Friday, August 1, 2008

Tactile Delights in Butoh Time

Posted in Review with tags butoh, Nyoba Kan, She Walks in Beauty Like the Night on 22 July 2008 by bhijjas

On Sunday evening I went to see Nyoba Kan’s new feature work She Walks in Beauty Like the Night, at the Annexe Central Market. Frankly, I am not a great fan of butoh. I blame my dislike upon being introduced to butoh at too young an age. Being forced to move across the floor at a snail’s pace was a torment not to be endured by a teenage dancer. I have not been able to eradicate that early prejudice, and even now I find a small dose of butoh can last me a long time. Therefore it was with some apprehension that I went to the Annexe, somewhat bolstered by the memory of seeing The Curse of the Forbidden Palace, Nyoba Kan’s performance last year, when the company transformed the galleries of the Annexe into grotesque depictions of the extravagance and cruelty of China’s last dynasty. But followers of Nyoba Kan do not expect to be disappointed by this small but dedicated company, and neither was I.

The first scene of the tripartite work was the most perfectly formed, expertly revealed by the lighting which came dimly from the burning filaments of naked bulbs scattered across the floor. The slow pace of butoh, what Pang Khee Teik, one of the managers of the Annexe and our compere for the evening, referred to as ‘butoh time’, allows a certain degree of attention to detail which cannot be enjoyed in other forms of dance. There is a particular sense of kinaesthetic empathy — in the slowness of the movement, you can feel what the dancer’s body must be feeling. As one flexed his little toe you feel a sympathetic twinge in the foot, as another puffed air into her cheeks you felt the stretching of the face. You appreciate the iron will which drives each movement — at this pace, bridging the gap between two low platforms from a crouched position is a marvellous feat of human engineering.

There are also wonderful textual sensations available from butoh, into which you can dive and wallow. In the first scene, as one of the dancers crouched she crushed her ostrich-like tutu around her waist, and the complex crunchings of the stiff fabric were palpable. As the dancers lifted their splayed feet into the air to display the soles of their feet covered, like the rest of them, with white makeup, I got a sense of powderiness on the skin. In the second scene, one of the dancers pressed her face carefully into a bowl of cold white rice – watching her, I was certain I knew exactly how it felt.

A sense of narrative also kept the first scene firmly on track. Swee Keong, in his familiar guise as guide and savant, sat meditating against the wall, while the demons of his fantasies cavorted like divas upon tiny individual red platforms. Gradually they become aware of the audience — it was like seeing a caged tiger turn and look you in the eyes. The yogi quelled them with a handful of flowers hurled through the air, and, mercifully, I felt, the demons’ attention shifted to the bare light bulbs dangling around them. Kuan Nam did a particularly good job here, transfixed by his light bulb with the air of a bemused cross-eyed kitten.

The second scene, in another gallery of the Annexe, was less successful. The lighting, in garish primary colours, did little to create an otherworldly atmosphere for the dancers’ demonic characters, and the geometric colour-theory video projection seemed like an unnatural imposition in a world otherwise composed of textured, organic creations.
In the third scene, Lena Ang, in a beautifully downy transparent dress, restored order and interest, blowing soap bubbles as Swee Keong tidied away the stage. It was a reworking of a similar conclusion in Nyoba Kan’s last feature performance in the Annexe, The Curse of the Forbidden Palace, in which Swee Keong mopped up after a messy durian-smothered orgy. I had also seen a similar motif in the Perfect Circle, the series of contemplative Buddhist scenes produced by Musical on Stage, in which the cast offered brooms to the audience, who were encouraged to help sweep the snow of polystyrene pellets from the stage. Surprisingly, in the Perfect Circle, some members of the audience actually declined to help, which seemed unnecessarily churlish after all the hard work of the cast, but Swee Keong’s smiling but commanding presence in the Nyoba Kan production could not be denied. The audience accepted the white floor fabrics he offered them and passed them backwards as meekly as children, delighted to be given the opportunity to be part of what was happening onstage.
The whole scene, in fact, resonated with childlike charm. Lena and Swee Keong treated every floating soap bubble with the wonder and respect that it deserved. There was also a powerful moment which dissolved the usual archetypal characters of butoh with a touch of real humanity – Swee Keong stroked his hand along Lena’s arm, and Lena, out of those enormously painted and beglittered snow queen eyes, gave him a look – and such a look! It made me long for greater interaction between the two, but it was over as soon as it began. Lena floated offstage, leaving Swee Keong in a last indulgent solo, accompanied by a video projection of his Chinese calligraphy work run backwards and sped up, so that it looked like the brush was sucking the art work off the page. In a masterful stroke, the final moment in the projection was slowed down, so that as the brush neared the last (or, rather, the first) stroke on the paper and the audience held its breath, time seemed suspended. And then, blackout.

The surprising thing about butoh is that despite the pace, I often feel as if there is not enough time to look at everything. The scale of attention shifts from the crude and flamboyant to the intimate and subtle. As in Blake’s poem, you see the world in a grain of sand. Every roll of the eye, every breath, every crooked finger, is soberly presented for careful reflection, and suddenly, I wanted the dance to move even slower.

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