Thursday, April 14, 2011

Physical Performance and Butoh

 Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jonothon Lyons.

During my first few months working for Imago in 2006 I began to explore other forms of movement theatre. I did a search online for "physical performance" and came across a video of Imre Thormann performing a butoh dance improvisation at an outdoor shrine in Tokyo. I was stuck by the intensity of focus and delicate clarity of his movements. He exhibited a profound control over his body that I found remarkable. His body type was similar to mine but with a much more refined musculature and because of the similarities I felt that his level of development might be something I could aspire to. I knew then that this mysterious butoh dance, whatever it was, was going to play a major role in my physical development.

When I returned to New York the following Spring I was passed along an audition notice calling for physically trained actors and dancers for a piece called A Timeless Kaidan for the 2007 New York Butoh Festival. The audition was a rigorous, hours long workshop that took me to my limits of strength and endurance but I made it through and was delighted to have had my first introduction to butoh. The audition took place at Cave Art Space, a multi purpose studio and collective residence in Williamsburg and was led by the director of the show Ximena Garnica.

My first involvement with the project was spending three days at Robert Wilson's Watermill Center where the show was in residency for one phase of it's development. There I was introduced to the principle dancers, one of which had worked directly with a founder of butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata. I was fortunate to find myself suddenly involved with artists so knowledgeable about this performance style that I had only recently become interested in.

It can be difficult to define exactly what butoh is. It is often called a dance but it veers away from many aspects of most of what we call dance. A more accurate description is that it is a form of physical expression or physical performance. There is often music accompanying a butoh performance but the movement doesn't necessarily follow the structure of the song. Also the imagery and body positions found in butoh often do not arise from a need to create an external picture or form but from some internal imagery of the dancer.

The first performance I witnessed was rather unsettling. The dancers made strange slurping sounds and moved in what looked like very uncomfortable ways. It seemed strange to me to find value in a performance that made me uncomfortable but as I continued watching I eventually experienced a catharsis. Once the performance had ended it seemed to have had a therapeutic effect on me. I felt better afterward then when it began, as though the discomfort of the performers had purged something negative from inside me.

We trained for four months in preparation for Kaidan and I was immediately drawn to the training process. We spend hours on end simply walking back and forth through the space as slowly as possible holding a soft focus gaze on the opposite wall. It was a remarkable test of concentration to remain focused on the task under such restricted circumstances. Many other exercises pushed me to explore my limits of physical endurance over and over.

The following year the Cave began the New York Butoh-kan, a series of programs bringing in major butoh masters from around the world for ten day long intensives in their various styles of training. They have continued this program through the years and I have been fortunate to attend many of the sessions, including one led by Imre Thormann himself. It has been a wonderful resource for learning about butoh from first and second generation dancers and teachers.

What sets apart this type of work from ordinary physical exercise is that there is often an imaginary circumstance that buoys you through the stress. The exercises associated with butoh training are usually the result of imagining the body being pushed by an outside force or changed by something within. The entire basis for the movement method created by Michizo Noguchi is imagining the body as a sack full of water. Given that the body is literally 60% water, that isn't much of a stretch.

I initially pursued butoh because I was drawn to the physical results of the training and experience but over time I was surprised to discover how strongly it had helped to develop my imagination and mental stamina as well. This ability to stay concentrated and allow for an open imagination under severe physical stress and uncomfortable circumstances has proved applicable in all my experiences as a puppeteer and mask performer.

A major element that seems to exist across many of these alternative forms of theatre I've been seeking is that the performers often create their own work as well. This is especially true among puppeteers as they often not only operate puppets but design and construct them as well. After a few years of working with the beautiful masks at Imago and studying butoh improvisation and choreography at Cave I felt ready to take a stab at creating some original work of my own. The end result would be a mask theatre production called The Tenement, a collaboration with my close friend, projection designer Daniel Brodie.

Tomorrow I'll talk about our experience creating The Tenement and the benefits and challenges of producing Off-Off Broadway theatre.

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