Dance Weekly: The Butoh Beat

Groovin' Greenhouse, a new FRONT page, La Compagnie Herve Koubi, and an interview with Meshi Chavez on "Being Moved"

This weekend is all about contemporary dance explorations. Groovin’ Greenhouse, the dance sibling of the Fertile Ground festival of new works, continues; the fifth edition of FRONT (a Portland-based dance newspaper curated by Justin Flood, Danielle Ross and Robert Tyree) releases with a party and a workshop; twelve French-Algerian men take the White Bird stage in What The Day Owes To The Night, which I hear is almost sold out; and I will be performing in Being Moved: All that I know Is Nothing, the culminating performance of a nine-week butoh workshop led by choreographer Meshi Chavez.

I became interested in learning butoh and making it a year-long study and writing project after I had reconstructive hip surgery in May. I have been dancing professionally for a long time, and was not willing to call it quits after this surgery. I was interested instead in finding new forms of expression that did not call on the extreme ranges of motion that contemporary dance requires, although I can still do them if need be. I have accumulated a lifetime of body knowledge, and I was interested in finding new ways to use it that didn’t cause me pain and were more sustainable throughout the rest of my life.

I have been circling around the idea of butoh for a while after seeing Meshi and Mizu Desierto perform over the past five years: both are major players in Portland’s butoh scene. I was curious about it and its practitioners, but couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was or what I was seeing. I could feel the freedom and range in their movement and expressions when I saw them dance, and I wanted that too.

Butoh, in my elementary understanding, was born in Japan from the aftermath of World War II by its founders, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, as a way to find a dance form that was not Western and not traditional Japanese but something of its own. It is also not the stereotype of ashen-white makeup, contorted body positions, or brutally slow glacial movement that so many people associate butoh with – rather, it is a way for the body to move or speak for itself through unconscious improvised movement.

I love this idea that the body has a mind of its own separate from the brain, and has its own intentions, and we are just holding it back by imposing form onto it.

So I said “yes” to something I knew nothing about and stepped into the uncomfortable unknown (at least, for me it was), entering into a two-month-long journey that became a therapeutic, spiritual, ecstatic, deeply moving, and playful exploration of the more. What more is in my body, what more can I give, what more can I bring to my dancing, what is there that has fallen through the cracks that I have edited away and decided wasn’t dance, or good dance, or good enough?

I also met and danced with a crew of amazing people whom I would never have met otherwise. Together we traversed this crazy but fun new terrain that Meshi presented to us twice a week through visual explorations, directed improvisation, lengthy philosophical discussions, and of course, lots of dancing.

The participants are Sara Alizadeh, 34, a PNCA graduate, trained Waldorf teacher and pre-school owner; Mara Steen, 45, social worker for Oregon Lions Sight and Hearing Foundation; Zebith Thalden, 42, a nature illustrator, art instructor, and environment educator; Teresa Vanderkin, 58, who works for the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners; Lily Lewis, 64, registered nurse; Joe Mclaughlin, 62, owner of Country Garden Nursery in McMinnville; and me, 41, professional dance artist and writer.

This workshop experience was like being vigorously bounced around in a giant, soft, cozy net held by my closest, trusted friends, and feeling immense pleasure in the experience of being tossed uncontrollably over and over again, not knowing where I was going to land. It was fun. It was a lot of fun.

That’s it; all that I know is nothing. It is a great place to start and a great place to keep coming back to. It’s humbling.


“Being Moved” with Teresa Vanderkin, Lilly Lewis. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

But first, this week’s performances:

Groovin’ Greenhouse and Fertile Ground
Through January 31
Various companies and locations around Portland

Fertile Ground, now in its eighth year, began on January 21 and runs for 11 days ending on Saturday, the 31st,  presenting works-in-progress and world premieres in dance, theater, comedy, visual art and film all across Portland. Groovin’ Greenhouse, hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre, supplies much of the dance component. For more information on individual performances check out my dance in Fertile Ground preview.

