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Tanz im August: The art of homage

Homages abound at Tanz im August, especially in regards to the Japanese dance form of butoh. Lily Kelting checks out two: one a copy of late butoh master Kazuo Ohno and another a queer reading of the "Orientalist hoochie coochie show".

Image for Tanz im August: The art of homage
About Kazuo Ohno. Photo by Dajana Lothert

About Kazuo Ohno meets Caen Amour…

“Homage” was the word of the week at Tanz im August HQ. Takao Kawaguchi’s “About Kazuo Ohno” takes the concept of the homage to the extreme: the evening is really more like a re-enactment, “reliving”, says the subtitle, “the Butoh Diva’s Masterpieces.” It looks like a hurricane has blown through HAU3. We enter to see trash and debris strewn about and tiptoe our way to the surrounding walls – Kawaguchi playfully weaves through, wrestling with a space blanket or rubber garden hose. He strips off his clothes, sprays himself with water and wraps himself in a plastic tarp, then bedsheets, then wraps himself with all the materials on the floor as though he himself is the cyclone, and carries this heap off in his arms.

I think of Slavoj Zizek in the documentary “The Examined Life”, standing in an orange safety vest in a garbage dump, rooting through the trash and philosophizing: “Nature is not pure and balanced; nature is a big series of unimaginable catastrophes.” The existentialist horror of butoh and the banality of trash may not be such odd bedfellows. In postwar Japan, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno began making work that privileged the grotesque over the refined, the slumped pull of gravity over the verticality of Western ballet: we call it butoh. Kawaguchi’s nude trash dance is all this in 2017.

The audience is led to the back of the theater, where we take our seats: this section, we learn, has been an homage to a section of Kazuo Ohno’s classic work “Admiring La Argentina”. From here, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin: Takao Kawaguchi painstakingly recreates famous video performances of the late butoh master. The most interesting part of “About Kazuo Ohno” is the sound design: apparently taken directly from the videos Kawaguchi studied so carefully. We hear, in their absence, Ohno’s feet on the floor, his audience gasp and applaud. Though Kawaguchi’s dancing is impressive and magnetic, we just listen to the ghosts clap, ourselves silent.

I don’t know enough about Ohno’s original performances to comment on the quality of the copy. But when Yoshito Ohno puppets a small white figure of his father in a film clip projected just before the intermission, I feel like crying. The puppet cradles the abyss between his two tiny hands. Absence is made as palpable as presence. The language of butoh is the language of catastrophic loss. It is a language I fear we will all need to master.

Trajal Harrell’s “Caen Amour” is an homage too – to Orientalist hoochie coochie shows, popular in America from the 1893 World’s Fair until Harrell’s own childhood. If “About Kazuo Ohno” is a powerful meditation on authentic reproduction, “Caen Amour” is a flight of fancy. Harrell stresses the importance of imagination and fiction in his own writing; the list of influences are associative – Hijikata, Jugendstil dancer Loïe Fuller, the “Oriental dancers” that inspired Fuller’s own serpentine movements. But the upshot is that after seeing the highly specific and intentional recreation by Kawaguchi the night before, Harrell’s history lesson felt like it was given by the substitute teacher.

Dancers move deftly from serpentine veil dances, hoe-down box-kicks, demented cancans, and straight-up nudie hip-thrusting as they pass across the front of the stage. The dancers werk (making even a pair of metal tagines and a drapey faux-burka look downright sexy: the movements say, “I’ll steam your rice, baby.”). Queer male femininity is on full display and it’s alluring. Mainly, on the “public” side of the blue Arabesque wall, we see Harrell’s longtime collaborators Thibault Lac and Ondrej Vidlar cycle through; on the “private side”, where the audience is allowed to congregate after a rote recitation of the piece’s rules, we see actress Perle Palombe in various states of undress (as well as Lac and Vidlar wiping their sweat, blowing their noses, and changing their pants). In the back, Palombe wears her glasses as she scrabbles to select costumes from the heaps of glittering fabric; when she passes to the catwalk out front, she squints without them. I feel kind of bad for her.

Homage is a medieval French word: it means that you are someone’s man. So it’s important to choose carefully to whom you give your fealty. My problem with this piece – why I have a hard time locating its beating heart – is that it ends up more-or-less as advertised, pledging loyalty to the unspecific, appropriated bellydancing of the hoochie coochie show rather than opening it for critique. In a dense and grad-studenty text circulated and then read collectively in silence, Harrell writes, “most of the historical sexism and other-isms remain in place in order to imagine as closely as possible what other possible performativities might have been at stake.” Ah, stakes. For whom? Given legal battles over the rights of women to wear veils in public space, that Muslim women are routinely killed and threatened over their hijabs, I’d like to see an investigation of veil dances by someone for whom the question is less theoretical, less fictional. I suspect Harrell wants to give his hand to the unidentified women of color whose vernacular choreographies laid the groundwork for European Ausdruckstanz but, ultimately, for even queer white men to re-enact ahistorical Orientalist fantasias as an act of resistance seems a little backwards.

Elephant-in-the-room question: what kind of pomo feminism can you claim if the only woman on stage is naked? When 90 percent of the audience goes behind the screen to see the silhouetted naked (thin, white) Palombe more closely, is this ironic or critical in any way? Trajal, what do you want from us? Wouldn’t any insider-audience who would recognize the play here between modern dance and its Orientalist origins already know that the roots of modern dance are stolen from across Africa and Asia by icons like Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, and Mary Wigman?

It feels like piling on to ask the other question scribbled all over my notebook: in what sense is this butoh? Harrell self-identifies as a butoh-inspired artist and is part of a larger conversation about butoh asked this year by the festival. In a mock-trailer for “Montpelier and the Samurai,” the clawlike-hands, teeth-licking and booty-waggling looked more to me like disability drag, or a cartoon lecherous old man, than paying homage to Ohno or Hijikata or anyone else. While Palombe shakes her tambourine and well-lit coochie behind the translucent screen, Harrell holds a pink dress and mimes deep grief. Is this for Hijikata?

My butoh-expert-seat neighbor and I stood on the sidewalk and talked after “About Kazuo Ohno”; we both were struck by the same moment – Kawaguchi, in an orange mask with a childlike smiley face on it, stands still, facing the audience. He doesn’t move, per se, but his whole body is activated, his lean muscles contracted tightly. There’s so much tension but none of it leaves his own static, extended body. It’s like he has been struck by lightning and the electricity has nowhere to go. Harrell, on the other hand, is too generous: he gives all the spark away.