new york

Can We Dance a Landscape?

brooklyn academy of music

The brand of Japanese dance-theater called butoh has typically been performed on an empty stage, a dark void penetrated only by noirish light that underlines the metaphoric idea of earth as a nightmarish environment. For Peut-on Danser le Paysage? (Can we dance a landscape?, 1989) performed by Min Tanaka and his butoh group Maijuku, Karel Appel created a visible context of hellish surroundings in the form of several backdrops and a few drop-in flats. With large-scale, slashing brushstrokes and blunt, blaring colors, Appel’s quasi-abstract hilly landscapes were an appropriate visual realization of butoh’s usually implied setting. Moreover, in a sidelong reference to the theatricality of action painting, Appel’s scenery was presented as an exceedingly active participant in the performance. Colors shifted constantly under the changing lighting. One Day-Glo Dufyesque seascape went from fiery orange to cobalt blue; at another point, backlighting made the same flat glow like a stained glass window illuminated by the sun. Other decor also dropped in from above at irregular intervals: a monster’s head, a wreath, a tangle of large ropes. The work’s real finale was the sudden lowering of a stagewide drop of a flayed-looking human head; although the performers continued, their actions seemed anticlimactic after this coup de théâtre. The dramatic animation of Appel’s sets, coupled with their brute style, almost fulfilled the premise of the collaboration’s title on its own. Appel’s hyperactive decor created an extreme disjunction between the performance’s setting and its cramped, tightly focused live action, mismatch that generated a mise-en-scène even more extreme than butoh’s usually stretched-to-the-limit atmosphere. What often got lost in the visual hurly-burly, however, was the relentless concentration on the body in continued transfiguration.

The activities of Tanaka and his troupe, therefore, while engrossing from moment to moment, didn’t generate the allusive, emotional atmosphere conjured up by butoh at its best. The performance opened with a group of what appeared to be afflicted women, shuffling and tottering like derelicts; they wore large black overcoats, high-heeled pumps, and neo-Kabuki fright wigs. As the piece progressed, the coats were thrown off to reveal male bodies, covered with the traditional rice powder, penises wrapped in gauze. The ensemble alternately scuttled around the stage in spastic maneuvers and collapsed in feebly wiggling heaps; at times, the figures adopted generic butoh postures of extreme contortion, hunching up in awkward poses and opening their mouths wide in silent screams. A picture of tortured, horribly wounded hermaphrodites was repeatedly limned. But there was no narrative through-line, no dramatic landscape on which to map these actions. The activities eventually began to seem ends in themselves, as did the constant back-and-forth of roller-skating (Western) men on a curved ramp at the rear of the stage. Even the presence of a female figure (unusual in butoh), who performed manic, mocking solos, and of Tanaka’s own powerfully commanding aura did not orient the performance toward any discernible point.

The presence of live animals on stage unnerved the audience more than the human performers and their opaque actions did. The life-size, stuffed cows that flanked the stage were a bizarre grotesquerie, in true butoh fashion. But Tanaka’s “duet” with a goat and the nominal ending, which included posturing with several chickens, were unsettling only in ways that didn’t matter. Presumably, Tanaka’s use of barnyard animals in the performance was intended to suggest a certain cosmic poignancy. As elements of a performance, the live animals forced the viewer to contemplate natural life. The transference from farm to stage spotlighted the paradoxical sense of kinship and otherness that all creatures have for the human animal. Unfortunately, like the piece as a whole, the animals’ presence, though bizarre, never got beyond a literal level.

John Howell