Butoh began in Japan at the end of the 1950s as outsider art; “Dance of Darkness,” its creator Tatsumi Hijikata called it. His transgressive performances aimed to strip the body of refinement and cultivated expertise, purge the Japanese mind of Western values, and return mind and body to a primal state. Images of death, decay, degradation, and deformation created powerful, sometimes shocking art. Carried on by others both in Japan and elsewhere, butoh became a form with its own traditions and, gradually, concessions to audiences who were appalled by chicken fucking and Hijikata’s other extreme acts.
But butoh has always had a humorous side—often reminiscent of children’s craziness. It’s not for nothing that the name of Dairakudakan, the highly theatrical ensemble founded by Akaji Maro 30 years ago, translates as “The Great Camel Battleship.” Kumotaro Mukai’s Universe of Darah—Return of the Jar Odyssey—one of two pieces the company brought to the U.S. on this visit—features nine men (the other is an all-female work). In what might be a wacky and entrancingly irrational sci-fi adventure, four clay-washed men rev up by running fiercely in place and grasping imaginary steering wheels, bringing to mind the folk image of dancing skeletons. When they materialize—presumably from the tiny toy spaceship that chugs onstage before we see them—wearing globs of clear plastic as helmets, and investigate a reposing, self-satisfied, rabbit-eared inhabitant of the moon (Ikko Tamura), their silver Geiger counters are decidedly homemade; one is tipped with a strainer, another with a spatula. When the moon-man thunks them repeatedly on the head with one of their tools, they howl silently and pile up; it’s like an elegantly sketched Looney Tune, lacking only the sound effects.
Although the goings-on could lend themselves to exegesis, it also seems appropriate to see them as phenomena that sprout from worlds in riotous disarray. “Bald Alice” (choreographer Mukai, in a short frock and red shoes) stumbles about—extravagantly pigeon-toed, unaccountably graceful—bearing a large brain that, placed on “her” shoulders and seen from behind, appears to replace her own head. Smiling winningly, she sets it down and pulls daintily at the red veins that trail from it. The “Time Machine Man” (Takuya Muramatsu), who has an artificially stretched mouth that makes him look like a frog, as well as yellow goggles fringed with yellow lashes, gets elaborately involved with a golden folding chair.
Sliding doors at the back open and close—to reveal, suck in, permit entrances, and sometimes just to move for the hell of it. A “Queen” (Atsushi Matsuda) in platform shoes, accompanied by a fancily dressed servant (Azumaru), strips off a long red evening dress to disclose that the suspicious bump under it is a giant erect penis in a bush of dark feathers (perhaps in homage to Hijikata’s huge gold strap-on penis of yore); this vision incites the four ensemble men to an outburst of humping among themselves. A Puccini aria takes over from blistering techno-pop. The kidnapped moon man acquires a red baseball cap. Blowjobs seem to be given. The brain is exalted. In the end, all cluster around fallen Alice. Who knows what’s in store for her in this demented Wonderland? Or what these souls will worship next?
It’s worth arriving early for the Tap City 2003 gala on July 16, just to hang out in the hall and see who’s moved to do a little sneaker-footed shuffling or watch Harold Cromer muster up a wicked rhythm sitting in a chair. Tap is one of the few virtuosic dance forms in the Western world that doesn’t vaunt youth and retire its performers long before their prime as human beings. To be sure, the festival teemed with classes, two evening performance were devoted to “tap future,” and at the gala, three young ladies from the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble pounded their feet and lifted their legs high. But the all-ages crowd is especially thrilled when, at the evening’s close, Ernest “Brownie” Brown, a bit smaller and more bent than he was back in the last century, comes up out of the audience and lets his rubber-soled shoes fly. We love it when Mable Lee emerges, high-heeled and nattily dressed in black, with a rhinestone-banded bowler hat on her gray hair, to pair up with Tony Waag, executive director of the American Tap Dance Foundation and the evening’s emcee. The two are an elegant soft-shoe pair, teasing each other, chatting up the audience, and loving their sweet reminiscence of “Strollin’ Down Broadway,” with Lee turning amazingly rubbery for a second in fond memory of Cab Calloway. Although Dr. Jimmy Slyde may put down his own tapping in asides to the audience and hold his back in mock arthritic pain, his nimble legs and articulate feet still slide over that floor and tap fancy little love messages into it with vigor, assurance, and mastery.
Paris-based Sarah Petronio looks like a woman who might teach your favorite college English class, but there she is, trim in sparkly black pants and brown shoes made for magic, glowing with joyous sweat and tapping like an angel. Petronio tackles Thelonius Monk as if she were another instrument playing along with Larry Ham on piano, Earl May on bass, and Eddie Ornowski on drums—pausing to let them shine, slipping her taps wisely into the rich musical texture.
Some of the music-tap dialogues are unconventional. Kazu Kumagai begins and ends his number accompanied by Qing Hua Zhang on Chinese flute, although in between he’s on his own, with a virtuosic spraddle-legged style that sometimes plays speed of feet against an overall impression of slowness. When Walter Freeman dances in an easygoing, assertive manner with acrobatic highlights, his wife, Lisa Freeman, plays the violin. Brenda Bufalino and singer Jay Clayton do a magical turn together—Bufalino speaking poetically of a blue heron she sees, her arms winging as she starts to tap, and Clayton feathering bird calls in and out of scat singing. An electronic delay allows Bufalino to dialogue with her own nimble tapping as well. The number flies.
Savion Glover brings on a young woman with a sax, and mumbles her name (something like Matana). They face each other, profiles to the audience, a short distance apart, and never budge. This is pomo tap: no charm, no traveling around the stage, little shading. Glover hunkers down and sets his feet going—hard, strong, intricate, hardly ever letting up. It’s tap as power, as ordeal, as a spell.
Gregory Hines can’t come to dance his tribute to Sammy Davis Jr., but the four women of Barbara Duffy & Company deliver some of Hines’s choreography with brio; Waag sings “What Kind of Fool Am I,” and Regio “The Hoofer” McLaughlin delivers “Mr. Bojangles” to bring the whole cast back on so we can applaud and cheer for them some more. All ages, all races, all genders—in love with the glorious sound of metal on wood.