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Flash Review Journal, 2-12: Last Call at the Butoh Foundry
Asbestos Kan Bids Adieu to the Hijikata Studio; Kasai Divine as "Lovely Jean Paul"

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2003 Maura Nguyen Donohue

TOKYO -- Sunday, January 19's show from Asbestos Kan, the company started by Butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata, marked the final public performance at the historic Tatsumi Hijikata Memorial Asbestos Dance Studio. Hijikata is considered the creator of Butoh. However, he hadn't specifically set out to make "Butoh," per se, when he premiered "Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors)" in 1959. The controversial work was based on Yukio Mishima's novel of the same name and premiered during a Japan Dance Association showcase for new choreographers. It has since been cited as the first public showing of the performance movement that Hijikata later named Ankoku Butoh, Dance of Darkness. Four decades later, Hijikata's Ankoku Butoh has become an internationally recognizable form. Tragically, two days after the performance and on the 17th anniversary of Hijikata's death, the Tokyo District Court auctioned off the birthplace of Japan's most influential contemporary performance form.

Close to 75 people crammed into the unassuming basement studio (the back of a van parked outside serves as box office and coat check), slowly filling it until the only apparent performance space consisted of a small spot of about 10 square feet in the corner. Agoraphobic response to the crush of the crowd shifted into a growing claustrophobic panic that I was stuck, sitting with my knees pulled up to my chest, without possibility of escape. But these fears were quickly dispelled as a video of abstract, digital bubbles was projected on the back wall, sparse chanting audio drifted through the room, and a kimono-clad woman entered the space. She screamed, the sound of pounding taiko drums followed and "Edo Mandalam" directed by Hironobu Oikawa, began.

The troupe of 15 dancers, led by Hijikata's widow Akiko Motofuji, commenced with a compelling procession of demonic and ethereal figures. The first half of the program featured a series of solos or small group sections defined by different audio tracks. Sometimes it was the striking visual images that compelled, such as the appearance of a woman in a kimono with a split lantern where her head should have been. Other times it was the sheer physical exertion, as when a man in rags thrashed and fell in a violent mania. Veteran performer Koichi Tamano entered, to Mongolian throat singing, with long, unkempt hair and wearing a variation of the geta (Japanese clogs). The tengus, tall getas with only one wooden strip holding them up, are said to be for mountain priests but it is apparent here that their association with mythical goblins informs the solo. Though the technique of Hijikata's style of Butoh is hard to define on a superficial level, it is apparent when an experienced practitioner is onstage. Tamano's intensity and focus greatly surpasses some of the younger artists, who suddenly in comparison seemed to be merely imitating the external trappings of the style.

A video of crashing waves played across the bodies as many of the performers re-entered through the audience and gathered tightly into the performance space. A man, except for a little swath of white make-up around one eye entirely out of place in his plain black stagehand attire, entered and gazed at the bodies gathered on the beach before walking to the back wall and quickly slicing it with two arcing gestures. A sheet of black paper with two curving gaps in it was illuminated from behind. The fabric of this universe torn, the stage went black and we broke for a scene change.

In a different house this might have been the intermission. But because it was raining outside and there was nowhere else to go, we simply stood and watched the performers scramble back in and tear down the black sides that had served as wings and drop a white cloth on the floor. It was comforting to be here, intimately connected to the unfolding, feeling like part of an event, literally underground, sensing what it would have been like to witness the early "happenings" that eventually became Butoh, before it was codified and internationalized and presented at BAM.

Yoshito Ohno, who as a very young man was the other half of the infamous first performance with Hijikata, opened the lighter and whiter second half. Ohno has been an active part of the force trying to save the studio ever since news of its impending auction hit in the Japanese press last April. He and Hijikata had been kicked out of the Dance Association over 40 years ago for that original performance, considered brutal and alarmingly homosexual at the time. Now, his one-time guide and long-time friend's legacy has fallen prey to a space crisis similar to that artists face around the globe.

Ohno had continued to perform with Hijikata's group Ankoku Butoh for its first ten years, while also working in pantomime with Oikawa. However, it is obvious that the ideas of Butoh of his father Kazuo Ohno (see my previous dispatch), with whom he's toured the world, have resounded more deeply. Ankoku Butoh was the dance of darkness, a distinctly Japanese art form whose seed was planted on the decimated plains of Hiroshima. Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno transformed Butoh into a dance of light. Yoshito's solo, also set against a running video of waves, was gentle and contemplative. Bare chested, in a pair of high-waisted white pants, he moved with quiet restraint.