FRONT Ed. 05 Release + Workshop
A Portland-based newspaper devoted to contemporary dance
Friday, January 30
Publication release 5:30–8, Workshop 3–5
FLOCK, 8371 N Interstate Ave.

Featuring the writings of dance artists Biba Bell, Milka Djordjevich, Jessica Jobaris, Chris Lael Larson, Sara Shelton Mann, and Taka Yamamoto.

FRONT invites you to make questions and make movement in the following workshop. “This workshop activates content from FRONT Ed. 05. All creative practices welcome! Artists + non-artists, visual makers and body-based creatives.” Come pick up free copies of FRONT Ed. 05!

La Compagnie Herve Koubi
Presented by White Bird
January 28-30
Portland State University, Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave

Almost Sold Out!
French-Algerian choreographer Hervé Koubi brings What The Day Owes To The Night, performed by 12 French-Algerian and African male dancers combining capoeira, martial arts, urban and contemporary dance to evoke Orientalist paintings and the stone filigree of Islamic architecture.

Being Moved: All That I Know Is Nothing
Choreography by Meshi Chavez
Live musical score by Roland Toledo and Adrian Hutapea
Performers: Sara Alizadeh, Mara Steen, Zebith Thalden, Teresa Vanderkin,
Jamuna Chiarini, Joe Mclaughlin, Lilly Lewis
Friday-Saturday, January 30-31
The Headwaters Theater, 55 NE Farragut St. #9

“It is my belief that performance is not just for the artistic elite, that everyday people are made of movement and with that movement is an inherent and profound beauty,” Meshi Chavez says. “With adroit direction and focus, the quotidian can, in an instant, transform into something moving and delightful.”

Being Moved is a workshop for nonprofessional dancers who want to take up the challenge of dancing original choreography. The participants are selected through an application process and embark on an adventure delving into a true desire for a deep personal connection to embodied movement. Performance skills are developed and creativity is fostered through improvisation, and choreography culminating in an end of workshop performance.

Chavez is a dancer, teacher and choreographer. He is co founder of Momentum Studio on Southeast Water Avenue, where he teaches weekly classes. Meshi teaches butoh and other forms of movement-based workshops in the United States and Europe. His mentors include Toronto-based Choreographer Denise Fujiwara, and Japan’s Natsu Nakajima. His most recent collaboration includes teaching alongside American author and theologian Matthew Fox.


I interviewed Meshi this past weekend while we walked and talked around SE Portland after his “Sunday Morning Dance”, a weekly ecstatic dance event that he and his partner Winky Wheeler trade off directing at Studio 2.


“Being Moved” with dancer Jamuna Chiarini. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

When did you come to Portland?

I moved to Portland in January of 1996.

What brought you here and where were you coming from?

I grew up in Albuquerque and what brought me here was that I was fleeing for my life.

Me: Literally?

Meshi: Yeah pretty much. I came out in 1994 – so I was a freshman in high school. Somewhere around then. Albuquerque is a really dangerous place, or at least it was. There was a lot of intolerance for things that were different. So I came out my freshman year and my sophomore year I got kicked out of my house. I kind of left, kind of got kicked out. It was one of those chicken or egg situations. My mom was like I can’t live with you and I was like I can’t live with you. So I left.

And then I left Albuquerque, and my sister took me in and she was going to college in Portales. I slept on her floor at the foot of her day bed. I went to high school in Portales, and lived with my sister and her friends and it was amazing. I always say my sister saved my life.

And then after that year I decided to try going back to Albuquerque and I decided to give my school a try again.

All this stuff went down and people were chasing me with baseball bats and then I decided that I would rather live. So I went home and said I’m dropping out of school. And my mom said no you’re not. Cause she was a dropout and my dad was a dropout and so it was really important for my mom that we got our education. I said well you have two choices, you can either have a son that gets his GED, works full-time and goes to college next year or you’re going to have a dead son. I said I’m dropping out of school. And she finally believed me.

I got my GED, got a full-time job, and then the next year I went back to Portalis (I applied and got in). Now I’m in college, it’s supposed to be my senior year in high school. it’s my freshman year in college. and I’m walking across the campus and someone called me a fag. And I was like I can’t do this, I won’t do this, I’m not gonna do this, I’m not I’m not. So I packed up my stuff and went home for Christmas break.

