Strange Partners


Butoh does not always conform to its reputation as a “dance of darkness.” Akira Kasai, making his New York debut with Pollen Revolution at Japan Society in April, danced in the persona of a holy fool, or a sly adult channeling a wild child. In this, he most resembles Kazuo Ohno, once his mentor. Not for him the intense distortions of Muteki-sha or the stately theatrical rituals of Sankai Juku; he’s less a twisted tree than a nimble elf. With supple, uplifted arms and spreading fingers, his rapt gaze sights marvels all around. The influence of eurythmy, which he studied in Stuttgart and teaches in Japan, is revealed by his interest in the sounds of words and his fluid gestures, swooping paths, and leaps.

Kasai begins his solo costumed like a woman in a kabuki drama. His body understands the sinuous complexity of onnagata behavior. Like the traditional male performers of female roles, he takes tiny, sliding steps, settles into sinuous curves, sinks in unknown complications of emotions. But another persona—bolder and harsher—flashes out occasionally. Kei Shii’s music dredges up the sounds of samisen and voice amid spare electronic effects. As in traditional kabuki, black-clad stagehands remove Kasai’s kimono, but then dress him in shirt and trousers and free his halo of reddened hair.

Kasai improvises on a set structure. Often he plays to us. He speaks a few words in English, German, or Japanese—”beginning of heaven,” “New York, Lexington Street.” Turning 59 this year, he’s remarkably limber, wheeling through a series of handstands. For the last part, he slips into a white suit offered by invisible offstage helpers. Nothing much changes, except that snow (or pollen) drifts down around him. The curtain call is a show in itself: Still dancing, he rips flowers from the bouquets he’s offered and hurls them about. He’s been performing for an hour and 40 minutes, magicking the weight of time away.

Why is flamenco so popular in Japan? Perhaps because it shares with Japanese classical forms the power of sudden stillness, the pouncing on movement, the controlled ferocity. In New York, Shigeko Suga has been blending Japanese and Spanish forms in theater pieces since 1991. Her latest work (at La MaMa through Sunday) was inspired by Arthur Kopit’s play Wings. As in that work, the leading character in her SiguiriyaThe Heart Beats is immobilized by a stroke, but she’s not an aviatrix like Kopit’s heroine; she’s a flamenco dancer and relives that passion in her head.

Those visions mingle strangely with events both real and unreal. Flamenco becomes the metaphor for health and power, butoh for the deformations of body and spirit through illness, the inchoate cries of the immobilized flesh. At the beginning of this flawed but engrossing work, “Maria Cortez” (Naomi Shibata) joins Anaya and Kumi Kuwahata in a sevillanas, surrounded by an olé-shouting, hand-clapping crowd. She collapses and is undressed and dragged back to a chair, where she sprawls, limp-legged. But her past splendor is portrayed by the beautiful Mieko Seto, a far more accomplished flamenco dancer than Shibata. Perhaps memory aggrandizes her.

Antonio Cerezo, Aundré Chin, Mitsunari Sakamoto, and Lisa Ann Williamson also play hospital attendants, patients, and a Greek chorus. Bret Boyle is not only the doctor, but a brief parade of friends and greedy relatives. Through it all, Shibata twitches on her chair (she’s wonderful at suggesting inexpressible memories). Minouche Waring wanders through as the voice of the sick woman—although without the program, who’d know who she was? Mystifyingly, this arresting woman speaks words of classic French ballads, like “Non, je ne regrette rien,” as if they were major poetry.

The music—although earsplittingly amplified—is of enormous help in creating drama and mood. Some is drawn from recordings, some created live by singer-guitarist Cristian Puig and percussion players. Seto’s dancing is impressive, especially in the last Siguiriyas de Maria, which she performs in a dress with a ruffled train (maybe the “Maria” refers not to the character but to the late Maria Alba, who is credited with some of the choreography). Perhaps—although the ending is unclear—the memory heals the sick woman; you could almost believe it possible.

Much has been made of Ohad Naharin’s disagreement with Israel’s position in regard to the Palestinians and his use of music by Arab composer Habib Allah Jamal for Naharin’s Virus, the choreographer’s latest work for Batsheva, the Tel Aviv-based company he directs. During the company’s recent performances at BAM, when tentative nuzzling between pairs of dancers turns to struggle, or when all of them race to a gray wall at the back and start scrawling things on it, or when someone scratches a stain of red chalk amid the white, or when a woman screams, it is possible to intuit allusions to the current, horrendous conflict.

I think that to perceive politics at the core of the dance is a mistake. The virus is, in a sense, Naharin’s movement and how it affects dancers, how they translate it. That style is sketched for us by a large white fabric puppet (tubes for torso and arms), pressed into life by intermittent blasts of air from a hidden fan beneath it. Suddenly straightening, then rippling and wilting, it does a mesmerizing dance. The live performers, too, combine earthiness with liquidity. Their arms and torsos are so mobile that it’s hard to believe all 17 performers can move in precise unison.

And what is the piece about? The use of Peter Handke’s 1966 absurdist play, Offending the Audience, admonishes us to have no expectations; we will see no play. The word-dense text, intermittently delivered by Jesper Thirup Hansen, says such increasingly maddening things as “The non-existent door does not represent a non-existent door.” At the end, Hansen also strives to offend us with a long litany of insults: ” . . . you abortions, you bitches and bastards, you nothings, you thingamajigs.” The dancing plays against this, yet collides with it: We become intensely aware of ourselves as spectators and of our desire for meaning. As striking and eloquently performed as Naharin’s Virus is, it’s also purposely diffuse; hints of narrative dissolve before you can grasp them. A few dancers tell personal stories, some execute brief solos, but we barely begin to know them as individuals. In the marvelous beginning, while Hansen, in a white suit, stands stiffly atop the eight-foot wall, Kristin Francke (wearing Rakefet Levy’s curious uniform of white, gloved leotards with black, footed leggings drawn up to mid-thigh) moves slowly, undulatingly, along it, drawing lines with white chalk that sometimes trace her head or one arm, but never stop and never finish a shape. Before long, Hansen, shockingly, slips from behind his suit (thus revealed as a free-standing object) and joins the other dancers. In another striking moment a microphone is dangled above Chisato Ohno’s head, and as it moves lower and lower, forcing her down against the wall, she utters a barrage of bizarre noises.

The work’s stunning and disturbing surface prods you to look for depths, even while warning you that there are none.