Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Is it worthwhile being a clever tit?

Scientists have established that great tits are very clever birds - they seem to be adept at solving all kinds of puzzles in order to obtain tasty morsels of food. But one question that has perplexed the scientific community is whether their ability to solve problems is of any advantage to the little birds. After all, in the wild it is not particularly common for tasty morsels to be hidden inside a box that can only be opened by pulling on levers in an exact sequence. Could it be that all this great tit intelligence is just going to waste?

Dr John Quinn led a team that investigated this question while based in Oxford. They tested the ability of some great tits to solve problems and then tagged them with tiny radio transmitters and released them back into the wild. The scientists were then able to monitor the reproductive success or otherwise of the clever tits versus their less clever fellows.

The results were surprisingly inconclusive. Clever tits were more likely to produce a clutch of eggs, but they were also more likely to abandon their eggs. The scientists theorised that the clever birds were more likely to be frightened away from their nests than their more simple-minded fellows. The overall result was that there was no significant difference in reproductive success between more and less clever great tits.

But that is not the whole story, as there is more to success in life than an ability to spew forth progeny into the world (at least I hope so). The scientists found that the clever tits were able to spend far less of their time foraging for food and so were able to enjoy more leisure time than their less bright fellows.


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Monday, October 22, 2012

Dublin Butoh Festival Part 2: Short films and "The Speaking Body"

Part two of my visit to the Dublin Butoh festival. You can read part one here.

There followed an interval at which the organisers served us wine and bizarre Japanese sweets… strange green things made out of rice or green tea or something and brown things maybe dipped in cocoa with a hint of liquorice. I loved them. We then returned to the auditorium to watch more films. First up was Jesus Flower Death Life, a short piece on Kazuo Ohno. This seemed to have been filmed some time after An Offering to Heaven. In that one, Mr Ohno was 95 but clearly still lucid. In this his faculties seemed to have deserted him and in all the scenes in which he appeared he was unwakeably asleep, effectively dead to the world around him. The film began with a nurse undressing and cleaning him (all the while addressing him as "Sensei"). Then Japanese writing seemed to appear and flow over his body and arms, thanks I believe to the mystic power of CGI, with the words including the title of the film.

Then the film featured an odd Butoh performance by another guy (who turned out to be Kazuo Ohno's son), where he performed with a glove puppet of Kazuo Ohno to an audience that included a sleeping Kazuo Ohno. That performance ended with Kazuo Ohno being kissed by the puppet of himself, something that would have been very confusing had he chosen that moment to wake up. Then there was an extended shot of Mr Ohno sleeping in his chair… with one of his hands twisting in a manner suggesting that he was dreaming of Butoh.

The film as a whole did make me think how rare depictions of senility are in our culture, with senile famous people typically disappearing from view once their affliction stops them from being able to engage with the world around them. I suppose you could argue that having an unconscious man as an object in an art film was exploitative, but given how Kazuo Ohno had given his life to avant-garde artistic endeavour it struck me as the kind of thing he would approve of.

The other two films were Butoh-themed shorts submitted to the festival. Mal du Pays saw two guys in a room fading in and out while doing Butoh stuff as sand fell down between them. There Is There saw a woman in an outfit that looked like it was made of cotton wool roll around in something that looked like mud. Both of these were fascinating while I was watching them but left relatively little lasting impression. That sounds like damning with faint praise, not at all - watching them made for a great end to a wonderful evening and I would be happy to see such films again.

The next day my beloved and I made it to another event in the festival. This was an evening event entitled The Speaking Body, which comprised Poem of Phenomenon, a Butoh performance by Ken Mail, who is based in Finland.

We had to wait in the lobby before it started, which was a bit tiresome as the foyer was rather small and cramped. But it made sense when we went in, because Mr Mai was waiting for us in the part of the room designated as the stage. And he really was going for it in terms of the whole crazy Butoh-appearance thing, as he was wearing white make-up and had wild black hair and was in and oddly constricting tunic-like costume. The connotations might be different in Japan, but he looked very goth (80s art goth more than 2000s metal flouncey goth).

