Friday, August 29, 2008

dancing emptiness

I've always been fascinated by Butoh. As a student I thrilled to those images of Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, their bodies powdered and bent, chanelling the spirit of a dying flower, a breeze tremor or an ageing old woman grasping faded memories. I adored the scary nihilism of some of Sankai Juko's work. They struck a minor chord in me that I found hard to resist.

Part of its mystery I suppose, was that fact that it was so completely inaccessible -I mean, who would ever get a chance to meet a real live Butoh performer in little old Grahamstown? The best we could hope for was to read about it, in dog-eared art and dance journals in the university library. To scavenge for images on the internet. And make up what we thought it meant. For us. For me, it had the appeal of being so unlike any of the 'dance' stuff that my drama department was obsessed with. I mean, this was the home of the First Physical Theatre Company and its host of pretentious twats who loved throwing themselves at each other, at the floor, at the walls, and then sitting on the drama steps comparing bruises, slurping down energade and talking about the vocabulary of physical theatre and how pedestrian were those with fewer bruises. Ooooh, I loathed that weekly movement class. My and all five of my left feet. Me the uncoordinated lass who preferred to live in the airy but active space between her temples. Whose body always seemed a little left behind. (Yes, I often have to stop at streetcorners, sigh patiently, hurryup, catch up... my body a lagging reluctant child. Or is the body stopping waiting for the errant mind to wind her way back... ah, I've got better at this in recent years, but its a lifelong lesson.)

For me, Butoh had all the promise of an awkward poetry, of finding your own clumsy vocabulary, and delving into the dark recesses of unconscious mind. Emptying the body. Creating deep stillness, so that from there you may investigate the universe in all its strange forms and invite your body to converse with those forms in a silent way. Squelching into the grotesque, the 'darkness' within that Hijikata so honoured. Hollowing out the joints to create crevices in the body for mysterious essences to creep into.

Of course I never found it. Instead I had to drown in the deep end of progressions and extensions or gumboot baffling rhythms in my weekly torture sessions. I who never had the option of a ballet class in my grass walled bush classroom. Who somehow missed the clapping games that little girls get to play with each other. My hand eye coordination skills extended to turning the page of a book. Ah well.

So last weekend an extraordinary gift came my way. A visiting Butoh practitioner from the Su-En school in Sweden. A distilled performance on Friday night that defies words. She danced the dance of the ostrich. How can I describe it? A scrawny, lost being that is learning to walk. A dark earthsong, naked white and strangled on the floor. A slow contracted spiral, never graceful in the sense we may expect of 'dance' and yet utterly poetic.

I wasn't going to do the workshop. After three weeks away I thought it would be too thin an ice sheet to tread, relationship-wise. Imagine my suprise when he suggested it - but why not, it'll be good for you, might help with your writing. But, er - won't you - what about - I mean its the whole weekend! That's ok. Do it. Be good for you.

So I dragged my porridgy winterbottom to class on Saturday morning. A Movement Room, oh my body reacts instantly, expecting to hang out in the back row, sheepish clumsy, wheezing... except its on the 9th floor and there's a spectacular view of Jozi, mine dumps and jittery skyline.

But no, it certainly wasn't a picnic. Whatever my romantic projections about the art form, its still dance. The site of creation is in joints and muscles. To create that emptiness they speak of you have to retrain your body - gravity lines that hold you up but are cut at the hips, the knees. You walk on bended knees, low gravity, weight in the back of your body. and you walk. and you walk. and walk. and you sweat and dizziness fills where the tension fights with poisons fights with holding patterns in back, shoulders. wrenched ankle of weeks ago screams at you from the floor. calves hum, thighs sag and flab and mind doesn't want to play.

But then theres her still voice floating towards you. 'eyes are windows. the body is erased. eyes are erased. the body is small the world is big. the world is looking through the body the body doesn't see.'

Somehow, somehow, you find this in you. the cavities that crowd with daily nonsense do empty out. the mind does quieten. the eyes do become windows. and thirty seconds of this an hour is well worth it. somehow.

I did a slow walk once. twice, actually. With James (who was also there for the workshop). And Leonard, the good doctor. We walked down High Street during the swarming heaving bustle of the 2006 National Arts Festival. This usually takes about 7 minutes, if you stroll from Drostdy Arch to the Cathedral. It took us 3 hours. Slowing your blood to the pace of a tired snail. Teaching your bones to unfold as your consciousness swims, flails, then opens up to a karoo-like vastness. And the world is still there and people say such curious things. You see the pavement as you have never seen it, its maplike scrawls, its skinlike pores. You love the pavement, as it swims up to meet you and then you are not anymore. you are the pavement, past the pavement. the breath of the person next to you, tuned to your rhythm. something as transient as a cigarette smoke curl can take an eternity to infuse your nostrils, dissolve, go back to air as you step into, through and past it. And soon this feels like the normal, the required pace of existence. You cannot comprehend why the world around you is tearing at time in this frantic grasping way. And then you don't comprehend, or need to. You just exhale. And then it hurts and your blood clogs and your hands are heavy and you can't do it for a minute longer. and then you do. and the pavement, again. and the soft noise of everyone's busyness.

So we did one of these walks on Sunday, all 20 odd of us in the workshop, in line not looking down or up just sensing the change in pace and keeping same distance between us and walking backward and knowing when. and hurting, the muscles fighting, thighs cross and ankle belligerent, cursing. To the confusion of passers by on the wits campus, who probably, as they did at rhodes, just muttered to themselves "oh, drama students" as the catch all explanation.

Oh there was more - pain and delight both. I loved the faces - the wicked child (curved closed smile, tip of tongue points out, eyes look up and cross over....ha. made you do it.) I loved the 'conditions' that you learn - investigations into the state of isness of, for example, an onion segment, always in the process of becoming. My body fought me almost every step of the way. But I take away that voice of hers. 'eyes are windows. body is erased'.

I don't think I'll ever be a butoh dancer, not for audience. But i do like that i had the chance to empty this seething brain for a few brief expansive glimmers. And really, you should try that walk sometime. Its quite a thing.


Chimera said...

I had never heard of this and I am fascinated! So strange and eerie. Oh I shall look this stuff up! I danced at UNI..badly - post modern.....not pretty.
But i was a collector of ideas and differnt dance concepts...
Ta Tam,

Janelle said...

i think i was walking that slow and backwards after two weeks on the beach at pangani. is that possible? XX janelle

Reya Mellicker said...

What a beautiful post. The power of the mind-boyd is incredible, isn't it? Becoming empty, through dance, meditation, prayer, or whatever, opens the door to so many possibilities.

Thank you!

Reya Mellicker said...

Bad type alert:

meant to say "mind-body" ... oops

tam said...

Chimera - theres lots on youtube - so, yes, immerse yourself. Most of the early, original stuff is deeply resonant for me. I'm interested to know where it takes you, if anywhere.

Janelle, its entirely possible. Something to strive for .. but how does that work? hadn't you given up smoking then? That's supposed to make you run sideways and fast like a pangani crab...

Reya - thank YOU for your comments and for reading. I find that door is hardly ever more than slightly ajar, but still, its tantalising.