Ohno eased away as Akiko Motofuchi entered, chased by Tetsu Saito and his stand-up base. She then took refuge from Saito's assault behind three gauzy white strips of netting on which her own ghosted images were projected in real time. Saito attached wind chimes to the back of the base, treating it as both percussion and stringed instrument. As the music reached a frenzy, Motofuchi tore apart the remaining back wall before coyly smiling at the audience. Tamano entered slowly, a drum began to beat and suddenly dancers appeared in the ground level windows above us, climbing through and down the walls. Kimono clad women entered with tissue-flower faces. The entire cast gathered and filled the space as the image of water returned and the lights faded.

Upcoming farewell events at the studio include an exhibition of photos by renowned artist and early Butoh photographer Eikoh Hosoe, March 1- 5, and a Hijikata film event, March 28 & 29.

Akira Kasai, a fellow pioneer and, some say, an object of envy to Hijikata for his skill as a dancer, performed "Lovely Jean Paul" the last weekend of January as part of the Die Pratze Dance Festival. Die Pratze is an experimental performance space in Tokyo's Azabu neighborhood, nestled at the base of Tokyo Tower. I felt like Alice tumbling down the rabbit's hole when we finally happened to open one very nondescript door on the second floor of a very nondescript office building and wandered into the cafe portion of the theater. From the sounds coming through the wall it appeared that the show had just started, and after a rather tortuous attempt at Nihon-go we were guided back outside, around the gas station, up a flight of stairs, and into the lair of the Queen of Hearts.

Pounding techno music and a ferocious pink diva assaulted me on entrance, and as I squished my sweaty self onto one of the empty steps (no fire codes here?) I was again in a panic. There was nowhere to go, and I wasn't sure if this manic gesticulating drag queen was going to keep my attention while I steeped for close to an hour. Thankfully, my initial "Oh-God-bad-Butoh" dread was proven misplaced again, and I succumbed to the overwhelming power of a masterful artist.

Kasai is positively inhuman. In a pink wig, a pink feathered headdress and diamond tiara, white face, false eyelashes, sequined pink dress and gloves he jumped into the audience, danced on people, executed dive rolls and barrel turn jumps and literally bounced himself off the walls. He ripped parts of the costume off in a frenzy, his face in constant motion, slammed onto his knees, froze, and grabbed for the air before suddenly the music dropped out.

Off came the tiara and the feathers and the gloves were tossed into the audience, as Kasai joked about stripping. The audience laughed at his physical and spoken humor as he ripped off his top and apologized for his flat chest. Under his wig bleached hair extended to his chin, and beneath the skirt lurked a little black tutu. He engaged in some gender play, shifting between the affected, deep voice of a kabuki actor and a higher pitched voice, making quick confidential asides to the audience. He crashed to the floor again and again. But Kasai is compelling beyond the shock level of the apparent abuse his body is going through. He performs with complete conviction and transcends physical limitations with some kind of concentrated ki (Japanese chi) that echoes the Balinese Sanghyang Jaran dance over burning coals.

After some quieter moments during which he sat stage right and mimed himself a beer and cigarette, Kasai donned white pants, a black and white striped sweater and a white boa. I started thinking about how Butoh became a form that allowed Japanese men fantastic cross-dressing opportunities. Before I knew it, strains of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" kicked in and Kasai emerged as the Black Swan, indicated by just a few costume changes. He danced a Nutoh assimilation of a western classic and I fell in love with the reversal of the appropriation process that I've grown used to from western artists. Kasai blended early ballet studies, six years of Eurhythmy training in Germany, recent investigations into hip-hop and a lifetime fo Butoh to create a stirring and startling work.

Bells signaled the approaching end and Kasai pulled back on parts of the Pink. He tossed himself against the walls, performed exhaustive dive rolls alternating with striking moments of stillness and popped and locked like the 19-year-old club kid he looks like. Oh and yeah, he's over 60.

Akiria Kasai gives a workshop at New York's Japan Society tomorrow and Friday.

Dancer and choreographer Maura Nguyen Donohue is the Dance Insider's Asia bureau chief. For more information on Donohue and her company, Maura Nguyen Donohue/In Mixed Company, please visit the company's web site .

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