He did the very slow precise movement thing, eventually sliding out of his tunic thing, revealing that underneath it he was wearing white tights and a corset. Eventually he lost his corset too and his wiry musculature became a key part of the show.

There were a couple of differences between Ken Mai's performance and that of Ambra Bergamasco the night before. For one thing there was the more extreme clothing and make-up of Mr Mai. Another was that he was performing to an accompaniment of recorded music (electronic and strange) while Ms Bergamasco performed to ambient sound. And another was distance - the previous night had seen Ms Bergamasco come very close to the audience, almost on top of us at times, while Mr Mai remained much further away. The contrasts made me feel like a great range of Butoh experience was being served up over the two nights.

I think perhaps the combination of the music, the greater physical distance, the strange make-up, and the extreme lighting gave Ken Mai's performance an almost ritualistic atmosphere. His movement was so subtle that he seemed to imperceptibly travel from one space to another, reminding me of the Shrike from Dan Simmons' Hyperion novels. His revealing clothing (once the initial tunic had gone) exposed the workings of his body and made it plain how demanding and strenuous the whole exercise was. Overall this was an incredibly immersive and endlessly intriguing performance.

Poem of Phenomenon was followed by more wine and funny Japanese sweets. For me that was the end of the festival, though there were more workshops and film shows on the next day.

The festival organisers continue to run Butoh themed events, so if my review piques your interest then hava look at their website. Next April they are bringing over Iwashita Toru, a member of the Sankai Juku group, for another performance and workshop - I reckon that would be well worth attending. There appear also to be ongoing workshops with Ambra Bergamasco.

See also Ken Mai's website and blog, from whence come the images of him. I particularly recommend the blog to people who like photographs.

While preparing this, I learned that both Yukio Nakagawa and Kazuo Ohno have died since the films mentioned above in which they appeared. Farewell.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dublin Butoh Festival Part 1: "An Offering To Heaven" and "Vulnerably Raw"

I went to some performance in the first Dublin Butoh Festival recently. But what is Butoh? Well, it is a form of Japanese modern dance that was invented by this guy called Kazuo Ohno in the 1950s. Butoh is characterised by very slow and deliberate movements and seems to often be performed without musical accompaniment. In my very limited exposure to the form, the dancers sometimes are made up in a very striking fashion, though this seems not to be essential. I have the vague idea that originally Butoh was some kind of response to the destruction wreaked on Japan in the Second World War, but with the passage of time it has become a bit less situated in that particular historical epoch.

I myself am something of an expert on Butoh, having once some Japanese guys called Sankai Juku performing a Butoh piece called Hibiki in the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2007, reading the programme to obtain a background understanding of the form. On that occasion there were was no musical accompaniment as such, just the sound of running water, and the dancers were indeed dressed and made up in a strange and austere manner that complemented the minimalist movements they made. Sadly there were several event people in the audience who lost interest as soon as they realised how avant-garde it all was, and after shuffling in their seats a bit they made their way to the exits. The Butoh itself was fascinating. I had never seen anything like it before and I suspected that I would probably never see its like again either.

But then I received an e-mail saying that a Butoh Festival was about to take place in Dublin, with the events taking place in the Back Loft, an exhibition space in an industrial building converted into artists' studios. I resolved to attend.

The first thing I went to was a selection of short films and one live performance under the umbrella title Dancing Senses. First up was a film called An Offering To Heaven about Yukio Nakagawa, a non-conformist flower arranger from Japan. That immediately struck me with how Japan is different from here, in that I could not imagine Irish flower-arranging having its own radical avant-garde.

