Butoh performances affect my nervous system. Either my pulse slows or my skin begins to itch. I leave curiously uplifted or go home and have nightmares. Two back-to-back shows in this year’s New York Butoh Festival, presented by the intrepid arts organization and studio Cave, sent me into the street wrung out. The feeling might have been a kinesthetic response to the long solo Howl, co-choreographed by Berlin-based Yuko Kaseki and lighting designer–composer Marc Ates. Water is a potent force in Howl, periodically gushing down onto Kaseki’s head from a suspended pail, causing her face to squash into a wince and her body to sag. A shiny square on the floor becomes a pool in which she embarrassedly confronts her reflection. In the end, she’s caught in a no-win ordeal, trying to scrub the floor dry with her long robe, then wringing the water out. We laugh—she’s the naive clown, the holy fool who often appears in butoh—but in the wake of hurricanes we feel the hopelessness of her task.
All butoh’s stylistic elements are on view during the evening: ashy makeup, bald heads, distorted bodies and faces, extreme effort and control, nudity, slowed-down time, shadowy lighting, mystifying program notes. Yet in this predominantly dark, transgressive art form, which developed in 1960s Japan, moments of disturbing beauty push up like mushrooms through dank earth.
Butoh solos are arduous ritual journeys. An improvisation by two Colombian-born artists, Ximena Garnica and Juan Merchan—he tormentedly slow, she moving in rapid nervous bursts—suggests two private, intersecting odysseys. Kan Katsura begins his Time Machine suspended overhead in a fabric sling that he unmakes into a white cascade; he clambers down. Pools of light ring him in this difficult, unfamiliar world, where thudding percussion and windy cries resound. Supine, he strains upward. Braced on all fours, he waits. At the end of his hyper-tense assimilation of what might be new wisdom, he clambers back up the cloth. Azumaru, improvising with musician Jack Wright, explores the space, his own body, and the sounds Wright sputters into a beat-up sax. Prowling, Azumaru’s a handsome sight; undulating, mouth open in horror, he’s a rubber man. At one point he stands on his head, lifts his supporting hands, and crashes sideways to the floor straight as a tree.
Over seven years of performing, Masaki Iwana stood naked and motionless before audiences. Trying to read his beleaguered body in Beast of Grass is complex and baffling. When he lies tangled on the floor, one knee in the crook of an elbow, he’s a mess of hair, ropes, and body parts. A leg is tethered to one of five hanging streamers inscribed with words. Little bells hang off him on cords. An army cap tops his long hair. Small white clusters pasted to his body drop off as he moves. How long does it take him, squatting, to turn 180 degrees? An eternity. Losing one of the bells that he periodically shakes, he collapses with a groan. Every action is performed at a slow burn.
Kurt Jooss once denied that his masterpiece, The Green Table, was an anti-war tract. It’s hard to believe that of this work, composed in Germany in 1932. American Ballet Theatre’s striking revival couldn’t be more timely, with its posturing masked diplomats conjuring strife around the eponymous table displaying the smarmy politesse of headwaiters and the ruthlessness of spin doctors.
The diplomats’ scenes bookend Jooss’s modernist take on the medieval Dance of Death. War is the arena his skeletal death figure prowls—his reaping arms and scything legs harvesting soldiers on the battlefield, the loved ones they leave behind, and eventually, the slimy Profiteer who fattens himself on others’ misery. Brutally or touchingly, Death comes differently to each: He commands the firing squad that executes a female guerrilla; he becomes a courtly dance partner to a frightened old woman and a rapacious customer of a girl forced into a brothel.
Jooss wove these stories together with superb succinctness in a clear-edged
style that alludes to early modernist design, yet each character has his or her own way of moving. The two-piano score by Jooss’s musical collaborator F.A. Cohen has a similar brilliant clarity—it was in part the Nazi gaze turning on Cohen that prompted the choreographer’s sudden flight to England in 1933.
ABT’s production, supervised by Jooss’s daughter Anna Markard, is remarkable in many ways. David Hallberg is magnificent as Death, his usual princely elegance utterly transformed into ruthless, unemotional power. Other fine performances: Carmen Corella as the fighting Woman, Marian Butler as the Old Mother, Jennifer Alexander as the Young Girl, Carlos Lopez as the Profiteer (not quite nasty enough). Patrick Ogle is miscast as the Standard Bearer, who in past productions cut across the stage like an arrow. The soldiers’ battle and the diplomats’ wrangles seem slightly veiled, the designs not infused with intensity. And the pianists don’t emphasize the contrast between the aspects—argumentative and ingratiating—in the conference table scenes. Still, an artistic triumph and a wake-up call.