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The San Francisco Butoh Festival August 5-8, 1999

Pamela Z

I spent a lot of time at Kazuo OHNO's butoh studio during my six months in Japan this year. Many of the friends I met there would ask if there was any butoh going on in San Francisco, and were amazed and impressed when I'd tell them that we actually have an international butoh festival here annually. d-Net's festival is actually in it's fifth year now, and this year's abundant offering has ODC's intimate space bursting at the seams!

The festival's lineup has included ensemble pieces by seasoned SF Bay Area mainstays like Harupin Ha, and young, developing companies like COLLAPSINGsilence, as well as a host of works by international ensembles and solo performers. Some of the images conjured by these bodies on stage were more stunning than others but, for me, the most powerful were solo works by strong, grounded performers.

Oakland's Leigh Evans ("Red Rivers Run Madly to the Sea"-- the first portion of the Friday evening program) was stellar. She is truly amazing. She's not "good". She's amazing. The music she used was appropriately powerful. "Part 1" used music by Carla Kihlstadt-- who's sparse score sounded like the unearthly rattling of found objects followed by intense, layered solo violin, and part 2 was an unaccompanied, haunting vocal recording performed by Tibetan nuns. Ms. Evans did her brilliant dance in an amazingly regal costume made (with the help of costumer Andrea Serrahn) of things she literally dragged out of the sea (seaweed, plastic garbage, etc.) which was a work in and of itself. Leigh Evans' movement is incredibly strong and her presence is unparalleled by anyone else I saw on the stage that night (even though some of the other dancing was quite good.) I think the power in her art owes a lot to the years of work she has done in several different Asian movement forms, and to her ability to synthesize those into a style that has continuity and individuality, rather than just pasting someone else's culture onto some western work like a condiment to dress it up. She is really otherworldly when she dances. I don't mean "other-part-of-the-worldly", I mean OTHERworldly. She's an alien on Earth, I think. (Or some creature that crawled from the center of the Earth perhaps.) In any case, I think she has a cord attached to the center of her gut that goes all the way down to the center of the earth where it's anchored to keep her from floating away off of it.

The first evening was also mixed for me. I enjoyed the whole thing, but I was riveted, in this case, by the second half. The performer (Anzu Furukawa) did an awe inspiring solo performance, which I was later told had lasted a full hour. I did not perceive that time going by. I might have guessed that it was perhaps a half hour, but frankly I didn't think about that at all until someone pointed out the time afterwards in the lobby saying, "we went in for the second half at 9 and now it's 10!" Her movements (even the subtle ones at the opening of her piece that suggested the behavior of a person straining not to fall asleep in a public place) were all at such an intensity level that every eye in the house was trained undistractedly on her. She could send ripples of reactions through the entire room with only the movements of her eyeballs at certain moments. Her movements gradually expanded from things she could do sitting at a chair behind a table (which in and of themselves were expansive), to movement that painstakingly carried her across the room and back. I was very inspired by her work. She did tempt fate, however, in a way that I thought perhaps unnecessary. Her table, which held a candelabra, was positioned too close to one of the legs that draped the stage left side. Her movement, at one point, moved the table too much so that the flame was too close to the curtain for comfort. I don't think that was her intention. I think the table was not supposed to move when she was working on it, but it did and she continued dancing. Finally, the Theatre Director at ODC took the initiative to simply walk across the stage and adjust the curtain so that it was not so dangerously close to the flame. The whole room sighed a sigh of relief for that. I don't think our lives were really in danger, but I don't think one can be too careful about something like that. All that aside, Ms. Furakawa's performance was strong enough that we could almost instantly forget about the momentary intrusion of a non-performer's body in playing area, and we were back with her immediately. I left the theatre with images of her focused movement as deeply etched on my memory as the Traviata aria ("Sempre Libera..") she used in the final section of the piece.

The final day of performances in the Butoh Festival was a long one! I'm not sure that programming a marathon format (from early afternoon to evening) is advisable in the case of Butoh.  Even though the wide range of practitioners has somewhat broadened the scope of the form, it is still a bit slow for sitting through and entire marathon. I also think that any given piece presented in that circumstance stands to suffer from too much comparison to too many other works, and the delicate arc of a given piece can be lost when you've seen too many others preceding it or following it. But there were some incredibly powerful and beautiful pieces (or moments in pieces) that made the day worth it to me.  I was also impressed by the choices of music for many of the pieces. There was good representation of the new music and sound art world including recordings by such composers as Helen Thorington, Brenda Hutchinson, and Michael Gordon, as well as live performance by kotoist Shoko Hikage. The Butoh work presented was wide-ranging indeed, and included fleeting moments of humor and irony that added buoyancy to the long hours of intensity.

Kinji Hayashi gave a serene, yet playful performance on the street which ended with coaxing members of the audience to use chalk to trace his form on the sidewalk and wall, and eventually to join him in sprawling their bodies and tracing one another. They left a brightly coloured "scene of the crime" when they headed for the gallery for the rest of the days programming. The rest of the day was too full for me to detail here, but some highlights for me included

I could go on, but suffice it to say, it was a full, if tiring day of performance works. And the festival as a whole was "a feast of GOOD Butoh"- the dark dance!

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