Produced by Legacy Butoh and Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre
September 2014 Asheville, NC
Written By Ken Fitch
On first alert, one might not expect to come upon a festival celebrating the Japanese avant garde performance art of Butoh in the foothills of Western North Carolina, but for 9 years, Asheville has hosted such a gathering of these highly disciplined, committed artists in a performance form that, despite what some might expect from its exotic name and descriptive terminology, provides a most intense and accessible experience that communicates on deeper, basic existential levels that dispel any preconceptions through its fascinating presentation of precise and intense movement that generates its own realm of human experience.
Indeed, the description of an avant garde movement emanating from Japan might seem connotatively distant, but the work, with its rigorous physical styles of performance, and with its intense awareness of the fragmentation and viscerality of human experience has resonated internationally since its beginnings in 1959, especially in the cultural pockets where an International awareness of Far Eastern traditional forms such as Japanese Noh and Kabuki had long had an impact on visual arts, writing and theater. In the 60’s, similar efforts to recapture the visceral physical experience appeared in the work of international groups like the Polish Mime Theater, and in a performance style that might have correspondence in the work of such groups here as The Living Theater, The Open Theater, and The Bread and Puppet Theater, that stepped into their own rhythms of expression providing remembered counterparts.
The confrontation with destructive and deteriorating environments that also is a focus of Butoh exploration was a frequent presence as well in the early Happenings.
In actuality, Asheville and the surrounding region, far from remaining stolidly provincial and in the “boonies,” has had a tradition of nurturing those artists whose work emerged from an organic experience with insights that were forged from the transformational process, whether it be the vanguard artists who gathered at Black Mountain College in the 40’s and 50’s, or the individuals whose treks to points elsewhere burst forth with visionary achievements on the world’s stages in artistic and political areas, confronting psychic imbalances with a full field response that was uncompromising and visceral at its core.
The Butoh practice seems to thrive here in this location. Indeed, early Japanese visitors to the area saw familiar correspondences to the homeland landscape a continent and ocean away. It is also a region of timeless natural beauty, but also alive with the ghosts of the past and memories of faraway battles.
That this art form should be thriving and intensifying in skill and accomplishment should be no surprise, as war and annihilation threaten from afar once more, and the treasured local landscape reveals new discoveries of the detritus and endemic physical contamination that eerily correspond to the awareness that gave rise to the Butoh worldview in a place where a nuclear/apocalyptic inheritance hovered and emerged. Here and now, residents confront the newly discovered residual presence of threats such as Coal Ash Ponds, and contaminated brown fields under homes and schools that generate headlines at the very time this Festival gathers.
A region keenly aware of its human ghosts, now confronts the nightmare of newly discovered hazards.
A performance style that embraces the rage, devastation and annihilation with quicksilver shifts and transformations now grabs us on a level beneath the cognitive.
The artists who have been embodying and nurturing this exploration seem to rise with relevance, distinction, and accomplishment, generating growing interest that, in a uniquely American way, is welcoming and inclusive; so that the appearance of Butoh events on local streets, in parks and neighborhoods becomes a neighborly presence in its exploration of both celebration and devastation; so that on a recent weekend, it was not unexpected to see dancers costumed with animal masks hanging out of windows, sitting on trees, and walking down neighborhood streets, heralded only by startled dogs.
The Americanization of this form, especially as adopted, embraced and nurtured by Julie Becton Gillum, one of the premier performing artists of the region, has created a home that brings together an artistic family to a place of gathering and performance through the work of Legacy Butoh and Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater, so that it is no surprise that this vibrant, growing community of committed artists also attracts visitors from native and international contexts to explore and transform in this city.
While the press accounts purport the presence of authentic Japanese Dance, what is happening here is actually something more, as the Butoh form is expanding and widening in its focus and embrace in direct experience that is universal, transcendent and devastating at the same time; and not because of adherence to the form, but rather a commitment to exploration that journeys out into a reclaiming of human experience that is transforming.
It is dance, but those who may view it from other performance disciplines may feel that it is also close to mime or performance art. We are in a time where specific elements from multiple disciplines commonly and unexpectedly appear in the latest cutting edge commercial performances, a phenomenon that is a reflection of the universal inclusiveness and connectivity that renders all modes and representations accessible and relevant in the work of its perpetrators, discoverers, explorers, and guides in the new Millennium.
The particular focus of this year’s Festival, sponsored by Legacy Butoh and Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, has been described as “exploring women’s issues,” although one should not be misled or fooled into considering what we see as limited in its exploration, for, in moment after moment, the world in which these women are journeying is the complex society, world and universe inhabited by us all.