The film partly presented a profile of Mr Nakagawa and partly showed up as he worked up to a big event, collaboration with Kazuo Ohno. Mr Ohno was to perform in the open air while a helicopter flew overhead and dropped half a million flower petals down over him. While obviously such a thing largely works as a conceptual piece, it was interesting to watch the practicalities of it unfold. Where do you get that many flower petals? What happens if the weather does not play ball? And so on.

Another striking feature of the Ohno-Nakagawa collaboration was how old and infirm they both were. Nakagawa suffers from spinal problems since his childhood, but this was not too much of a problem for his artistic work. Mr Ohno, however, was 95 when the collaboration took place and was wheelchair bound. Undeterred, he just did his dancing while sitting in a chair.

That was followed by Vulnerably Raw, a dance piece by Ambra Bergamasco. For this, the audience were sat in armchairs. Ms Bergamasco came in from a door in a corner to the back left of the room and then moved very slowly in front of us. There was no musical or other sonic accompaniment apart from the ambient sounds of the room - creaking chairs and floorboards and the click of the shutter on the camera of the official photographer. In contrast to the Butoh piece I saw in 2007, the dancer's make-up and clothing was not particularly extreme - she was wearing an attractive dress and did not have any kind of austere make-up, with the one immediately odd feature of her appearance being that she was wearing just one stocking.

With art sometimes the viewer projects meaning and context where it might not have been intended by the artist. In this case, Ms Bergamasco's entrance through a door that closed behind her, her slow movement along to the front of the audience, and the shadow projected on the wall behind her put me in mind of one thing - Nosferatu, the German expressionist horror film directed by F. W. Murnau. That the dancer looked nothing like Nosferatu (unlike a great many other Butoh performers) made this a more bizarre juxtaposition.

The overall performance was slow and intense. Some of the actions suggested a meaning outside of the pure abstraction of the dance, but nothing directly obvious sprang to my mind, though some of it did seem to lean into a somewhat sexual area. And there was some audience participation - at one point she squatted on a pile of yellow melons, basically pretending to be a chicken, and then gave out the melon-eggs to members of the audience, including me. This reminded me of how avant-garde art can often be kind of funny but in a way that requires everyone to pretend not to notice this.

At the end of her piece the dancer was sitting in a pre-arranged circle of flowers more or less directly in front of me, so close for me that she almost stopped being a whole person and became a collection of individual body parts. And then the performance was over. From Ms Bergamasco's demeanour at the end it seemed that this had been a very emotionally draining for her. For me and I think also the rest of the audience it was a demanding but intensely rewarding piece of work.

See also:

Butoh Festival website

Sankai Juku's minimal website

Yukio Nakagawa website

Kazuo Ohno image source

Ambra Bergamasco image source

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Sunday, October 14, 2012

They Saw Me Coming - Things I Brought Back From Egypt

A jellabiya
A sunhat
Some post cards (unsent because I had forgotten my address book)
A copy of the English version of the Al Ahram newspaper
A scarf
A face flannel
A Concise History of Egypt (listing all the Pharaohs and other rulers)
Photos of Abu Simbel
A scarf
Photos of members of our tour group, including myself, dressed up for a "Jellabiya Party" on our Nile cruise boat
An American University of Cairo printing of The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany
An American University of Cairo printing of Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, by Naguib Mahfouz
A t-shirt from Animal Care in Egypt (ACE)
An ACE badge
A copy of The Black Corridor, by Michael Moorcock
A white short-sleeved shirt (made the very night before I bought it, hence the special price)
A CD entitled Music from Nubia
Ya Mesahharny, a CD by Oum Kalthoum
An Anubis fridge magnet
A Horus fridge magnet
A Scarab fridge magnet
Two Nubian bracelets
Two Nubian necklaces
An Eye of Horus fridge magnet
An Akhenaton bookmark
A paperback copy of David Roberts' A Journey in Egypt
A bust of some ancient Egyptian person
A Pyramids and Sphinx set
A Pyramids set
A Tutankhamen bust
An alabaster candleholder
Two glazed Scarabs
A Horus tote bag