AN EVENING OF IMPROVISATIONAL BUTOH

By Gabriel Thy • Artist, Dance • 20 Apr 2009

VANESSA SKANTZE | SATURDAY, MAY 21, 2005 – 8PM
AN EVENING OF IMPROVISATIONAL BUTOH

Butoh is a corpse standing straight up in a desperate bid for life.
-Tatsumi Hijkata

FORTY-FIVE MINUTES OF AMBIENT industrial clang. An inspired female performer of the Butoh method of dance. A handful of mostly uninformed cheap-fisted gazers. Enough to tranform an ordinary Saturday night at the MOCA into an extraordinary syntax of human expression.

Originating in Post World-War II Japan, many consider the Butoh dance a mysterious ritual to be interpreted many ways. A contemporary form of dance, Butoh borrows elements from traditional Japanese and many western forms of dance. Variations in form range from the violently flamboyant to the tranquil poetry of a gentle breeze, from the painfully intimate to grandiose levels of spectacle, from subtle improvisation to the splendid choreography of highly stylized gesture. On this lovely spring evening not only did artist Vanessa Skantze introduce her rather intimate MOCA audience to this powerful expression of the spirit, she empowered several overheard to expand our own universes of self-exploration, self-commitment and spacial communication.

We first notice Ms. Skantze, her skin pale, submerged in white body makeup, peering from around a doorway as a sounding fog of metallic minimalism cogent of a busy seaport dock perhaps, announces the dance, her dark, matted tresses lending an air of Nipponese authenticity to this impressive performance. Clothed in a beige slip blending with flesh into similar tones of the gallery walls, the dancer’s calm sensuality is never in question but is quietly integrated into the whole fabric of the event. Not all Butoh performers incorporate body makeup, a traditional visual clue of the Japanese arts, though gold, silver, red or black makeup are also common. Many artists choose elaborate costumes with extensive props, a simple leotard or loincloth, while others may perform completely nude. Rumor had it that the loincloth is Ms. Skantze’s usual garb but the short slip was adopted for the sake of her parents who were in the audience.

At first, to the uninitiated eye, Ms. Shantze’s dance in bare feet seemed to describe a familiar path, a path pitched in the metaphors of the human embryo scooting along the development process, pedantically trapped in a predictable world of darkness and physical limitation. While perhaps visually striking, had this dance remained framed as a dance of the embryo, an all-too-familiar cliche in these post-feminist times, the powerful and muscular limbs of Ms. Skantze could not have delivered the same stark yet writhing emotional glances required by the visual grammars of true innocense at work, anxious curiosity in play, mortal terror in vain, vivid self-awareness on parade – all of which are transformed by an industrialized experience evoked by the convincingly appropriate score arranged by local musician and painter, Andrew Corrigan.

However, this transformation does not rely on the past but builds upon it, insisting upon the present conviction that a naked raw energy is best extrapolated step by step, into a stride, then a glide beckoned into a feverish surge of self-satisfaction. Momentum inches toward an explosion of sarcastic exilaration which holds court before fading away into a wandering repose past the audience into a dark corridor before re-emerging none the wiser. Then collapse. Into the sheer indispensible exhaustion of it all.

It is this ALL that our Butoh dancer portrayed so persuasively.

No, if the first impulse of the observer is to dismiss as ho-hum this performance as yet another birthing passion sequel, the second impulse, that of recognizing one’s own struggle with and adaptation to contemporary angst in the universal march toward one’s own transformative powers is one of awe and resolve. As pathway on the critical search for joy long lost within the pre-fabricated ruins of an ephemeral culture, a cliche in its own right, the entire slowed down cadence of Ms. Skantze’s movement of limb and facial expression becomes sculpture on the spot and furthermore, is the key to unlocking oneself as the witness who serves notice to both the spirit and the body – that life is worth living – that the struggle is merely to be challenged not as an imposter compromising life, but to be embraced and proclaimed in all its proclivities as the very nomenclature of life irrepressible.

In dance terms, an unconventional aspect of Butoh is its movement cadence. Just as important, perhaps more so, is the ritual the dancer undergoes to prepare. A dance which regards with equal measure meditation or martial art training as much as it does conventional dance wisdom, directing energy to the audience from the artspace itself serves both the inclusive nature of the dance and the individual artist as performance medium. Variations in training methods abound. Certain masters focus on a strong physical discipline to initiate a catharsis in the dancer. Indeed, those who have had no training in dance at all generally have the easiest time of it because Butoh teachers tend to stress the need to forget all training other forms of dance require. Masters claim there is no physical technique or common terminology for Butoh since each dance is the unique expression of the dancer, unencumbered by language, tradition, or constraint. The usual Zen doublespeak notwithstanding, there may be something real to grasp here.

It has been said that the development of a dancer or athlete or artist can only occur beyond a certain point if certain qualities already dwell in the aspirant. Thus, not all who try Butoh will excel at it, despite optimistic charms of Butoh theorists dizzy in the heat of pontification. However, this writer was extremely pleased with the performance of the youthful and vigorous Vanessa Skantze, and as she climaxed asprawl the cold gray floor of the gallery, eyes closed, music waning finally to silence, sweat beading, heart pounding, I felt I knew her and she knew me, if just for that fleeting moment before she stands and bows, and I am cast again upon myself, knowing once more that it is in the making of art itself that the victory resides.

Coupled with the realization that even the greatest uncompromised artist of them all can share only a beggar’s sample of their genius for public inspiration, perhaps winning a fleeting moment of second-hand motivation in return, we too are moved to utter, “Yes, Virginia, the sweat and the blood and the everlasting life vibrates in the work. Only in the work.” And I guess that was the point all along.

—Gabriel Thy

Originally published on the MOCA DC website.

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