The prime program event for this Festival, “Women of Butoh,” is certainly in no way limited. In fact, the program is actually liberating and empowering in its pared down renderings, and the small BeBe Theater provides a concentrated directness that is inescapable.
One might try to sit and observe dispassionately and analytically, but once one accepts the notion of the perspective generously offered here, and opens oneself to what will emerge, harrowing insights and experiences will appear.
This is work, that while intensely personal, emanating as it does from the body with all its physical, and also neurological, and emotional consciousness to which it is bonded, but it is also work that continually engages an interface with the outside world in its impinging, restricting, attracting and universal powering, and these short pieces have the potential to upend one’s balance at the very times that the performers struggle physically and existentially to maintain theirs before our eyes.
“Descansos” Conceived and Performed by Megan Ransmeier
At the very start of the evening, after a gracious introduction and greeting by Ms. Gillum, we are confronted by a work of harrowing physicality, “Descansos,” conceived and performed by Megan Ransmeier
In the darkness a pounding of feet is heard, blunt and uncompromising, and then, the rising lights reveal Megan Ransmeier, a poetic dancer, known locally for her radiant grace, standing in a Butoh stance, costumed in a swaddling drapery that is statuesque but restricting. A striking intensity is evident from the start, and in a terrifying transition she bends over, almost in subjugation, to reveal the parched skull of a horse, emblematic of the embodiment that will take over and exist in dual presence with terrifying bridled intensity.
At times, the reining in is experienced directly as the woman/creature is reined in by the bit in her mouth, and it all becomes frighteningly palpable. Ms. Ransmeier, solely through the landscape of her visage, provides consciousness-rending images that penetrate deep within, with a monumental solo reality of pain and existence, united in a formidable amalgam of silent terror.
The exposure here is unrelieved, as the burdened, constrained and now humiliated creature with breast exposed is forced onward in a slow impending pace, with the presence of Ms. Ransmeier crying out to us in silence with an unspoken question: What does it mean to treat another in this way?
The Program Credits for this piece: “Direction and Sound by Julie Becton Gillum,” denote a technical, organizational participation, but in no way will this designation prepare the audience for Ms. Gillum’s astonishing presence and her integral part of the performance that will proceed with the force of ancient destiny that will be invoked and provoked into a binding focus.
Seated on the edge of the carpet, she will play objects with a rueful and ruthless focus and specificity, alternately magisterial and watchful, shamanistic and divinistic.
With a force that emanates from an ancient core, she will counterpoint, reinforce and direct the ominous trots and preparations for gallop that the woman will endure, but never as a partner, but rather as an archetypal shaman, playing bones to shake the marrow of existence.
Her performance could stand alone, as could that of Ms. Ransmeier, but the coexistence creates tensions and counterpoints that intensify the harrowing journey that one senses will grow further in intensity as performances of this work continue.
“Gravida” Choreographed by Amy Hamilton
From the darkness, we perceive an illuminated tree, emanating from the trunk of a woman who is in the darkness, a growing tree, but ominously the branches are dead. Illuminated by a red light that exposes unnaturally in a hazardous confrontation from which the figure cowers, she is in a world here that is hostile, ever threatening, limiting and controlling, but despite this, the physicalization of the character thrives in its own strength and glory, summoning powerful reserves in every position. In every confrontation, there may be reactive restraint, but the inner resolution and personal empowerment shine forth uncompromised. The performance here is viscerally impressive, in powerful positions masterfully realized. Then, in an absolutely stunning coup de theatre, the woman, from the depth of her inner core, bears an egg, vulnerable to all threats, protecting it, nurturing it, until powerfully, she offers it in outreach, and then looks away as it is let go, falling and breaking. Then, she will move on, bereft now of the tree of life she has borne, leaving the audience with powerful, indelible images that will haunt for days after.
“Mer” Choreographed and Performed by Julia Taylor
As this tour de force begins, we discover 2 figures enwrapped on the floor, but then, to our amazement we discover that the actuality is that it is one person and a quilt, but the greater reality is that others do indeed appear as the quilt becomes alive in constant, deeply felt, fully experienced interactions in which a miraculously rendered projection evolves into an empowered presence summoned from an experience that takes place before our eyes as we witness an entire lifetime churn, evolve and devolve before us in a breathtaking witness to the binding of life experience.
We see the writhing, interactive coupling of ecstasy, and then, the receding and flowing interactions that will morph into a pregnancy that soon becomes a growing heavy burden, and then a miraculous birth before our eyes . . . but life is a process of greater convolutions as the churning interactions continue with growth, separation, abandonment and struggle, often with agony, but no ecstasy . . . And then, in a riveting final image, an eventual disappearance on a flat plane that is the end line of existence.
