RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Frantic Beauty was presented this year at the Performance Lab at the University of California, Riverside in February, after it first debuted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September 2017. An imaginative and startling multisensory performance by the producer/choreographer partners Ximena Garnica and Shige Moriya, it featured the LEIMAY ensemble of dancers in a showcase of bodily movement, light installations, and original music. One could describe this incomparable event as an exploration of dance; however, the 75-minute performance engages the viewer in unique ways, activating all the visual, aural, olfactory, and touch sensibilities. The music, scored by Jeff Beal, provides the upbeat tempo for the dramatic excitement of the opening scene which immerses the audience in darkness. A light projection creates a vanishing-point that radiates white light, capturing fragmented glimpses of five dancers’ movements in space. This “frantic” phenomenology introduces the opulent beauty of Frantic Beauty. When the dancers and the music slow to the standstill finish of the first act, a cinematic haze is suddenly visible along with the materialization of the dancers’ bodies. In another of the most memorable scenes, LEIMAY dancers Masanori Asahara, Krystel Copper, Derek DiMartini, Mario Galeano, and Andrea Jones individually vocalize indeterminable sounds, while the others pose, fall, contort, and slap their bodies to the ground. With the music suspended, this sequence emphasizes the materiality of the human body through the production of sounds that only bodies can emit. When light projections suddenly appear as blotches of color or graphic geometrics on the dancers, the aesthetic adds another dimension to the experience, one that no words could easily convey.
In their interview with Hyperallergic, the artistic duo provide a better understanding of their processes and practices — which they call LUDUS — and discuss how they achieved Frantic Beauty’s unique engagement which has developed from their twenty years of working together, to create genre-defying works.
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Hyperallergic: Thank you both for taking time to talk about Frantic Beauty. To me, and many others, the performance reflects everything about the Zen dance of darkness in the way that Butoh dancers have described the unearthing of the unconscious through dance. It would be very helpful if you could share with your audiences what you want them to know about Frantic Beauty and your relationship with Butoh.
Ximena Garnica: Thank you. I know humans yearn to understand things and categorizing makes it easier for our brains. But since I don’t think of Butoh as a genre or a lifestyle, I don’t consider my work as Butoh. In fact, I have never met “Butoh.” I met “Butoh artists” who often did not self-identify as “Butoh artists” but who were identified as such, mainly by institutions, producers, and organizers. Many of our relationships are with people who had worked with Tatsumi Hijikata or with Kazuo Ohno, or whose mentor or director participated in one of the art movements in Japan.
H: So, to you, Butoh is not a dance genre or a method, but it is an influence to your work through your relationships with other artists who saw themselves as Butoh artists?
XG: Let me reframe it this way. Our work grew out of our space here in New York, CAVE, which Shige started in 1996. When I met him in 2000, he had already been a part of this fermentation hub and the people I met here — who we had dinners, conversations, and sweated with in the studio — were often attracted to the ‘60s, ‘70s avant-garde. In those earlier years, we also met older Japanese-Butoh-related people who felt an affinity with the energy at CAVE.
Shige Moriya: We used to have a gallery here at CAVE, which included studio spaces for artists, and, until 2006, we exhibited eight times a year, presenting mostly works of visual art, installations, but we also included performances — action painting, dancers — usually at the opening.
XG: We were among people who invested their whole life to questioning society, identity, and the priorities and binaries of the Western world. In a way, they were the original punks and revolutionaries who were against the institutionalization of life. Some of the artists were really good at translating their thinking into artistic manifestations, and in this case, it was dance. I sometimes I think that if performance art existed in Japan, maybe [Butoh] would have been seen more as performance art.
JCD: Yes, as performance art has become mainstream, we stop seeing ‘60s and ‘70s artists as revolutionaries who questioned the institutionalization of life.The avant-garde loses its meaning at some point.I wonder if you can discuss Frantic Beauty in relation to all the things you have said about artistic fermentation and anti-institutionalization?
SM: I don’t think Ximena and I have the same anti-institutional ethos of the ‘60s and ‘70s. We are searching to find ways to adjust the norms around us. The norms are not the issue — it is the stagnation of norms that we question. With “Becoming Corpus,” the first in the series of five works titled the BECOMING pentalogy, I started thinking about whether there was “real” beauty as opposed to the things that are masked. You have to search for beauty, maybe fight for it, before it’s too late.
XG: One of the things about making Frantic Beauty with LEIMAY is that we are not just creating a piece, the work gets uncovered by different aspects of the practice, including the conditioning of the body and mechanisms we are using to create as well as to face our abilities and potentialities. The other part of the practice has to do with space and with other materials besides the body. The last part is related to exchanges and research with and on other artists. We have worked with Japanese artists such as Ko Murobushi; Akira Kasai; Italian director Mario Biagini from the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards; director Robert Wilson, and many others including vocal experimental teachers, composers, and visual artists. So that’s another part of LUDUS.
