continues with some of the same themes, but goes even further using filmed images of heads and hands that look kaleidoscopic. Then Loie Fuller meets Balinese shadow puppets in "She" (1993), in which Rose fuses Indian culture and insect society. Finally, in "Kleo'patra" (1999) Rose gives us a visually stunning painting/sculpture come to life. The program notes say Rose is influenced by Egyptian culture, Japanese Noh Theater and Butoh dance, and the marriage works. Rose is immensely talented, having created film, animation, costumes and choreography, and then performing on top of it. Her only other Bay Area performance was at the Palace of Fine Arts/Exploratorium, and given her extensive body of work and touring venues, it is a shame that she hasn't been seen here before.

Next Megan Nicely performs her own choreography in "Queen of Hearts." Nicely has trouble maintaining her intense focus as the piece progresses. The powdered wig and red velvet cape over a hoop skirt and corset provide a pleasing aesthetic, though I find the red velvet heart taken from a box a bit too coy.

Despite the Swedish Su-En's beautifully focused dancing in "Headless," this piece moves too slowly and obscurely for me. Yes, some Butoh is excruciatingly slow, but usually I am able to remain engaged than for this one; or maybe it's just me at the end of a long evening.

Saturday night the program opens with Metropolitan Butoh from San Francisco, performing a solo choreographed and danced by Molly Barrons. I enjoy many aspects of this piece, which could use a heavier editing hand. I particularly liked a tangled mass of yellow plastic CAUTION tape that, tucked into the back of Barrons's pants, becomes a bustle/tail to be dragged and flicked as she struts about.

Then HirokoTamano takes the stage in a brilliant performance that is, for me, the highlight of the entire festival. In "Anc-ient", she manages to cover a enormous range of movement, rhythm and ideas. I am so absorbed in watching her that I forget to take notes. I am never bored as she always introduces something new just as the material verges toward exhaustion. Tamano's concentration and commitment are so intense that I cannot escape paying attention. She takes us on a journey from birth to death with many lives in between. Although Su-En is performing "Headless" again, I leave so I can savor Tamano's artistry. Hers is a hard act to follow.

The following evening, Sunday, is a rather long program, "New Visions: American Butoh." Several of the groups show potential, but need help in editing and learning to work on a more professional level. I am more impressed with Ledoh and Salt Farm and Helena Thevenot, whose "Pause" and "The Moment Prior," respectively, show more artistic maturity and are more carefully crafted. Let's hope that the Butoh community here continues to thrive and offer the possibility for these groups to grow. Now that there is a real audience, a devoted following for Butoh in the Bay Area, it also would be a pity to have it slowly starve from lack of performance opportunities by recognized Butoh artists.

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