This truly remarkable work is one of the most extraordinary performances one could encounter anywhere, a towering achievement by any measure, deserving a permanent place in the memory of one’s experience, encountering life in the overflow as relentless and enduring as the sea from which the piece takes its name.
“Spun” Created and Performed by Jenni Cockrell
“Spun,” created and performed by Jenni Cockrell, clearly begins as more of a dance than the preceding pieces on the program with its slow, flowing, spin movements, smoothly and cleanly articulated, rendered with a high degree of skill and accomplishment, but soon the flow and movements become angular, as an American Flag appears dimly in the background, clearly signaling that the construction we are seeing also has a socio-political context, and the dance becomes an uneasy journey, ultimately lowering the dancer down to a subservient, broken position that almost brings the movement to a stop, but from this position, an anger emerges from an inner reserve with a disfigured ferocity, provoking the realization that all that has gone before has led to this. The billowing anger /rage now flows into the interactions, transferring this newly discovered rage into a reactive mode. Whereas earlier, there was a free spin, now the reactions are dispassionate, just going through the motions (literally), disconnected from the core that has been transformed in its newly discovered angry awareness.
Now, all is drawn into an intense withdrawal in a climactic spin that is deeply disturbing with the compelling awareness of both its personal and larger inescapable social contexts.
Whereas traditionally, the dance is a form for opening up, here it is subversively and ruthlessly directed to a process of shutting down, and we are left unexpectedly shut out and immobilized on the dance floor of life to ponder in silence.
“Internal Delights” Created by Susan Collard and Interpreted by Sharon Cooper
Although seemingly benign, the title masks a far more disturbing journey in the face of imposed applications in which delight is discovered and truly experienced only when there is a self-empowerment.
At the opening, in an aural environment of soothing flowing music that will morph into a French art song, we discover a body, face down on the floor, decorated in fascinating, flowering body paint, an elegant, sensuous application that will continue to fascinate as the figure arises and moves through the space.
The viewer’s reaction to the visual display in applied floral patterns becomes startlingly palpable as the audience in an intensified step of audience connection, throws flowers at this figure that writhes in horror.
We are soon aware of the discrepancy between the flowing body paint design and the wrenching pain beneath the overlap that is imposed upon her.
The devastating social context is never absent as the dark skin bears the resilience of overt and passive impersonal imposition.
At times the woman, objectively emblemized in a sensuous, erotic overlay that becomes, in many ways, very constricting, and only after time, is she freed to luxuriate in the tactility of an experience, washing herself in the removal of the emblematic paint, for only then, can she begin to drink and taste the beauty herself that prior to this had been an imposition only enjoyed by others. In this new freedom, a frenzy erupts frighteningly as she tries to take on forces reimposing on her and her skin by now partaking of the flowing rather than being the object of others.
After the buffeted turmoil and process of personal empowerment and escape from decorative and intensely impersonal imposition, artful though it may be, in an ultimate private personal act, she gives birth to a stream of red flowers, although it is also at the same time a menstrual stream of blood red leaves, that is ultimately terrifying in its implications. As she rises and walks on, greeted by a celebration of beauty in song (that was greeted with hilarity by some of the audience), the irony here is that the experience of this very human person here and her future is ultimately terrifying in the realization of the tortured journey of release within the overlay of creation recently undergone, but also the residual impositions that still remain, remnants of imposition that we still might too quickly and easily ramose.
This is bold stuff, for sure. Relentlessly honest, body and soul laid bare, the extraordinary performance by Sharon Cooper is raw and challenging, revealing that beneath her natural elegance, the persona before us has had to live, facing the constant challenge of projected impositions that have penetrated to the depths of her being.
“Fifth of Beethoven-Admiring Tatsumi Hijikata” Choreographed and Performed by Vangeline
The inclusion of the local premiere of “Fifth of Beethoven-Admiring Tatsumi Hijikata” as a highlight of the Festival, attests to the importance of this work that has been acclaimed internationally with its stated tributes to a Japanese Butoh master.
As a solo work, this is the most cosmic and transmigrational in concept, and most densely populated, and indeed it is a shift, and an earthshaking one, a shift that is both perceptually and transactionally different from the intensely personal, although universal, works that preceded it.
One should quickly assert that the experience of this important work in the small intense space might be quite different from the other venues in which it has appeared that might elicit a quite different audience relationship as worlds are bridged in correspondence, counterpoint and mirrored desolations.
Here, we are intensely thrust into it all without compromise, sitting as we are, brought to the edge of disaster, that perhaps other venues more impersonally and more spatially dynamic would draw into the cataclysm of the universe in different ways, but here we are in a front row seat in the maelstrom that will envelope us before we know it.
