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For years before I had the opportunity to see the Japanese Butoh dance troupe Dairakudakan (http://www.geocities.co.jp/Hollywood-Stage/8138/rakudakan/top.html [inactive 12/04]) I had heard how their performances were must-see events for anyone interested in avant-garde theater or dance. When ADF brought Dairakudakan to Duke for an unusual off-festival performance a couple of years ago, I was able to appreciate that sentiment. This company explores the far reaches of weird, and takes the bizarre to an unusual level of refinement.
Butoh is a form of theatrical dance that looks on the dark side of life, but not in the Existentialist European manner. It is absurd, but in a manner less nasty and more strange than Dada. A comment that critics and reviewers have recently been making about Dairakudan's work is that it is full of "angst," but that is not quite correct. These pieces are much less concerned with anxiety or dread than they are with anguish - a far more powerful and dramatic emotion. Anguish and death are offset in the work by lust and humor, often sly and teasing in contrast to the sometimes ponderous or mechanical ritualistic movement.
One of the most striking conventions of Butoh is its minimal costuming and maximal make-up. All the dancers are covered head to toe with ghostly white and wear very little, often no more than a dance thong. At the opening of "Ryuba," the first of two pieces Dairakudakan presented in Page Auditorium on July 11, the thongs were the same color as the make-up. The men's heads were shaved smooth under the make-up, but the women sported wild bushes of uncombed black hair. The only color on the stage crowded with 21 dancers came from the red cords tied around wrists or ankles and similar cords stretching large animal skins onto frames that formed the background. Center stage a giant metal cross formed a higher platform; it was guyed to the rigging above and was sometimes raised and lowered to ominous effect.
Shuichi Chino's music propels the elaborate choreography by the group's leader, Akaji Maro. This driving music, rich with drumming, managed to sound at once ancient, ritualistic and futuristic, otherworldly and netherworldly. The dance was much the same. Insofar as it could be said to have a narrative, it seemed to be "about" the great cycle of life and death. There were scenes - things happened, unforgettable images unfolded. The dancers writhed and twisted, grimacing and popping their eyes wide; they rolled and tumbled; they came and went, returning in different guises. The women changed from white dance thongs to red, topped with tunics like frozen sea foam. One man became a musk-ox, another a large bird. Akaji Maro appeared mid-way through, looking like Dickens' Miss Havisham in all her mad consuming controlling sorrow.
Then he becomes a sea-foam man. Spears shoot down from above and lodge deeply into the ground. The animal men do mystical things. The cross rises and descends, the music swells and recedes, the women's mouths blossom out in wrinkled red cloths like anteater snouts. The men hide their heads behind lacquered fans. Meaning remains elusive, but its unseeable reality is affirmed by the evidence of bodies in motion. Who knows what it is about: What it is, is the human body, the body of humanity, beautifully grotesque and mysterious.
After "Ryuba," I found "Takara Jima" ("Treasure Island") slight and unsatisfactory. Choreographed and directed by younger company member Takuya Muramatsu, it utilized the same set as Ryuba, but transformed it into a ship. The dancers were all men, but the charismatic Akaji Mori was not among them. The five scenes of "Takara Jima" struck me as being less a fresh expression of the renegade philosophy of Dairakudan than a parody of it. The lust was coarse and the humor over-broad. Worse, there was no sense of mystical mystery. Worst of all, it was obvious where it should have been confounding. And the obvious quickly becomes boring.