A friend of mine was moving to Portland and I said can I come live with you and she said yes.

So I packed up my car and I moved up here with $100 in my pocket.

It was January ’96. It was freezing, it was the year everything froze, they were sandbagging the river, this huge snowstorm hit and I was like where the fuck did I just move to (Meshi is laughing) and so I lived with my friend Johanna and her family, so Johanna her sister Kaitlin and I shared a bed for about three months. And I worked at Macheesmo Mouse, it was a cheesy fast-food Mexican restaurant (more laughing), and then I got a job at Urban Outfitters. So I worked those two jobs. And then I moved out of Johanna’s place three months later into this apartment with these two people and we all shared a one-bedroom apartment. and I was so happy and so poor and I was doing a lot of drugs. (Laughs a lot)

And then I went to India.

After India I got back and decided that I was going to try to make a life here.

I worked for five years at Cascade AIDS Project. I ran a teen peer education program for about five years. And then I realized I am pretty damn shitty at working for someone else, I really don’t like being told what to do, I don’t like answering to people, so I decided to go through massage school and I got my license and after that I quit Cascade AIDS Project and I have been working on my own for about fifteen years now.

At the same time all of this was happening I was dancing at Body Moves. Body Moves was the studio that used to be down the hall from Conduit. Vin Marti was a teacher there; he taught Gabrielle Roth’s work, the 5Rythms. (The 5Rythms is a movement practice using the dynamic qualities of Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness for personal exploration.) And so I started dancing there; I was really drawn into what Vin was doing. I was there at this point that Vin was leaving Gabrielle Roth’s work and trying to create his own body of work. And so there was a group of us that were there when Vin was in the heyday of creating his work. and at that time he hired me, Winky (Wheeler), this woman Jen (Warnock) and this woman Paula, and we were his four teachers. So we were kind of helping create this body of work and at the same time he was mentoring us to be movement teachers.

Then one day I got a phone call from Vin. He said It’s over, it’s done. The studio is closing, and we are closing in two weeks and Nia is taking over.

In those days our Sunday morning class probably had about 100 people. All the ecstatic dance that’s happening in Portland was us, that was Vin, there was nothing else before that, that was us.

When Vin left, Winky, Jen, Paula and I, we decide that we weren’t going to let our students down, we had to keep something going. We stepped in and took over, and told Nia that we would continue the classes we had before. Before Vin left it was Body Moves programming with Nia sprinkled in; then it shifted and it was Nia programming with body moves sprinkled in.

Eventually we decided to leave Body Moves and venture out on our own.

We taught out of the German Society building, we taught out of the Secret Society ballroom, we taught out of Dishman Community Center, we taught out of Mississippi Ballroom, Conduit,  and Studio 2.

And then Jen died. She just up and fucking died. She had a stroke; she was 42 with two kids. She was amazing. I loved Jen so much. She had had a stroke, she kept it really quiet, no one knew, Winky and I knew, and you know it changed her, but she seemed to be doing OK and then she got a residency, the Alembic series with Linda Austin, she created a piece about her stroke and she performed in front of a brain scan that showed where the stroke was and then five days later she was dead.

She died from the same thing her dad had, her arterial lining started to slough away from the wall and started creating clots. The day after she performed her leg was in pain so she went to the doctor and she had torn something and because she was on these blood thinners she wasn’t clotting. And they did a brain scan, MRI  and they realized that her right or left carotid artery was 90 percent blocked and the other one was 75 percent. So they tried to do a bypass. So she went into brain surgery. All of this happened within 72 hours. Then after the brain surgery she had a major stroke and died.

It’s so unique, because Jen and I shared a class, we used to teach Wednesday nights together, it was our class, we would talk every fucking day. We would talk and I would talk to her about what I was passionate about so when she died everything changed, it was so shocking.