Prior to the performance, as the accoutrements of the mise en scene for the performance are gathered and placed before our eyes, one is led to expect a whimsical work as the row of pigs’ head masks is hoisted at the back of the performance space, and a circle of white pebbles is dutifully laid out by the other performers of the evening in a gesture of hospitality and welcoming community.
In the darkness, the performance begins. The space is enmeshed with sounds: bells, chimes, and then the sounds of overflights intensifying, and then a flashing red light that betokens an air raid. When the red light fades, we hear the unmistakable sounds of an orchestra tuning up, and the only light then is a baton that reveals a ghostly figure in black, but as the light soon reveals, she is facing compass points until centrally poised, standing, with her back to the audience, then slowly disrobing to reveal a striking white garment. The sounds have now shifted, and we hear the sounds of applause, and the line of pigs’ masks is illuminated as this ghostly conductor turns to face us to conduct the iconic chords of Beethoven’s “5th Symphony.”
Almost by habit, one is transported to the great international concert halls of the world, which bear with them their own special temple archetypal resonances.
While the presence of the ghostly conductor before us is Asian in appearance, the behavior mode in conjunction with conducting the music is clearly European, setting the tribute juxtaposition of European culture with Japanese culture . . . but it will be further intensified visually and aurally as one of the iconic works of western civilization is juxtaposed with an iconic visual presence of an iconic Asian Butoh artist. There is a confluence of archetypes here juggling for our attention, a crashing archetypal enmeshment that is flabbergasting to consider: the ghost with its ancestral but also demonic aspects, the concert hall as temple and the conductor who unleashes the forces of sound and fury, within and without.
The subversion underway here, though, is more surreptitious.
For a time, in this space, in this time, in this context, it is easy to be lulled into the benign listening familiarity of a generous chunk of Beethoven’ s 5th, and into the awareness of the vaunted tributory connection of Western culture to a primal Butoh creator that for a moment might venture toward some perfunctory requirement of kind acknowledgment, but the connection here has a far more terrifying implication, for in finding a Western equivalent to the Butoh nexus, one must go to the horrors of World War II and its own cataclysmic aftershock, just as classic Butoh captured and ingrained in its own residual consciousness in the rubble of Japan.
Now, what may have seemed a neat, ingenious idea to honor a Japanese master with a celebrated historical Western work, instead will reawaken terrible repercussions in this percussive orchestral eruption. The pigs’ heads, which might be a wry commentary on orchestral audiences today, become more frightening, in the context of another era, wrenched into an awareness that indeed, an audience with darker motives and intentions would engender the horrors that would ensue.
And it is into this void that this specific artist, with her striking, lean monumentality, conveys by her presence and being the inescapable equivalent of the European disjunction during and after World War II, confronting us, as a child of France with the witness of her personal heritage that could trigger its own ghost field, inescapable as it is, haunting the sonic landscape later with the strains of a French popular song of another era that wafts in during the debacle. Here, in the place of this Festival performance, we might more quickly recognize all this now, with the recently reawakened residual immediacy in American consciousness during the recent commemoration of D-Day and the further reawakening to the horrors of the mayhem that ensued from the fateful waverings away from a culture of highest resilience and moral heroism that Beethoven himself expressed in the 9th Symphony and “Fidelio,” a heroism and idealism that was discarded in favor of darker purposes and explorations that ravaged Europe in the War.
Aptly here, the music chosen is the “5th Symphony,” with its insistent intensive chords that are signature, but soon the luxuriant orchestral gathering will merge ominously with sirens and sounds of the overflight of bombers, and in the presence of our hearing it all will break down and fragment with the corresponding after-awareness that we have become witness with our eyes and ears to a larger cosmic break down, that shattered the unifying cultural expressions in a landscape that now includes the detritus of these places that were temples of moral and idealistic coalescence that are now lost as the pigs had taken residence.
It is quite an extraordinary and ultimately astounding correspondence to bridge the Far Eastern devastation from which Butoh emerged, with the intensively experienced equivalent of the European Battle Theater that, in core areas, was equally decimated in physical and cultural fragmentation.
In this work, this performer almost demonically ghost driven, embodying the forces of collective and self cultural annihilation, then becomes compelled to witness the forces she has unleashed and then takes it all on and in with a smoldering intensity of residual horror, stepping back from the abyss and the terror that resides there (perhaps as a life-affirming, retaining in body, residual hope, emptying of exorcised demons), displaying a courageous, willful human stamina to maintain, preserve and witness, holding only the baton that is light to lead us through an enveloping darkness . . .
That this work should appear in festival here, brings a decided cautionary note (refined down from a symphony of notes, of course) of a witness that we should continue without forgetfulness, ultimately in direct connection to this work’s form and content that challenge and ultimately unsettle us existentially in this small urban outpost surrounded by ancient mountains.