It all has value for embodied knowledge. Meeting with others, doing exercises, you are constantly digging and searching things out about yourself and then becoming something else in the process. The point is that this bodily knowledge — built, developed, and found — is contained within a small group of artists. And then you also want to share this process somehow, through the work of art. Whether it’s a performance work, sculpture, or an installation, it becomes a manifestation of an attempt to share.
H: Both the NY and CA performances of Frantic Beauty felt so organic, like something magical is happening. I think the process feels spontaneous, but is also very structured.
XG: Sharing traces of the practice is hard, because it’s only through process that you start to figure out the work of art. We make some specific limitations, at least for this piece. For example, there are very, very straightforward things like: We are not using regular lights.
SM: There are no theater lights. We use seven video projectors for Frantic Beauty.
XG: So when you decide you’re only going to use video projectors, then you are creating certain conditions that makes things appear. Frantic Beauty is very precise. Timing-wise, space-wise, dancers have to arrive to very specific points on the stage. If they don’t arrive, the lights aren’t going to hit them in the right place.
SM: To uncover the “materiality” of each dancer, we have to work for at least a year, sometimes two, for a specific work.Our practices are intensive, and sometimes we have to spend 24 hours together. We have at least four one-week retreats, which are important because in that time, we share a space for cooking, sleeping, and the time that we work is longer.
XG: We allow for the cycles of the body to work through thresholds, which sometimes manifest as the sensation of exhaustion, or impossibility. That sensation is just the condition that the body is in — I have to ask if I can work without judging it as good or bad. It’s a lot like fishing, just waiting for the fish to come. It’s related to the Japanese concept of ma [the aesthetic of arriving at “not things” but the space in between them] so hopefully you get good ma while a lot of time you get bad ma. But good ma is elusive and even subjective. There will always be contradiction, tension, and danger of overdoing.
SM: It’s about showing change from the inside to manifest on the outside.
H: That’s amazing that you would even attempt to do that. As an audience member, you know it’s not just choreography.
XG: I am interested in uncovering a multitude of times and spaces considered outside of the social because a lot of my work with Shige centers on being and existence. When a body defies any definition and develops a sense of ambiguity, this is attractive to me. I am not saying this is a quality present in the self/socially-identified “Butoh dancers.” This condition is one that happens sometimes in different artistic manifestations, but also among people, places outside of the artistic.
I am attracted to ambiguous bodies and spaces because of my condition as an immigrant in New York, as a partner of another immigrant from a whole different hemisphere from mine. Also, I have a very tense relation with language because English is not my first language, and yet, as we grow older, our mother tongue is always suspended in that tension. There is a lot of this in-betweenness, and when those moments appear in our dancers, or in our installation work, this is the thing I want to share with people. When these bodies are unpredictable, they’re also dangerous, they appear very hard to control and then all the structures, political powers, are going to be harder to stay in place.
H: I think it’s essential to understand race and gender in that context, because if you can’t control the unpredictable body, then you can’t stay with the same binaries for both race and gender even though we’re so stuck in preconceived notions of the body.
XG: The danger is something I’ve come across a lot in the last six months because I’ve been in the academic setting at UCR with amazing people questioning how we can decolonize spaces and bodies. Sometimes the ambiguity I am so attracted to might be perceived as erasure of identity or some search for universality. But I am trying not to erase the need for identity, the need for specificity. The social excludes many entities of the world, other creatures, animals, other potentials of beings. So when I say ambiguous bodies, I can also say ambiguous environments. When you’re bringing this together you’re really not creating, you’re tuning into the possibility between you and another. And in that place, there is no division of ontologies.
H: After Frantic Beauty, what are your thinking of doing next?
XG: The first three chapters are done. The work is there to be shared, so we are looking for places to present — presenters don’t have to invest so much. At some point we are going to do chapters four and five — if someone wants to commission them. There are currently a lot of questions about sustainability because this model is not in line with the funding structures in the economic situation here in NY. If you’ve never seen a work like this before, it’s because our model is unsustainable for our times.
H: I see now it takes a lot of time, energy to attain that experience.
XG: The performers, the dancers, we all make lots of sacrifices. Their energy is spread thin. They have multiple jobs and they’re living in New York where rents are crazy. The only thing I can say now is that while we’re not proud to be in this position, we are also resisting [the urge to stop] working because of the situation. But I have to keep questioning how this can be sustainable. Right now, we are working on a series of solos for each of the LEIMAY Ensemble members through a residency and commission by the Hurleyville Arts Center and SUNY Sullivan. Before that we will be participating in a performance project at the Judson Church. We are going to do a new iteration of work that used to be a solo, where we use this kinetic wood sculpture that responds to the body — or the body responds to the sculpture. We are building five sculptures for a group piece instead of a solo.
H: It sounds like a reflection of your own history of practice. What is the title of this sculptural work then?
XG: It’s called “Bodies on the Brink.”