New York

Poppo and GoGo Boys, Requiem


Butoh, the Japanese experimental dance genre, is tirelessly physical, full of exaggerated images, and uses unlikely juxtapositions of gesture and music for shock effects. It would seem to be entirely at home in the context of Lower East Side performance art. For the last seven years, Poppo Shiraishi has been refining a singularly East Village version of the style in various club performances, notably with a series of events at the 8BC cabaret. Requiem was something else again, a full-length Butoh work, a summa of Poppo’s Far East-East Village transactions so far.

With its portentous title and its epic cast of 20, Requiem aligned itself with Butoh’s usual subject of universalized life and death. But the work also diverged from “traditional” Butoh, indicating a promising performance hybrid. Perhaps the most significant difference between the two is centered on the explicitly spiritual dimension of Butoh. Like many other Eastern disciplines, Butoh uses rigorous physical training as a means to spiritual enlightenment. Poppo’s Requiem, though physically arduous for its performers, was materialistic; it offered no serenity, no yearning for or exaltation of the infinite. It is more an exhortation on the order of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” with no healing release. Another of Poppo’s Butoh-esque variations was his choice of performers, an ad hoc ensemble of downtown dancers whose status as Butoh “amateurs” may have contributed to Requiem’s often too simple, too predictable dramatic structure. In the opening scene the entire group filed in, candles in hand, and began to walk around on a mat covered with cornstarch; this procession then sped up to a run, and finally just stopped, the figures shrouded in white dust. It was a typically simple image achieved through laborious means. The overall staging was similarly rudimentary. Cuando’s open gymnasium space and its crude lighting system didn’t allow for any magical illusionism—everything happened in raw light, not very far away, so that every move was left blankly exposed.

Some aspects of Requiem appeared to push Butoh “too far” The second scene featured a nude woman (in Butoh, the genitals are always covered), strolling about with two goats. In another scene two men, hidden beneath a black cloth, crawled across the stage supporting a third man on their backs—an exacting physical exercise that didn’t seem to justify its “point”: they were revealed as S&M-like slaves wearing black bikinis and fuck-me pumps. And Poppo’s own solo, a demanding series of physical contortions, lasted so long that it was ultimately wearing rather than impressive.

Yet to say that Requiem overstepped Butoh’s bounds is an oxymoron. Butoh is by definition an attitude that deliberately transgresses boundaries, and Poppo’s stretching of the performance envelope is consistent with its essential goal: to astonish, and hence to enlighten. In its final scene—a mass of gold-painted, seminude humanity flailing beneath an onslaught of free-form “noise music”—Requiem posited an equally viable Butoh state, that of an absence of grace, a condition of hysteria unrelieved by the clichéd calm of the succeeding image—white balloons dropping from the ceiling to be fondled. After chasing and then “exhausting” the balloons, the GoGo Boys (most of whom are women) lay on the floor, as if anticipating the next universal paroxysm. Temporarily driven out of themselves by physical exhaustion, finding no spiritual relief, they simply endure. Poppo’s East Village Butoh made this Requiem an ode to gritty survival, not an escape into an elsewhere. Looking up from the street, there’s no other view.

John Howell