The 1 Festival: Summertime butoh

Mizu Desierto

Mizu Desierto's dance in New Women in Butoh took a turn from the bucolic to the darker side. Credit: Nicolle Clemetson



Friday night, when Portlanders intoxicated by the spirit of sweet summer were thronging the city’s parks, clubs and ale houses, I paused for a bracing show of new butoh work at the Headwaters Theatre in the far north of town.

Butoh, so spare and intense, isn’t exactly a summer treat usually, but New Women in Butoh, the first mainstage show in The 1 Festival seemed entirely appropriate to the season — fresh and at times even comic.

Even though I’m far from an expert on the form, I’m attracted to butoh. When I think of butoh artists (or dancers or actors — they are hard to categorize), I think of those undersea hydrothermal vents. Biologists have discovered bacteria growing on those vents, feeding somehow on the hot sulphur compounds that jet out of them. Some scientists have even theorized that life on the planet may have begun around hydrothermal vents.

Butoh artists are like those bacteria. Instead of sulphur, they are feeding on the synaptic chatter that crackles randomly inside the human brain — sense data, fragments of experience, chunks of the symbolic world, deep monkey memory, dreams, fears and frankly stuff that the symbolic world, represented here by me typing, can’t name. Talk about toxic brew. They seize bits of it and somehow reflect, remedy and make it food through the processes of butoh.

And butoh often takes place in extreme environments, too — caves, deserts, suspended from ropes on the sides of buildings). The artists frequently wear white body make-up, they grimace and chew, their eyeballs disappear and their lids flutter, they assume impossible positions which they hold for impossible amounts of time, to trembling and beyond. Butoh owes something to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Jean Genet, Yukio Mishima and de Sade. The first butoh dance was created by Tatsumi Hijikata in 1959 and dealt with homosexuality and pedophilia, though apparently the crowd was most upset by reports that a chicken in the performance died of strangulation.

As it has evolved, butoh has become sparer and harder to “read.” But the ideas of the four women who performed at The Headwaters, which is a small, comfortable theater carved out of an old industrial building alongside the railroads tracks in north Portland, weren’t obscure, though the program was helpful in figuring things out.

Vangeline, for example, a New York-based artist, based her piece on her small town, which had once been a thriving  cotton mill town, before the factory closed down. She started with her back to the audience (a common enough butoh trope). She was wearing a voluminous dress with a bustle (I think), her long gray hair streaming down her back. The music was ghostly, and very slowly she rose from the ground, shaking with the effort, running her hands through her hair, and we discover she is holding a length of twine, which she stretches and allows to fall limp. This went on for a while, and then, oddly, Elvis started singing, “Wise men say, only fools rush in,” and she turned toward us full face for the first time. Her eyes were surrounded by red make-up, her fingers locked into a painful splay, her mouth achieving a sort of rictus, broken by chewing. The ghosts of the mill workers? Maybe that would be a little too literal, but, yes, maybe.

Kat MacMillan began the program wearing a red dress and with her back to us as well. Her wrists were bound together behind her and the cord was attached to a small oblong white bundle. Red petals were scattered beneath her. The performance communicated through the strain on MacMillan’s back muscles, at first, and then moved down her torso as she bent forward at the waist and then bent at the knees, millimeter by millimeter, accumulating tension, never releasing it. She stepped through the cord that bound her, almost cradled the bundle, which was just smaller than baby-sized, raised it high over head with both hands, held it with one and brought the other hand back down over her heart.

What did we see? I’m not sure, but butoh like other dance forms communicates through the body, I think, more than through the mind. My body understood something and created a familiar nervous system response, a network of anxiety, grief and tension.

MacMillan was followed on the program by Sheri Brown, who brought an entirely different spirit to the evening, though it took us a while to catch on as she began the piece in a slow march from one side of the stage to the other. Just to reiterate: Butoh’s default speed is slowest, though it occasionally revs up to slower and in rare moments achieves just plain slow. About the time Brown hit the stage floor and started “exploding” into a series of spasms, we started to get that the white make-up she wore should be considered a form of clown make-up.

Brown moved into the audience, gathered a small child and few intrepid souls and led them back to the stage. She summoned a few more, then more, and pretty soon we were all making our way out into the beautiful evening. Brown shed her butoh robes for her skivvies and suddenly bolted, barefoot I think, down the railroad tracks behind the theater. She must have picked up a rock, because when she bolted back, she threw it into a pile of bricks that supported a discarded piece of lumber, nails protruding from the back. She climbed over a ladder and into a patio, where she was met by an accomplice, who poured her a glass of wine, which she lifted in our direction before sipping. I wouldn’t say that Brown was parodying butoh, exactly, but she was having a bit of fun with its familiar elements, which was just fine.

The Headwaters is home base for Mizu Desierto, who organized The 1 Festival, and she closed the evening with a complex multi-media dance, which included rural scenes behind projected onto a screen behind the stage. Laundry drying in the wind and goats figured prominently, and old-timey banjo music, which fit the old-timey dress Desierto wore as she sang “Skip to the Lou,” which is a darker song than maybe you remember, especially if you swap “lover” for “partner” in the line, “Lost my partner, what’ll I do?” The clouds and music darken, the sexy swaying stops, a basket of laundry produced a canteloupe, which Desierto held under her apron. The basket tipped and apples tumbled out.

Suddenly, the rural farmer’s daughter pastorale became something else altogether, and butoh took over, a dance of the distraught, the tortured, a walk in the woods transformed into something malevolent. Even the goats, when they return in the video, seemed to be presentiments of something horrible.

I like Desierto’s adaptation of butoh process and forms to her own material. (I’m imagining a Felix having a butoh moment in front of Oscar in The Odd Couple, and it works!) As the program suggested, butoh can’t survive on guys in loincloths moving glacially in the desert. All four of the artists in New Women in Butoh engaged the form creatively, and the investigation was exciting.

The 1 Festival continues through July 17, with a series of solo performances in theater and dance. Anne Adams previewed the festival and profiled Mizu Desierto for Portland Monthly.

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