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2019 New York Butoh Institute Festival offers up Trance-like Beauty

by Bonnie Rosenstock
October 25, 2019
Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-1109
The New York Butoh Institute Festival 2019, curated by Butoh specialist Vangeline, took place from October 10 to October 27 to mark the 60th anniversary of this avant-garde Japanese art form. Although there were many events offered with the celebration, such as workshops and master classes, I attended only one performance on October 18. Since I knew virtually nothing about Butoh, I referred to its meaning: “A form of Japanese dance theater that encompasses a diverse range of activities, techniques and motivations for dance performance or movement.” It was vague and unhelpful.

I discovered that Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno are credited with Butoh’s creation in 1959. In postwar Japan, they rejected traditional Japanese dance forms, like Noh, as well as the influences of Western ballet and contemporary dance, and sought to get back to the natural movements of the common people. Hijikata concentrated on the internal nervous system and group work, while Ohno was more of a naturalist and influenced solo artists.

The Brooklyn-based Vangeline, a Butoh teacher, dancer, choreographer and artistic director of the Vangeline Theater, is a leader in the preservation of the traditions of Butoh, while ushering it into the 21st century through workshops, community building and performances. The festival dance program, subheaded “Bold. Butoh. Women,” presented the works of contemporary Butoh artists from here and abroad.

The three solo performances I saw all had similarities: slow, controlled, almost trancelike movements (being moved rather than consciously moving), isolation of body parts and profound internal discipline, providing a powerful movement meditation. They were riveting, strange, unsettling and powerful.

Melissa Lohman’s “Vessel and Void,” which she conceived and performed in the nude, her only prop a gigantic phallic object covered in black cloth, which she lay on, embraced, clung to, straddled, rode like a horse, upended to vertical, walked around and lay next to on the stage floor. She began in stillness, her long lanky body stretched out across the “divan,” her back to the audience, like Goya’s Naked Maja in reverse. There is a slight buzz of sound. She moved ever so slowly through space, stretching, arching, engaging her torso, raising her arms overhead and to the side, sitting on her heels. Most of the time she performed with her back to the audience, except when she turned sideways in motionless silhouette or walked back and forth across the stage. She repeated the word “Nothing,” stressing all ways to say it. In the program, she is quoted, “The presence of darkness, pushing, dynamic. A vessel overturned contains the void. I cannot know all that I contain.”

Eri Chan, a dancer from Osaka, Japan, choreographed and performed “Mogari.” She is a proponent of Butoh created by Hijikata. “Mogari” means “wake,” i.e., “the act of mourning for the deceased.” She performed in traditional Japanese white face, wearing a black kimono and had two long sticks in her hair with flowers at one end. At first, she looked like a big package on the floor rounded over in a child’s pose. She slowly made her way to her feet. Her movement repertoire favored standing mostly in place, changing her weight distribution to accommodate moving her torso and arms in various positions. She chanted while bent over. Her shadow loomed large on the black curtain behind her.

Before Sindy Butz’s performance began, an usher brought around a basket containing white sheets of paper for the audience to select. Each paper contained a black feather and a smear of fragrant perfume, which she said was Butz’s own recipe. East Berlin-born (before the fall of the Berlin Wall), New York-based Butz choreographed and performed “Hildergardis!”, her homage to Saint Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German Benedictine abbess, polymath, composer, poet, philosopher, writer, artist, botanist, also known for her mystical visions and prophecies. She was finally canonized in 2012 and declared doctor of the church for her doctrinal writings, only one of four women to receive this honor.

Butz was dressed all in white, including a head covering which framed her face. She lay in a corpse pose on the floor. There was slight movement in her legs, her head came up and back down several times, her breathing barely perceptible. She arched up, a little faster. The music built to an ear-splitting crescendo and then blackout. When the lights came back on, Butz was on her knees, praying. The sound of church bells, a man reciting a liturgy, birds chirping. Standing, she walked about the stage with a rock music track, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” and others. Music arrangements of Hildegard’s compositions were by Jason Forrest. At the finale, she opened her mouth in a pained expression, arms stretched out.
Vangeline.

Vangeline.

Photo © & courtesy of Matthew Placek


Eri Chian.

Eri Chian.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Blase


Melissa Lohman.

Melissa Lohman.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Blase


Sindy Butz.

Sindy Butz.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Blase

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