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'Ame to Ame (Candy and Rain)'


by Toba Singer

October 10, 2009 -- ODC Theater, San Francisco

Butoh: Japanese form of avant-garde dance. Developed by Tatsumi Hijikata in the 1960s, it draws on both Japanese traditions and the European avant-garde. It is characterized by a stillness that is contrasted with frantic movements. It emphasizes emotional intensity, represented in a highly stylized manner, rather than physical dexterity. The dancers' faces and bodies are often painted white.

A Butoh performance attracts a certain kind of audience. In San Francisco, that audience will likely more consciously than not act as a kind of pre-show opening act for the scheduled performers. Who are they? Unlike the ballet orchestra-seat patron, dipped in designer make-up, dripping with hair product and draped in this season’s runway runaway, who knows who she is as she tows a reluctant husband 18 inches behind her, the Butoh audience member is searching for him or herself in the collective eye of the audience. Even during the pre-show seating mini-extravaganza, they sophomorically strut and preen, hug their friends and engage in loud TMI conversations meant to announce what can’t be otherwise conveyed, taking full advantage of a last chance to be “identitied.” It’s not something they can turn off, like, say, a cell phone.  Not worth mentioning except that the audience that cries out “hear me, look at me,” does plague a performance.

The set consists of triangulated pieces; a child’s desk-sized table (white) upstage center, a small stool (white), downstage left and a chair (white) tipped over onto its side (downstage right).  A thumping, spooling, thundering sound rises from the dark stage as lights reveal Shinichi Momo Iova-Koga bare-chested in a white jacket and pants, moon-walking back from one end of the stage to the other.  He stops briefly where Yuko Kaseki stands, dressed in a white Corrèges-length dress, and suddenly tips her over into what is the opposite of a lift and more like a barely-contained drop.  This bit of foreshadowing announces that what we will see over and over is movement and brakes on movement—some of them dramatic sequences playing out the rawest of potential interactions between human beings, almost anima-like or even animal-like that, once exhausted, grow over into something more humane, if not typically human.  All the while, the lighting causes a larger-than-life shadow to be cast on the side curtain, and that too can be watched. If the shadows are watched consistently, one can begin to get the idea that the shapes given to us by Mark Ates and the dancers, all of whom are credited with the choreography, are individual pictograms of relationships which grow in complexity over the course of the piece, just as they can and sometimes do in the course of a life. 

A crescendo of techno music flushes the dancers down a kind of synergistic rabbit hole and now they are both jogging in apposition until a body slam, like a mammoth high five, brakes their motion. More pyrotechnics come as Iova-Koma throws himself headlong over the table into floor rolls while stage lights go into intermittent mode, without quite strobing. A mime of acceptance and rejection turns the dancers into helicopters, bulls pawing the corrida, stylized steppers, as they slip in and out of the clothes that bind them to identities which don’t fit, staring at bare wrists anachronistically to discover what time it is as flight or automobile traffic sounds and crackles fill the air.

The energy returns to slo-mo as Kaseki leans forward to embrace the table and moves it downstage, head and torso slowly descending over it. He, cartoon-character like, steals into her space on long-stride tiptoes to filch the desk out from under her draped body.  This is where the self-conscious audience inserts itself and its need to be acknowledged, laughing too loudly at what is only subtle humor.  “You hear us? We are totally getting this” the audience persists on insisting.  It only slightly derails the concentration both dancers and audience members require because such individuals do everything only slightly, even when what they do is offensive.  To their credit, the dancers win this tug of war and the show goes on.  Now we see other ways in which partners steal each other’s propriety in the push-pull world of personal relationships: She falls here, causing him to fall there, and a whole series of unfortunate chain reaction events ensue. The oh-so-self-discovering audience now has a mirror held up to its less-conscious behaviors and, predictably, the laughter slowly abates.  There is even a rhythm to that abatement as we witness the dancers lock themselves in their own conundrums until the weight of each individual pulls him or her apart from the other, like pools inexorably pulling free in an oil slick.

In ballet we look for technique and artistry.  Here, one of the dancers is practically bow-legged, but that is of little importance because what counts technically is timing and balance, the taking and giving of one body’s authority to the other.  Artistically, it is the mime that appoints the piece and the dancers’ concentration that lends gravitas. There must be both energy-dispatch in the dancing and unspoken dramatic dialogue in the Theatre of the Absurd interludes.  Kaseki’s face, like that of Giuletta Masina in the film “La Strada,” acts as a kind of concordance to guide us through the work, all the way to the spellbinding and yet theatrically terrifying death-scene finish.

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