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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 11, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 11
Earth Tomes: celebrating the earth
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Earth Tomes: celebrating the earth

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

EARTH TOMES: celebrating the earth
KOGUT BUTOH/
DIAPANBUTOH COLLECTIVE
TAOIST STUDIES INSTITUTE
February 20


If I had not seen Sankai Juku, the butoh troupe that performed at Meany Hall last October, I might not have been inspired to see this performance of our local butoh troupe, Kogut Butoh, and its fellow dancers from the DAIPANbutoh Collective. But having seen the most famous - possibly the most commercial - butoh group, I wanted to see what a smaller, non-professional company would do with this very unusual art form. It was a revelation: so similar, and yet so different from the very elegant, international troupe from Japan.

Whereas the Sankai Juku troupe is predominantly male and directed by choreographer and grand master Ushio Amagatsu, Kogut Butoh is predominantly female with a female director, Joan Laage, who studied with the masters in Japan and has been organizing and teaching butoh in Seattle since 1990. Her style is so rooted, elemental, and organic that it seemed like the flow of the earth itself rather than the stylization of earthflow that we saw with Sankai Juku. Instead of gorgeous costumes on a stage with beautiful lighting and fields of sand, the audience for Earth Tomes surrounded the dancers as they flowed from their cushions in the front row onto the center performance space. Instead of bald, rice-powdered Sankai Juku dancers who expressed the strange, alien nature of gigantic creative forces, Director Laage and her troupe wore waist-length hair and simple clothing, moving so low to the ground that they were as elemental and as fascinating as lava oozing from the earth's core.

Butoh is a highly meditative dance form, both for the performers and for the audience. It's most striking characteristic is the very slow manner in which it is performed. All butoh dance gestures evolve at the rate of molasses in January and have the mesmerizing property of a lava lamp. This is not to imply boredom - far from it. When something succeeds in slowing down our 6G digital world to ZeroG, we have a chance to think, then to not think, and then to simply experience the phenomenon before us in its strange, beautiful unfolding.

Eight dancers walked into the soaring space of the Taoist Studies Institute in Greenwood - a former church with a lovely plaster and wooden vault - and joined the audience of about 60 who were sitting in facing lines on chairs and cushions. As the central figure, wearing a dark overcoat and black stocking mask, appeared at the upper wall and sank into the ground between the banks of audience, each dancer slid, one by one, into the central space, participating in the rooted, sometimes excruciating gestures that suggested the millions of years of cooling and crumbling that led to growing things. The dancers in Earth Tomes rolled, crawled, slid, and collided in slow motion for an hour, enacting the formations of the earth as it evolved from lava to rocks to forest (at least that was what my decelerating mind told me I was seeing). This process was so hypnotizing that my eyes kept sliding out of focus - and then I would see the rock formations and rolling earth that the dancers were suggesting with their bodies.

And if we can imagine that the earth cooled and crumbled into fertile soil to the sounds of the electric guitar, it would surely be that of Dimitry Artamonov, whose haunting sounds accompanied the slow-rolling dancers. I spoke to him afterwards to discover where the bird calls, ocean waves, tinkling bells and deep earth sighs came from (I suspected recordings) but all he showed me was his guitar, some pedals, and an e-bow. He could have shown me magic wands and I would have believed him - the man is a musical wizard.

For those who have never seen a butoh dance performance, Earth Tomes is a perfect introduction. The slow evolution of ideas as dancers merge into and out of the center movement allows your busy brain to rest, and your heart and soul to engage deeply in the organic movement unfolding before you. I asked Joan Laage afterwards how much of the dance was choreographed by her and how much was improvisation by the dancers. She told me that she establishes a structure and vocabulary of movement, but that each dancer then has their own process and feelings that determine how they move through the established pattern. This was very clear to see as Earth Tomes progressed through the wide space between the audience. Laage said that the dancers are very humble, giving themselves over to the expression of the movement and not to the self. Rather than the 'ballet butoh' of Sankai Juku - highly stylized, coordinated movement in repeatable choreography - Laage and company begin and end in roughly the same progression, with wonderfully idiosyncratic movement in the middle.

The final gesture of Earth Tomes, in which all the dancers rise slowly from the ground into tree-like poses, feels like the triumph of nature over eons of emergence from steaming, cooling rock. The beautiful group stance was breathtaking - I felt as though I had seen the miracle of the birth of trees.

So I am now an official fan of butoh - both the formal, highly choreographed Sankai Juku variety, and the humble, meditative, organic Kogut Butoh variety. Both bring revelations and peace to the busy soul - but the more fundamental, spirit-driven variety that Joan Laage directs touched me most deeply. As one of the dancers said to me afterward, 'It feeds my heart!' It does, indeed.

The next performance from the DAIPANbutoh Collective will be Kantor's Dead Class Revisited to be presented on Sunday, April 17, doors at 4:30 p.m. at the Polish Home Association (1714 18th Avenue). For more information, visit the DAIPANbutoh Collective website at http://www.daipanbutoh.com/.

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