Butosha Tenkei has picked a dark vision for its new work "Kanata," which premiered Nov. lO-11 at Kitazawa Hall in Tokyo and will tour the U.S. in February. This group has a revolving membership. Ebisu Torii and Mutsuko Tanaka, performers with more than 25 years of experience in Dai Rakudakan and their own choreography, lead the company of two female dancers, this time Kaori Saito and Yukari Ueda, who also danced with Tenkei in "Nocturne."
The radical, avantgarde dance style of butoh is hardly that enterprising in the use of its traditional tableau scenes to open and close productions, sandwiching segments of solo and group work. And four dancers is a tight enough combination to achieve the "traditional" structure of a butoh performance, even for this smaller group.
It allows scope for each performer to work in solo choreography, and also gives some sense of cohesion and coherence to what can otherwise be introverted duos remembered mainly for their sense of aimlcssness. But despite this, Tanaka is the diva of this company and she outshines all others, stellar though their contribution may be.
Torii inverts traditional structure right from the beginning by opening with his own solo, which is almost a still life, on a small dais set at stage right with two bunches of plaited rag ropes suspended from the nies. Torii is unusual in that he does not use the white rice flour makeup beloved of so many Japanese traditional (and butoh) performers, but instead daubs himself with what looks like black boot polish and wears civvics (albeit from the 1950s).
His own dance is also unusual in the butoh world because he affetts a total helplessness and becomes an innocent, disfointed figure, this time in an incongruous black hat. Another feature of this opening scene is Torii giving voice to snatches of sound --- sung, said and stuttered.
The wolf howl against silence is truly epic. But despite the pained expression, the palpitating limbs and tbe jerky movement, Torii has the great gift of inviting empathy. He dances in the tradition of Kazuo Ohno, a personalized invitation to connection with the audience, almost the antithesis of the butoh school, which advocates fierce parading of muscular prowess. Once you imagine yourself in Torii's place or imagination, he has you in his power and works great magic.
Tanaka works magic by other means. To a score that mixes madrigals with Moroccan folk song, synthesized sound with a jumble of jazz motifs, she effortlessly commands our attention. We become curious about her story as she holds up an imperious hand, swinging on her own axis in a maelstrom of circles. As a background, Saito and Ueda perform in a curtained frieze going along the back of the stage in syncopated inclines and diagonals with straight bodies, rather like two metronome hands in opposition or disjunct parts of a pendulum.
Still, the focus remains on Tanaka, her thunrb in her mouth in what may be the first choreographic gesture of the kind, shaking and trembling in a mesmerizing circling of what suddenly looked like umbilical cords hanging from the flics. Tanaka is increasingly dealing with alienation and emotional collapse, It's horrifying --- and at the same time wonderfully satisfying.
Pathos moves to comedv with Saito and Ueda in white shifts and large red, bulbous headgear, like insects with twitching antennalike fingers, or even long, thin matches trying to self-ignite along tlle floor. Torii dances another solo, this one to a plaintive jazz. background, collapsing to creep along on his back, stabbing tlle floor with his elbows.
He forms a centerpiece at the back with Saito and Ueda doing a pretty impersonation of a pair of decadent bookends, while Tanaka performs one of her fatnous dances that starts with her back to the audience and develops into a dervish, much like the transforming power of the U.S. dancer Loie Fuller at the start of this century in Paris. But Tanaka isn't using costumes to make-believe she is a flower in bloom, or whatever. If, as Mallarm6 said, Fuller's art was to show "the visual embodiment of the idea," then Tanaka's is to make us believe the dance itself is the idea.
"Kanata" is less playful than earlier works by Butoh-sha Tenkei, less politically astute, and yet more cohesive. And for all the dark imagery, it may be one of the most rewarding.