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Henry Baumgartner

The New York Butoh Festival Rides Again

Yuko Kaseki in "A Timeless Kaidan," created, choreographed and directed by Ximena Garnica, presented by Theater for the New City Nov. 6-8, 2007 and part of 2007 CAVE New York Butoh Festival. Photo by Dola Baroni.

Garnica Leimay Acts Lab
A Timeless Kaidan
Concept and direction by Ximena Garnica
Video and installation art by Shige Moriya
at Theater for the New City, November 6-8, 2007 (reviewed 11/8)

Ariane Anthony
Rachel Finan
Leigh Evans
Emerging U.S. Artists Series
at Cave, November 14 and 17 (2:00) (reviewed 11/17)

Tanya Calamoneri
Celeste Hastings
Erin Ellen Kelly
Emerging U.S. Artists Series
at Cave, November 16 and 18 (4:00) (reviewed 11/18)

Every two years the folks who run the tiny but invaluable Williamsburg performance space called Cave somehow produce a New York Butoh Festival; this year the month-long festival, the third in the series, included several weeks of performances at Cave and Theater for the New City as well as an extensive schedule of workshops, film showings, panels, parties, and so forth. Of the three programs I managed to catch, two were part of an Emerging U.S. Artists Series, and so featured local artists as well as a few from around the country.

But by far the biggest production I saw was something called "A Timeless Kaidan" by the Garnica Leimay Acts Lab at Theater for the New City, conceived and directed by Ximena Garnica, with video and installation art by Shige Moriya. (Garnica and Moriya are the artistic directors of Cave, and Garnica served as director of the Festival.) "Kaidan," according to a program note, means "scary story" in Japanese, and also "staircase." The stage space was covered with numerous long strips of sheer fabric, many layers deep, on which light patterns were projected from behind. As we walked in, we were invited to shed our shoes and wander about on stage. Naïve creature that I am, I bit on this one and eventually returned from my ramble to find that one of the performers, who was clambering through the audience, was about to run off with my shoes. A scary story, indeed! Anyway, it was more fun watching other people wander about, dimly seen among the filmy hangings.

There were three main performers, butoh artists from Japan, credited as co-choreographers: Takuya Ishide, Yuko Kaseki, and Daiji Maguro. Not surprisingly, these three proved to be the main attraction here, especially Ishide's anarchic humor (he gave back the shoes, thanks) and Kaseki's lithe dancing. There were also nine or so other performers, usually seen through the hanging layers of scrim, draped over a set of bleachers in the rear--a staircase, so to speak. This was a lovely sight, as far as it went, but like much of this production it seemed to lack the intensity one looks for in butoh. In fact, the show seemed rather episodic and at times even a bit limp, though the lead dancers redeemed it to some degree.

The emerging artists programs at Cave were given over the course of a week and then reprised during the daytime on the weekend, which is when I saw them. On Saturday, November 17th, the 2:00 installment began with Ariane Anthony's "Plant Life." Anthony is sitting in a chair, making small, tense, detailed movements with her fingers; Garth Edwin Sunderland is standing stock still next to her. She goes to him and tries to distract him, but he's gazing into the distance, reaching upward, now looking sort of like a statue of Lenin, now more like an old ship's figurehead, only male. Clearly he's more interested in the Future, or maybe the Welfare of Mankind, than he is in Anthony. Finally he comes back to earth and grabs her, but she drifts away. I'm not sure all this qualified as butoh--it seemed more like, say, Anna Sokolow territory, or maybe that was just the chairs--but it certainly held my interest.

Rachel Finan, a dancer from Grand Rapids, Mich., presented "Vitus," a solo, accompanied by Corey Ruffin on saxophone and by a number of film clips that showed Finan, outdoors, lying on sand, or sitting on a rock, or standing in front of a highway busy with traffic. Finan's performance did seem more like butoh, with effortful stretchy or knotty movements and crablike scuttling around the floor. The projections were intriguing but somewhat mystifying, her live performance, though, was fairly convincing.

Leigh Evans's solo "Red Rivers Run Madly to the Sea" opened with Evans caught in a sort of fishing net along with a few plastic bottles. There was yet other detritus tangled in her hair. She gave us some Kabuki-style grimaces and little lizardy tongue licks. To Carla Kihlstedt's mournful music, she metamorphoses into a human, and one with a rather regal manner, considering the circumstances.

The next day, Sunday the 18th, I returned for the 4:00 show and saw three bags hanging up on one of the walls. As we listen to the strange, squeaky music (credited to Moe! Staiano and Moe!kestra),[[[exclamation point after Moe & close up to kestra]]] something in the bags starts to move. Can it possibly be that there are people in there? Yes, indeed, and soon hands and feet start to appear. Beneath the bags are a bunch of bones, a glass bowl with flowers, and dead branches in another bowl. None of these seem like anything one would like to drop onto from above, and the dancers just hang there, heads down. This piece, by Tanya Calamoneri, was called "Hatchlings"; besides Calamoneri herself, the dancers being hatched were Christine Coleman and Cassie Terman.

Celeste Hastings is one of my favorite American exponents of butoh, and her solo "Vers Rêves Part 3: Am-er-ique/Towards Dreams and Madness" did not disappoint. In front of a projected photo of the sea, accompanied at first by churchy-sounding music, we see a figure on the floor, lying across a block; this proves to be Hastings. She stands up, reaches out, stretches back, steps out of her skirt, plays with a mechanical bird, puts it down, takes off her hat; it doesn't sound like much, but it is all done slowly, with exquisite concentration, and it's absorbing. Apparently this is part of a longer piece Hastings performed in France last summer; I hope we get to see the rest of it, or whatever it evolves into, here in New York.

Last up was Erin Ellen Kelly with another solo, "The Wishing Well," accompanied on some sort of zither by a musician apparently called Zemi 17. She enters, in a circusy-looking, glittery outfit, and proceeds to pick something off the floor and put it in her mouth. (Later she lets the pellets or whatever drop onto the floor again.) The piece did not strike me as very butohesque--much of it was an "Oriental" sort of dance with waving arms and such--though I am certainly wary of trying to tell anybody what is or isn't really butoh.

The three programs I was able to see were only a drop in the bucket, of course; this was quite an extensive festival, and it came on the heels of a flurry of butoh programming at Japan Society. Sometimes it can seem, from the occasional acts that make their way to these shores, as if most of the air has gone out of butoh in the last decade or so. It's very reassuring to see that interesting work is still being done, and that the style is becoming more established in the United States as well.


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