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.

An inuit panda production


Katrin said...

Ian, thank you so much for your insight into the Festival! We really appreciate your review :)
The sticky funny sweets are to be found in Asia Market on Drury Lane, in case you need a refill, we're happy to get you some!
We linked from our website to your blog and facebook, so hopefully more people can read your article.
Katrin / ButohDublin

ian Moore said...

Hi Katrin, thanks for the comment and the link, and for putting on the festival.

I've got to get me some more of those funny sweets. To Asia Market with me!