Performance

Spectral: The Ghost Dance of Butoh

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Dancer Coco opening up “Heaven and Earth” (photo by Beatrice Schleyer)

Despite the setting — a small stage filled with nine dancers — there was a feeling of separateness and sadness. The Vangeline Theater, a Butoh dance group, celebrated its 10th anniversary on February 1 and 2 at the Triskelion Arts Aldous Theater; both nights were sold out, with more people waiting in line for standby tickets. On the second night, Saturday, the 74-person-capacity theater had viewers sitting in the aisles, brushing against those in the rows of seats, with still more people with their backs against the walls of the black box.

The night was comprised of two dances, with a short film preceding the second. An all-female troupe of nine dancers performed the first piece, “Heaven and Earth,” while the company’s artistic director, Vangeline, performed the second segment, “Spectral,” by herself.  The dancers were diverse — black and white, German, French, and Japanese, giving the Butoh company a different take on the traditionally Japanese dance.

“Heaven and Earth” started with the dancer Coco in a white dress, seated on her knees. A single spotlight brightened her figure and left the rest of the stage dark. Positioned in the foreground, she faced the audience and moved her arms slowly in the air, crying with a facial expression that was nonetheless controlled and stoic.

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Separate but together: from left to right, dancers Margherita Tisato, Laurence Martin, and Sindy Butz (photo by Beatrice Schleyer)

Apart from her, groups of two or three dancers stood in the background, dressed in black. They contrasted with Coco in that their faces were visibly expressive and sorrowful, and they wept together. Each of these performers also had a thin stick in her mouth, which I assume represented gagging, an inability to vocalize pain. The dance was divided into segments, brief, choreographed incidents that together constituted the whole work. Lights would shine on a group of performers, Maiko Ikegaki and Azumi Oe, for instance, and they would dance and mirror each others’ movements; then the spotlight would darken, and another one would shine on a different group of dancers, who began their choreography, and so on. Like Coco, each of these dancers stood in one place and made what could best be described as bodily movements or actions, such as bending at the waist, moving the arms, or tilting the head — small, jerking movements that looked more like expressions of pain than what someone might ordinarily associate with dance.

Vangeline’s placement of the dancers was extremely well done, an example of an experienced choreographer using performers to not just fill a space but to convey meaning through it. The entire performance had an appealing visual depth to it, with simultaneous yet separate movement and intelligent lighting that helped convey the themes of loneliness and sadness in the choreography. Vangeline created a form of interaction that was both emotionally and physically separate. And in the great finale of the piece, the dance of darkness became a dance of light in the brightened theater; all of the dancers moved as a whole, and it felt like it should have: an embrace.

“Heaven and Earth” made no attempt to define or explain the sadness that was so pervasive throughout the piece; it just was. Although there was no narrative in the traditional sense, you could construct a relationship if you like: you could say that the dancers dressed in black represented the melancholy thoughts of the dancer in white. Then again, it’s more about experience than interpretation. Coming out of post–World War II Japan, Butoh is subtle, slow, and has a sort of rigidness to it. It gains elegance through restraint, and what it lacks in action it makes up for in the emotion of the body language. Every movement says something, and is not eager to interrupt, which gives you time to reflect and think about what each movement has to say. In a sense, the emotion is very much underneath the art, the movement, the dance.

Vangeline in the beginning of her performance. Note her rigid body movement. Photo by Michael Blase.
Vangeline at the beginning of her performance. Note her rigid body movement. (Photo by Michael Blase)

A short film preceded “Spectral,” the second dance. Shot by Geoff Shelton at Garnerville Arts Center, I’m not sure if it was necessary, as it seemed unrelated to the overall work in both theme and structure. The film slowed down (in relative terms to Butoh) the program considerably, and while watching it, I found myself asking, “How much does it really add to show a film of Butoh when you’re there to see it live?” Perhaps in another setting it would have been more enjoyable.

The word “spectral” means a ghostly appearance, and Vangeline seemed like a ghost, made up and dancing like an old woman from the end of life to the beginning of death. The choreography was simple: She began in the center of the stage in a circle, a projection of the face of a clock, and gradually moved to the center of a different circle, a round spiral made of long tubes of blue, iridescent lights. Decidedly more terrifying than the previous dance, this piece used more lighting (blue and red lamplights) and had movements that were more jarring, with Vangeline bending from the waist at angles that looked unnatural. This was also noisier piece, with clock and crashing sounds, and I wished the actions had spoken more for themselves. She unexpectedly used an Elvis recording, a straying from the traditional classical music of Mozart or Japanese incidental music by Yoichiro Yoshikawa. This seemed to clash with the atmosphere of the performance, and it was curious to hear it during her dance of death.

The Closing of Vangeline's performance inside the labyrinth. Photo by Michael Blase
The closing of Vangeline’s performance, inside the labyrinth (photo by Michael Blase)

Both pieces were a terrific visual experience. Watching the controlled facial expressions the performers — which looked, at various times, alien, frightening, and terrified — you began to see how Butoh attempts to give dance a personality. The expressions were, in a sense, unrealistic (more than ghostlike, as the title would have you believe), but they were also a side step away from human — not quite what we see in everyday life, but an expression our frailties. They seemed to say: these are people to identify with, not just choreography to be moved by.

The Vangeline Theater performed “Spectral” at Triskelion Arts (118 North 11th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) on February 1 and 2, 8 pm.

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