Posted on July 31, 2017
Take off most of your clothes, paint your body white, and move as if you’re drugged or hypnotised or a ghost or a dream. The art of butoh often involves all these things, along with extremely slow and highly controlled movement, playful and despairing moods, hands cramped into claws and grotesque positions.
This indefinable dance-theatre form, developed in Japan late in the 1950s, lacks a fixed vocabulary but deliberately aims to resist the codified techniques of western dance and traditional Japanese styles such as kabuki and Noh. It crept slowly into contemporary dance, extending its influence beyond its home, but I was surprised to find it at the Peckham Multi-Storey Car Park, performed by Kokoro Dance, formed in 1986 by Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi.
Yet butoh is constantly surprising, because its intentions as well as its movements defy explanation. This piece, [ ] (pronounced “brackets”), is said to represent “an intense exorcism of the turmoil contained in [the performers’] bodies.” For the first half, after heaping Hirabayashi with dirt, Bourget crawled around him and slouched beside him, shattering the fragile theatrical illusion every time she had to readjust her long red dress. When Hirabayashi rose to his feet, however, as slowly as a shadow inching up a wall, his unwavering concentration converted his floating arms and angular twisting into a mysterious struggle, seamlessly transferred from his imagination to ours.
Facing in opposite directions while executing identical moves, the artists became even more dissimilar. He seemed fully inhabited by spirit and conviction, though his actions’ significance eluded me completely. His partner resembled a pupil of the style rather than an experienced interpreter, carefully replicating his measured gestures without penetrating their essential source.
You can sometimes sense that distinction, between an organically generated performance and a studied one, even when you can’t fathom the choreograper’s meaning. For an insight into butoh’s peculiar expressive power, don’t miss the remarkable film Mr O’s Book of the Dead featuring Kazuo Ohno, the style’s co-founder and an extraordinary dancer himself. Along with two other films, this one complements the current installation in the Barbican Art Gallery, a staged exhibition entitled Hoochie Koochie by the US-born choreographer Trajal Harrell.
I wonder what Ohno would make of Harrell’s sweeping mash-up of the flamboyant drag balls and Judson Church modern dance experiments of the 1960s, butoh, belly dancing, classical Greek dancing and the haughty prance of runway models. Accompanied by videos, slides and recorded music, the choreographer and 14 other performers, mostly men, dish out 15 excerpts from his creations since 1999, often occupying several small areas of the gallery simultaneously.
Actually, like so much post-modern art, the piece substitutes references to the various styles that intrigue Harrell for representative samples of those styles. If you’ve ever seen a fashion show or caught a glimpse of voguing, you’ll recognise the characteristic moves here. If not, well, the one-hour excerpt from Caen Amour stopped dead so the viewers could read a page of notes on the history of hoochie-koochie and Harrell’s thoughts about it.
A colleague told me she was curious about the contrasting ways in which dance critics and art critics might view this piece, but I’m more interested in what the public might see. To me, a lot of it looked like the dancing people do at home, spontaneously, when they can’t resist moving to music. Nobody watches, so they can flounce and pose and strut and pump their hips to their heart’s content, protected from judgment by their privacy and satisfying only themselves.
Would Hoochie Koochie satisfy an audience if Harrell’s comments and the wall panels dotted around the gallery were removed? Why is it more entertaining and thought provoking to read about this performance than to watch it? Even in a museum, where expectations differ from those brought to a theatre, dance is perfectly capable of making its own point. Take a look at Fevered Sleep’s Men and Girls Dance, an exploration of friendship that sets six professional male dancers and nine untrained girls age eight to 11 amid the paintings and free-flowing audience of Tate Britain. Though the performers articulate their personal responses to the experience, they also let you decide about the movement’s intent and the group’s shared goal.
Hoochie Koochie is at the Barbican Art Gallery until August 13, 2017
Mr O’s Book of the Dead is at the Barbican Cinema on August 1 only.
Men and Girls Dance is free at Tate Britain until August 6, 2017.
Top picture: Kokomo Dance. Photograph: Merrick d’Arcy-Irvine