“Being Moved” with Sara Alizadeh, Mara Steen, Zebith Thalden, Teresa Vanderkin. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

When were you introduced to Butoh?

I was living at a house that had a book on butoh. I was dancing at Body Moves, I was teaching, I was doing theatre at the time and I came across this book and I was like what the fuck is that and then I was like that’s so beautiful, I don’t know what it is but I love it. That was my first reaction.

Then Akira Kasai came to town through TBA and he taught a workshop and I went to his workshop and I loved him and then he was performing a show called Pollen Revolution so I went to the show after the workshop and I was fucking floored. it was so good, so good. I just remember sitting there again I didn’t know what butoh was, I didn’t care, whatever he’s doing, whatever he’s got I have to learn to do that I have to learn to perform like that. I went back the next night and my head was blown open again, I was so floored. So that kind of started it.

He came to town a year later, Larry Kominz who is a Japanese language instructor at PSU brought him and he taught a workshop there. He came here one or two times and then he had a workshop in New York which was also an audition so then Stephanie Lanckton and I went to that and we both did the workshop audition and she got into the show and I didn’t and I was so mad, so pissed. I even wrote him, I would like you to reconsider me I know I can do your work. He wrote back to me saying I really enjoy you and enjoy your work and you absolutely can do it but I have decided for this show I am going with all women. And it’s true none of the men were really very strong, but these women were. After that I was OK. Its very Japanese to work with all men or all women. He would say he doesn’t like to mix the two because it’s actually very advanced.

So I would take workshops with Akira Kasai once or twice a year and then come back and start working with it on my own.


I went to the Exit festival in Germany and that’s where I met Denise Fujiwara and that was five years ago, that really changed everything, all of the information I had been getting was finding its way and settling but after the Exit festival it was like it turned and dropped, and all of a sudden I realized that before I knew nothing and now I had something to work with. Being Moved started; I toured a piece down to New Mexico.

Meshi, what is Butoh?

I love what Denise Fujiwara said in her workshop, “Butoh is material, process and time and space” Hmm, exactly what the hell does that mean?

Me: That could be any dance style.

Meshi: My first teacher Akira Kasai would say that the moment you define butoh is ceases to be butoh.

I think that true butoh or at least what I am following is formless. I believe that most Westerners and younger generations of Japanese artists that are doing butoh are very much caught in the aesthetic of what butoh is. I think true butoh breaks that form. Hijikata would change his work every season and every season his work would look nothing like it did the year before.

Hijikata had such a wide range; he never wanted to revisit and repeat, he was always being born.

There are some principles there that I think make good butoh dancers. I think it has something to do with what Denise said around the material, time space and process.

When I was with Natsu in Canada I asked what technique should I practice until I see you again? “Forget the technique” he said, “there is no technique.”

Akira said the best butoh he is seeing right now is coming out of American, it’s what you call street dancing, he’s talking about break dancers. He said It’s some of the best butoh he’s ever seen. butoh has something to do with only the exact moment it has nothing to do with what came before or after that moment. It has to do with the exact moment that something is being born and at that exact moment something is also dying and somewhere in that is good butoh.

I look at Pina Bausch, I think her work is very butoh. It’s possible to watch ballet and have it be good butoh. butoh is not stuck in an aesthetic. Good butoh transcends the form and time. I don’t want anything but the good stuff.

It’s the exact moment of the now, and when you watch somebody doing that it’s fascinating. and it doesn’t matter what form they are doing. I think that’s why people watch sports, as a whole people are so obsessed with sports, it’s one of the places where we get to watch that happen, we get to watch that exact moment be born and die and look at how people go fucking nuts over it. I think there is something in creation that when we are able to see and feel it that it validates our existence somehow. Its exciting, you feel special you feel alive. That’s what I get out of butoh.

If after reading all of this information on butoh and you are interested in getting your feet wet, you should check out classes taught by Meshi Chavez and Mizu Desierto here in Portland.

There is also a series of workshops coming up in March called “Butoh College” sponsored by Mizu Desierto at The Headwaters. She will be bringing in five different butoh choreographers over three weeks. It is a rare opportunity.


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